COMMENT | As 2018 draws to a close, I thought it would be a useful exercise to list down ten reminders for myself based on my five months as the deputy international trade and industry minister.
These reminders also double up as my resolutions for 2019 in so far as my ministry duties are concerned.
Don't forget the manifesto
The Pakatan Harapan manifesto is, currently, the only guiding document and reference point for the government in terms of governing philosophy and objectives.
While the prime minister and his cabinet have and will come up with new policy decisions based on current political and economic circumstances, we cannot and should not depart from the core principles of the manifesto – which includes a commitment to greater transparency, institutional reform, a more competitive economy and looking after the needs of the marginalized.
Some of these promises are in the process of being carried out – e.g., reform of the Election Commission and Parliament – while others will be implemented in the near future – e.g., the RM100 Klang Valley public transportation pass on Jan 1, 2019. Others, such as buying back toll concessions, will have to wait until the finances of the country improve.
These are the deliverables which we have to focus on before the 15th general election because this is what the voters will judge us on.
While we may not be able to deliver on all of the promises, we must, at the very least, be committed to try and then explain why some of them cannot be done within this election cycle.
Lead the civil service
Each ministry has its own fair share of challenges from a policy design and policy implementation standpoint.
I am thankful for the professional attitude demonstrated by the officers in my ministry and for this, credit has to go to the former ministers who have helmed the International Trade and Industry Ministery and shaped it to what it is today – people like Rafidah Aziz and Mustapa Mohamed.
By and large, I see that the civil service is committed to serving the government of the day and to carry out to policy decisions of the Harapan government.
But in certain policy areas where there may be ingrained interests, especially from the corporate sector, there will be some pushback when it comes to carrying out some of the promises made in the manifesto.
Here, the cabinet needs to exercise its leadership in finding the best ways to navigate these interests and to slowly but surely put its policies in place.
In other areas which are not covered in the manifesto, there is much room for each minister and the deputy to work together to lead their respective ministry in new policy directions and to address new challenges.
For example, in my own ministry, the US-China trade war brings a new set of challenges to the table, but also presents new opportunities in terms of attracting investors who want to diversify their operation locations and are looking at countries in Southeast Asia.
Strategic thinking and leadership are needed to capitalise on these opportunities.
Build a strong team
While ministers and their deputies can depend on the experience and capabilities of the larger civil service, what makes an office function effectively are the members of one’s own team.
The officers in a minister’s office are incredibly important in setting the agenda and priorities of the minister, working with the management team in the ministry and coordinating with external stakeholders.
Building a strong internal team and then managing this team are crucial components of ensuring the design and rollout of good, sound policies.
I am thankful to have recruited a small but effective staff of three officers from diverse backgrounds – a PTD officer from Miti, an English literature graduate with experience in the non-profit sector, and a former equities analyst.
Without their hard work, inputs and insights, I would not be able to function effectively as a deputy minister. Hopefully, I can build on this team. And interns are always welcome!
Generate new policy ideas
After assuming office in July 2018, I was surprised to learn the scale and scope of the areas of responsibilities under Miti and the 11 agencies which report to the ministry.
The Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation, better known as Matrade, and the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (Mida) have offices in major cities around the world to promote trade and to attract investments.
The Malaysian Productivity Corporation (MPC) has touchpoints to different industries and companies via its nine productivity nexuses. The Malaysian Automotive Institute, recently renamed to the Malaysia Automotive Robotics and IOT Institute (Marii), has developed its own capabilities in the automotive sector and has extensive links with the automotive players as well as the vendors in this space.
The inclusion of Invest KL, Exim Bank, Standards Malaysia, Sirim and Mimos under the Miti family has expanded the scope of responsibilities.
With greater responsibilities comes greater opportunities. This is where the generation of new policy ideas is important. While some of these ideas can be generated internally from within the ministry and/or its agencies, it is also important to have external inputs for new policy ideas.
These external inputs can be think tanks, industry players, academics and consultants, just to name a few. Reading from a wide variety of good sources (I rely on the Economist and the New York Times and reports by the World Bank, just to name a few) is also a good way to see what the world ‘out there’ is doing in relevant policy areas.
Of course, the challenge here is to take in inputs from a variety of sources and then process these inputs in an impartial manner to come up with policy ideas. It is important to know the motivations behind the ideas and proposals offered by various stakeholders before coming up with and making policy decisions.
As busy as we are as ministers and deputies, some time must always be allocated to read, discuss and think about new policy ideas. And never underestimate the value of your own team in bringing fresh policy ideas.
Don’t get caught up with events
As public figures, we obviously have many demands to attend public events in our capacities as ministers and deputies. While some of these events are part and parcel of our responsibilities, many are not.
We should not get to caught up with the VIP treatment we get as the guest of honour at events. They may make us feel important – at least for a short while – but they do not necessarily add value in setting the overall policy agenda. The same rule can be applied to attending non-core activities and events overseas.
If we are too busy attending events, it may leave us little time to deal with ministry-related matters and for strategic thinking.
Have a good grasp of relevant data
In the day and age of big data analytics, it is important for ministers and deputies to have a good grasp of the data, statistics and information which are relevant to their respective ministries.
I often look at the source material for external trade, GDP, balance of payments, manufacturing data and investment figures so that I have a better understanding of how the data is generated and organised, and also to observe trends over time.
While my officers can provide some of this data for me, there is nothing like the experience of ‘digging’ through the data and asking follow-up questions to better understand the data which can later guide policy decisions.
And it’s always useful to have some relevant statistics up your sleeve when answering follow-up questions in Parliament!
Have a proper communications strategy
Often, we can get too caught up within the ministry and government ‘bubble’ that we forget that the rest of Malaysia are not aware or do not care much about most of what we do within our own ministries.
These days, with the proliferation of news sources and various channels of news consumption, the need for a proper communications strategy is more important than before.
The right message has to be tailored to the most suitable platform whether it is the traditional print media, television, radio or social media. Infographics are often helpful where words and figures fall short.
I must admit, I issue far fewer media statements than I used to when I was an opposition MP.
Some of this is because of the workload and some of it is due to the sensitive nature of the information we possess in government. Not everything can and should be put out for public consumption.
But moving forward in 2019, this is one area which I want to re-focus my efforts on, especially to tell a more compelling narrative on what Miti and its agencies are doing.
Find opportunities for collaboration
Far too often, ministers and their deputies can end up working in the silos within each ministry. The reality is that issues often have jurisdictions which affect more than one ministry.
For example, even though the palm oil biofuel issue in Europe is under the purview of the Primary Industry Ministry, Miti officers in Brussels and other parts of Europe have the technical know-how and experience in dealing with the European Union on trade-related matters.
As such, there is much room to explore inter-ministry collaborations on a whole spectrum of issues.
Listen to criticisms strategically
Part and parcel of being a public figure is to expect criticism. Not all criticisms are constructive or timely.
Politicians cannot develop a tin ear and not listen to any criticism. But they should be able to discern which types of criticism to pay closer attention to.
Feedback from trusted sources, including political allies and close friends, should be prioritised on political matters. Feedback from independent professionals should be prioritised when it comes to policy decisions.
Sometimes the two overlap and this is where discernment and listening strategically come into play.
Have periodic reviews
Last but not least, time should be set aside for goal setting and periodic reviews of to what extent these goals have been achieved. These goals can range from personal achievements to team achievements, all the way to ministry and agency achievements.
The periodic reviews can take place on a quarterly, half-yearly or yearly basis. I personally prefer the half-yearly approach. My internal team had our own brainstorming session earlier in December on focus areas in 2019 and the pathways to take in order to achieve these goals.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. I hope that in sharing these reminders and resolutions, the reader would have a better idea of the challenges and opportunities faced by the Harapan government.
Also, by sharing these points, I hope that I can be held publicly accountable for my resolutions for 2019.
ONG KIAN MING is the deputy international trade and industry minister.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.