Yes-Manship: An Art Form in Public Services


September 15, 2010

If it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul.”

William Shakespeare on Integrity

Yes-Manship is an art form in Public Services

by Dr. KJ John @http://www.malaysiakini.com (September 14, 2010)

Why is the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) crying foul after the fact? Was his five years not long enough to get the job done excellently?

As a senior public servant he knows that it is the prerogative of the Public Services Commission, and in this case the Police Services Commission, to decide who the successor is; even if he did not recommend him. Moreover, as an appointee on extension by contract, should he not have been ready to leave six months before his last day?

For a further fact, if one follows all the accusations against this out-going IGP by Raja Petra Kamaruddin (RPK) on his website Malaysia Today, and if we assume only 10% is true, the IGP should never have been extended in the first place. So what is the wayang kulit that cannot explain his “unhappiness with the minister?”

When I started with the public services in 1972, I learnt many lessons along the corridors of power within the public services. I was never sent for even a one-day basic Intan training course; and I have never understood why. The positive of all this is that I also never attended even one day of National Civics Bureau (BTN) training!

Therefore, I did much of my real learning about the real public services from good bosses as well as poor examples (at least how not to do things). Let me however start with one poor example.

On the first day of work, three of us reported for duty, and no one had planned any time for us. All three of

A Symbol of Yes-Manship: Political Nik Ali in Penang

us ushered into a room by the chief clerk and told to wait there until the bosses were free. The room had bare walls, two tables and three chairs. The bosses were all in a meeting.

Finally after lunch, our “boss” called us in and asked us what we had done the whole day. None of us did anything, frankly, other than to earn our gaji buta for the first half of the first day. But I was stupid and naive enough to speak up and say, “I read the newspaper the whole morning; my own copy that is!”

The reason I did that was because, in my mind, I questioned the rationale for his illogical query. Here we were on the first day of work, in an office which required all kinds of security procedures just to enter, and the “boss” actually believed that we were free to exercise initiative and do something without any clear welcome or job-assignment given.

Lesson No 1: The boss is always right

That day I learnt the first and most important lesson that the civil service taught me; they believe that the boss is always right and if you miss that lesson, you are taught rule 2, that is, remember to always refer to rule 1.

In fact, I think it is this kind of management theory which consequentially creates the fear syndrome (i.e. some kind of false perception about the evil consequences of standing up for truth). And the direct impact of this is the ‘yes-man syndrome.’ Blind compliance is better rewarded in most organisations than truth-speaking.

The “boss” was quick to respond to my rhetorical comment and obvious reaction. He said, firmly but not rudely, “We do not like people ‘who are too smart’ in the public services.” As the conversation proceeded, he made another silly generalisation, when one of my colleagues responded that he had not done an undergraduate thesis.

He had asked, “Have all of you done research projects, while in university?” Two of us were economics and public administration undergraduates from UM and had done our graduation theses. But our third colleague was from the UM Arts Faculty with an economics major, and they were not required to undertake a graduation thesis for graduation. He said he had not done such a project study, and the boss concluded: “that means you do not know how to do research!”

I again retorted, as all truth matters always to me, “It does not necessarily follow; he may still be capable of doing research.” Then I learned my ultimate lesson about the “yes-man syndrome”. He continued, “If you want to survive and do well in the public services, you will learn that you cannot be too clever or too smart within the eyes of public service culture”.

I very quickly learned from then on “how to say no appropriately, within the public service context”. In fact, in any context, the text must always be appropriate for the intended purpose. Text is always defined by context.

Therefore, I find it totally unacceptable that the IGP is now crying wolf, after the fact! Another way to say this is “to cry over spilt milk” or “nasi dah basi tetapi baru buat aduan”.

He is now in fact saying publicly, at least through my reading, that the deputy IGP is not his first choice candidate for the IGP’s job! What a shame! Is it his assumption then that he is the only ‘saint’ qualified for the job? Or, is it his assumption that the boss (or outgoing IGP) is always right all the time; even with his nominations for replacements and promotions?”

Does not the Police Commission have a jurisdictional right over the matter? Did I not already write a column to suggest that it is time that the Public Services Department reviews how all senior or top post government officers are appointed?

Lesson No 2: How not to do things

The second lesson I learnt from my first posting in the Prime Minister’s Department was “how not to do things.” After a few months in the public services, one day another “boss” invited me to his room and “instructed” me to help him raise hampers for the Administrative and Diplomatic Officers (PTD) Association’s annual dinner.

He said, “I have heard that you have a lot of contacts and can raise such hampers.” I simply and politely told him that I could not. Then, later my immediate boss, a very friendly and personable person, asked me why I refused to help? I simply said, “My friends are my friends and I will not use them to raise funds or hampers for a cause they may not believe in.”

It was not only an issue of dignity for me, but also an issue of “power and authority misapplied by the non-boss”. What authority did he have to call me and instruct me when he was not even my real boss?

Obedience to authority and maintenance of the line of command are important principles in all good organisations. If there is a break in the authority structure and the line of command breaks, then you have subordinates who take orders from outside or even inside, but not in the line of command.

I learnt this most wonderful lesson about the line of command when I was still at RMC. I was only a new boy and in the final term of the first year. Usually in the final term lower sixth officers start assuming responsibilities for their companies.

One day, I was called to the carpet by an acting rank holder in H Company for sweeping the floor after his boys on the lower floor had swept the floor. It happened that my junior under-officer (or JUO) of the upper sixth form was passing by. He chewed up the acting rank holder because, he argued, “it was out of line for this officer to reprimand me directly without following the correct line of command”. My officer in line of command took the other non-boss to task!

Go Quietly , Dear IGP (rtd)

Dear IGP, you could have done excellently while you had power and authority; but, since you are now destined to leave office, please hold your tongue and be thankful that you are not being charged with some of the implied offences as alleged by RPK. Go in peace and if God gives you the grace, please continue to speak up for truth with your own dignity and within your God-ordained destiny. May God bless the public services of Malaysia.

Dr. KJ JOHN was in public service for 29 years. He is now dean of the Faculty of Economics and Policy Science at UCSI University, Malaysia. The views expressed above are truths that matter to him as an individual citizen wearing private and civil society hats ,and therefore are not opinions of the university or faculty.

14 thoughts on “Yes-Manship: An Art Form in Public Services

  1. KJ at his best again. Haven’t changed much from his days at RMC.

    This “yes-man” syndrome doesn’t affect the civil service alone. It’s even worse in the army where everything is rigid and regimented.

    When I first reported for duty, the adjutant paraded all the new interns in front of the Commanding Officer and we were given the “dressing down”. Once out of his office we’re again being dressed down by a succession of bosses before we get to see our platoons. We then gave our boys the dressing down.

    This top bottom approach works fine in army as it’s a form of discipline we have to observe. An indiscipline outfit is a recipe for disaster.

    You have to be a yes-man to survive and that’s how the system works. The boss is always right. Do you dare to question him? I did and ended at the wrong end of the rod.

    Btw, when I was boss I prefer only those who said yes to me. Ini lah lumrah dunia.

  2. Nothing wrong in being yes-men.

    Everyone must know his/her place. There are bosses and higher-ups whom you must respect.
    Malaysia will be a much better and happier place if we all know how to say yes. It is always nay when the government propose something. We even want to boss our PM around. I suggest we send some of our people to LKY. He knows how to silence them.
    ________
    It is better to be a principled and diligent person. An ampu bodek is a weak character.Taksubbism all over again.–Din Merican

  3. “The boss is always right” KJ John

    This statement is a half-truth at best. And KJ John who studied economics with public administration as his major should know better.

    As his better half, Mrs Boss is always right. Mr Boss is only half the time right.

    Fortunately, this does not happen in the military. Can you imagine Tok CIk giving orders from his back seat of his Cooper S??

  4. Do Malaysians even understand that the Government is answerable to the people.Accountable. Have I been away from home too long? Have I been living in a democracy too long? If the people and the Opposition that represent a percentage of the population don’t question and challenge then there is no accountability and that is THE breeding ground for corruption.

  5. Governments are prone to poor decisions and mistakes and therefore all Government decisions barring matters of national security should be subject to scrutiny and review. The whole body of Administrative Law is based on this premise.

  6. To question a Government and its members is not disrespectful nor an act of insolence. Rather it is the exercise of one’s inherent right as a citizen and as a member of the community whom that Government serves.

  7. Tok Cik is a General and makes general decisions. Nek Cik is a Major and makes all the Major decisions. That’s how you maintain marital bliss and also acknowledge who’s boss.

  8. Musa was just confirming what he [and the many others SGs/DGs/AGs..dan org2 yg mcm TOK NIK!!!!] had been doing all this while….ya tuan….baik tuan…beres tuan…..no problem tuan….

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