Are we ready for technocratic governance?

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Ahmad Bashah - Photograph: themalaysianinsider.com

For a political leader to deliver on promises, a great deal of technical know-how and policy knowledge are vital ingredients, says Nicholas Chan.

As a ‘transition’ of power happened, the academic qualification of newly appointed Kedah Menteri Besar Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah was brought into question.

While it was later clarified that Bashah is an SPM graduate instead of the alleged SRP (the equivalent of today’s PT3 taken by Form Three students), the question of the level of academic achievement that befits a MB still lingers.

To be fair, the questioning as such does look like a personal attack and is also uncalled for. But that does not mean Malaysians, and especially Kedahans, do not have the right to question a candidate’s suitability for the job. That is, after all, the essence of democracy.

The MB’s position is an executive role, which means the person has to involve himself/herself in the day to day business of governance. Having worked with the state government myself, I can say that it is not a walk in the park.

To be able to navigate the labyrinth of rules, bureaucracy, and non-governmental stakeholders requires one to go through quite a learning curve. This also includes getting a grip on the internal politics, societal context, and federal-state dynamics involved that varies from state to state and from one governing area to another.

In defence of Bashah, his experience as a two-term state executive councillor and deputy federal minister should be an asset. At least when it comes to soft skills, the veteran politician should have more than his fair share.

But then, do we stop here? Is it enough that a MB should be a people person and is that the sole performance criterion assigned to the position? To some it may be so, especially with the rampage of selfie politics in Malaysia, where ostensibly the only job of the politician is to “be like you”.

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Charisma does not deliver results

If campaign manifestos are anything to go by, that is not the major thing most political parties bring to the table. Politicians have promised policy reforms, cleaner streets, better welfare and improved government services.

However, to deliver such promises, a great deal of technical know-how and policy knowledge are vital ingredients. Rhetoric and charisma alone would not cut it.

This is why even though most South East Asian countries are not in short supply of charismatic politicians, their level of public cleanliness, despite many electoral promises, still has much room for improvement.

This is because the banality of the affair itself often understates the level of technical and political adroitness required to get the job done “right”.

Government accountability and technocratic competence is needed at all levels, from deterrence of litter to efficient garbage management, and from the maintenance of sewage and drainage systems to public education programmes.

In this day and age, one can only expect the level of sophistication and technical profundity in public policy to increase. For example, the Dodd-Frank Act enacted for banking reforms in the United States after the 2008 financial meltdown is itself a 2,300 page document.

The paradox between policy sophistication and discourse simplification

Paradoxically, when policy dimensions grow more complicated, the things we demand from politicians get simpler. Our so-called political awareness is largely confined to the celebration (and condemnation) of Trump-esque rabble-rousers of race and religion.

The technocratic aspect of governance, such as the improvement of public amenities, street cleanliness, and cityscape planning, areas that greatly impact our lives, will not receive much fanfare because of the level of technicality involved.

How to restore heritage buildings, how to demarcate green zones, how tall should buildings be, and how close should we build to the watermark (a rule widely violated by most development in Malaysia) is often the submerged part of the iceberg.

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But this is also why we outsource it to the politicians in the first place. We expect them to be competent about such matters because we are not. It is not the job of a lay person to read through and understand the 6,000-page Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement document. We have politicians and bureaucrats paid on a full-time basis to do so.

This is why intimacy of knowledge at the personal level often produces politicians of a different league. Such politicians are often the first to take on convoluted issues, such as the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fiasco by Tony Pua (DAP’s Petaling Jaya Utara MP) and Rafizi Ramli (PKR-Pandan). Their ability to step forward is not only due to their fiery oratory skills, but also their personal ability to manoeuvre the nooks and crannies of a complex financial scandal.

Many outstanding elected representatives who are working hard to bring in results at the local government level have also demonstrated outstanding technocratic skills (by virtue of education, experience, and even a personal drive to learn).

Two worthy mentions are Steven Sim of Bukit Mertajam, a former computer engineer who spearheaded a mobile app for the people to communicate with local councils directly; and Rajiv Rishyakaran of Bukit Gasing, also a former engineer, whose expositions on BFM radio about local government matters is public education par excellence.

Even when current deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed chaired the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), his training as a chartered accountant certainly spoke for itself. Some even speculated that he was “promoted” now because he’s getting too good as the chairman.

Shortcomings not compensated

To be sure, the lack of technocratic competence from a politician can be compensated by one’s political will and support from a dedicated and professional team of in-house researchers and advisers as well as a competent civil service. But unfortunately in Malaysia, both are wanting in supply.

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Little effort seems to be invested in rectifying this. The civil service is not known for its meritocracy. And as salaries of elected representatives are substantially increased after elections, there is no talk at all to earmark any funds for researchers (who often labour under conditions of low pay, long working hours, and little labour protection; if the “Yang Berhormat” even cares to run his/her own policy research team, that is).

Getting back to Kedah, no doubt, the MB can rely on the advice of a coterie of consultants and bureaucrats, but ultimately decision-making (and advice validation) hinges on the MB himself/herself. Having a sound level of policy literacy, especially through education and, more importantly, professional experience, certainly helps.

If not, the only thing the leadership can do is to literally pay lip service; saying yes or no to proposals presented (which is complicated by different interest groups with their own agendas) without the ability to assess policy options critically or fine-tune mechanisms for greater delivery.

Mark Zuckerberg recently received Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as a guest at Facebook headquarters and commended the man as “one of the only world leaders who knows how to code”.

While the job of a prime minister is certainly above coding, having a technocratic leader that knows the business first-hand would certainly provide a competitive edge as we live in a digital age of big data and artificial intelligence.

After all, leading the biggest change in our lives today is technology. What’s so wrong about having a technocrat as a leader anyway?

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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