Let institutions educate, but don’t suffocate them

April 29, 2016

Let institutions educate, but don’t suffocate them

by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

“Real education enhances the dignity of a human being and increases his or her self-respect. If only the real sense of education could be realized by each individual and carried forward in every field of human activity, the world will be so much a better place to live in.”– A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

A recurring theme in this column is the importance of institutions in building the nation: in particular those preserved and established by the Federal Constitution and other laws.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz and Associates

But nation-building can also rest in institutions that are not established by statesmen, constitutionalists or hacks seeking a narrow political objective: in particular, those created by educators.

Over the past week, I have been reminded of this in powerful terms visiting schools and universities in the United Kingdom that — despite their academic accolades, graduate employment statistics or state-of-the-art facilities — still speak proudly and passionately about their histories and traditions. On their students they impart not only knowledge, but an institutional heritage too.

At the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, where my father was last week conferred an Honorary Fellowship, it was clear how proud they are of their founding in 1505, and their central role in the development on the profession itself. A story to which they have devoted a large (and sometimes macabre) museum.

At Aberystwyth University, where my father was an undergraduate and was made an Honorary Fellow in 2014, they spoke beamingly of how the university pioneered certain disciplines and enthusiastically shared their plans to renovate their Old College building.

At the University of South Wales, where my father received an Honorary Doctorate in Law in 2013, a connection was made between the latest facilities in the aerospace engineering faculty and the origins of the two establishments that merged to form the current university — a mechanics institute founded in 1841, and a school serving the coal mining industry founded in 1913.

These visits were short, but still their peculiarities shone through. When talking to Malaysian students at the three universities, their focus was no doubt on how the knowledge and skills acquired will contribute to their goals in support of their families, employers or country (there were many government scholars), but still they were aware that they have become ambassadors for their universities and not just ambassadors for Malaysia while there.

More so than universities, in terms of instilling a unique identity and character building, are secondary schools, especially boarding schools. At my old school, Marlborough College, on the way back to London, a brief walk around campus reminded me of the hours I spent reading history books, imagining glacial formation, getting my head round quadratic equations and practising Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, and also an entire vocabulary of school-specific terms that I haven’t had to use since 2000.

St John’s Institution is once again known by its old name. — Picture by  Malay Mail

St John’s Institution is once again known by its old name.

The Penang Free School (Founded in 1816) will celebrate its 200th Anniversary on October 21, 2016–Fortis Atque Fidelis. The name is back too. UMNO Politicians, known to mess everything up, tried to call it Sekolah Menengah Penang Free.

I realise now how crucial this was in fostering a deep camaraderie. Some critics condemn such institutions as elitist and exclusionary, and their reaction is to favour uniformity: to remove the things that make specific establishments unique: to make most people get the “same” treatment.

This ultimately results in a centralising tendency in which bureaucrats, rather than principals and teachers, make many of the decisions that directly impact on the student experience. Thus, instead of having educational institutions that are inspired by their own ethos and history, we have schools and universities that have to operate within over-prescribed limits.

We have already seen the effects of this, from the reduction in diversity between schools and the reduction of diversity within them. That is why so many who were educated at English national-type schools want them to return, because they attracted Malaysians of all races.

Most tragic is the loss of institutional memory in our historic schools, where simply the passage of time, the relocation of campuses or name changes have been used to erase aspects now deemed undesirable.

There does seem to be some resistance:  St John’s Institution just won the right to revert to its original name after a campaign from its alumni. Even this needed to be cleared by the ministry, though.

Earlier this month, I was at Tuanku Muhammad School in Kuala Pilah (which my father attended in the 1950s) to witness the unveiling of its centenary landmark, and there too I saw different generations reminisce about the classrooms they were taught in, the food they ate, the corridors they walked.

But recently, in much newer schools too I have seen how innovative principals have used what they can to endow some unique characteristics for their pupils, from the names of their houses, or even the murals on the walls. I hope that such phenomena will be seen as beneficial by our politicians and bureaucrats.

Great educational institutions may have their idiosyncrasies. And in being so, they prepare young people for real life: to endow the idea that as workers and citizens, it’s the shared experiences that create unspoken bonds, that everyone is bound by the rules, and that traditions matter.

* Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.



The Way Forward for the Malaysian Civil Service

April 29, 2016

COMMENT: Meritocracy and diversity are sources of strength for an efficient and dynamic civil service. In addition, civil servants should not be promoted on the basis of politics as it is today. I have nothing more to add to Zaid’s views on the matter.

The Famous Mamaks–Ali Hamsa, Nor Mohamed Yakop, Apandi Ali and Azeez Abdul Rahim and Mahathir Mohamad

I, however, wish to make a observation. In recent years, the mamaks have taken over the top spots in the Malaysian civil service and GLCs (Government-linked corporations. We have Hamsa Ali as Chief Secretary, Irwan Serigar who is Secretary-General to Ministry of Finance (who could have been Governor, Bank Negara Malaysia if the WSJ had not bell the cat),  Appandi Ali as Attorney-General, and Nor Mohamed Yakop,  the man who speculated on  sterling and  lost Bank Negara reserves) as Deputy Chairperson in Khazanah Nasional Berhad. Under Mahathir, we had a mamak Bank Negara Governor. Is that good for the civil service? I should think so since I am  also of mamak descent myself. –Din Merican

The Way Forward for the Malaysian Civil Service

by Zaid Ibrahim


The way to improve the service is to let it be more open and to allow for more scrutiny.

NO government can function well without an efficient and capable civil service. It is an integral part of national public administration which supports the government of the day in implementing public policies. Japan’s army and cities were destroyed in the Second World War but their civil service remained intact, hence the phenomenal recovery of the economy despite the ravages of war.

Malaysia’s success over the years has been due in part to the right policies. But I dare say the main contributor to this success has been the capable civil servants tasked with implementing the policies of the government over the years.

najib duit

Najib–The Bugis Man

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to having a first-class civil service is the tendency to politicise the service. When politicians want civil servants to do the politicking for them, or want those who are more inclined to follow their instructions without questioning, then only the mediocre ones will survive in such an environment.

 The good ones will not be attracted to such practices as they would rather work in a more professional environment. Sooner or later, the good ones will stagnate and not get the promotion, and they will leave, but the country will be the loser.

The quality of politicians leading the government is hard to control because there is no minimum standard for those who wish to enter this profession. So the country has no choice but to have top quality civil servants to counter any negative inputs from the politicians. That at least is theory the theory and the rationale.

Only such capable people can implement policies that the leaders want, by thinking through proper implementation measures that optimise the benefit to the public. Japan started way back in the 1850s a policy of only taking the crème de la crème from Japanese universities into the public service. It is about time we do the same because only then can we dispense with the use of foreign experts even in preparing basic proposals.

The way to improve the service is to let it be more open, that allows for more scrutiny. The secrecy of government business, while useful in some cases, can be detrimental to the government’s own well-being. Carried to extremes, secrecy has led to abuse not just by civil servants but also their political masters. On the other side of the coin, opacity also leads to under-appreciation; civil servants get brickbats when things do not work well but they are rarely praised for the good work they have done.

Once a year, we have the Auditor-General’s Report to Parliament about the shortcomings and excesses of certain departments or officers, with details of financial losses suffered through negligence or wrongdoing.

The problem is that the same story repeats itself from one year to the next and there seems to be no steps taken to rectify the errors and excesses pointed out by the Auditor-General and no systematic follow-up or documentation of changes to the system.

The public’s perception is that the civil service does not care about managing public funds properly, and so it goes on to make the same mistakes year after year. Very recently, Auditor-General Tan Sri Ambrin Buang called on civil servants to give serious attention to the principle of value of money in government spending. Negative developments in this regard will give a bad impression to the public about how civil servants manage public funds.

I suppose the same advice should be given to politicians as well but then who advises our politicians?

Perhaps a parliamentary debate on the Auditor-General’s Report will be useful as it can show who is really responsible for the losses and mismanagement. Sometimes politicians go well beyond the scope of their duties and responsibilities and wilfully interfere in the implementation of government policies, which can cause or contribute to the wastage of public funds. In such events, it would not be fair to blame the civil servants (heads of department and so forth).

I believe that setting aside two days for a comprehensive debate will do a lot of good for our politicians and also help improve public accountability in our civil service.

Also, civil servants themselves need to hold firm to the code of conduct they are expected to abide by because it is the best assurance of their own well-being in the long term. The Peraturan-Peraturan Pegawai Awam 1993 must be taken seriously and they need to understand Sections 4(2) and 5(4) of these rules fully. Basically, these sections require that civil servants have excellent integrity and put the public interest ahead of their own interests.

Civil servants must be truthful and open – which is to say they must be honest – and they must be “objective” by providing the government advice that is based on facts.

In addition to these rules, there are standards of behaviour expected of civil servants all over the world; they need to fulfil their obligations, especially their fiduciary responsibilities, and must always act in a way that is professional.

Equally important is the observance of the laws of the country. While it is true that some civil servants would rather follow the instructions of their political masters even when they know that doing so would be wrong, my advice to them is to follow the law and the relevant rules. You never know when the laws will come calling!

If civil servants know of an illegal action or that some wrongdoing is being committed, they must make the necessary report to the police because even the Official Secrets Act does not protect the perpetrators of illegal or criminal acts.

Information about the commission of a crime cannot be an official secret because it is in the public interest to disclose it. It is the duty of every citizen, including civil servants, not to suppress information about an offence that has been committed by any person.

The civil service is our backbone and we must do everything possible to keep it healthy and strong.


More on the MAS-Mueller Story

April 29, 2016

More on the MAS-Mueller Story

by Mariam Mokhtar


MAS in its Glory Days under Saw Huat Lye and Abdul Aziz Rahman

Last February, Malaysian Airlines Berhad (MAB) finally made a profit after years of being in the red. Two months later, Christoph Mueller, the company’s first non- Malaysian CEO, announced that he would leave in September 2016, well before the end of his contract.

What prompted his decision? Why leave after making such brilliant progress? Did anyone believe him when he said he was leaving because of “changing personal circumstances”? Let’s see if we can find a reason for Mueller’s decision.

MAS Today

In 1994, former PM Mahathir Mohamad gave control of the successful national carrier, then known as MAS, to his crony, Tajuddin Ramli. But instead of taking good care of the golden goose, Tajuddin and successive chairmen strangled the company.

Making Tajuddin MAS’ executive chairman and selling the company to him was part of Mahathir’s bumiputera corporate advancement project.

Mahathir should have instead adopted his Singapore counterpart Lee Kuan Yew’s approach to running an airline. In 1972, seven years after Malaysia and Singapore split, the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines had to be disbanded. On the eve of the formation of Singapore Airlines, Lee told the workers’ union that his government would have no compunction in closing the company down if it did not return a profit.

 Mahathir, Najib and MAS Advisor Badawi

Now that MAB is back in the black, we fear that the government and its cronies will start to bleed it again until, perhaps, it’s time for another foreigner to come to its rescue. There are Malaysians capable of doing the job, but only a foreigner can wield the stick without inviting too much scrutiny. After all, MAB has political appointees on its board.

Mueller’s role is to act as a foreign advisor. He also gives the MAB board a semblance of respectability.When Mueller first arrived at MAS, he allegedly asked Khazanah how many middle managers the airline had. Apparently, no one knew. It is alleged too that middle managers were running their own firms and bleeding MAS dry by providing services at inflated prices.

When the first cull was made in MAS, the cronies were the first to go. You might think this was a good move, but a MAS insider alleges that it was actually a plan calculated to give a golden parachute to faithful cronies. The cronies and middle managers received handsome retrenchment terms calculated from the time they were first employed. Some had been there for three decades. They received huge amounts in compensation.

Christoph Mueller, and Ahmad Jauhari Yahya

Aware that MAS could not afford to continue giving away these vast sums of money, the management announced that over the next few years, more people would be sacked or asked to retire early but would not be given the same generous compensation terms. In effect, it was a way of getting rid of workers cheaply.

When MAS changed its name to MAB, the employees who were thankful they had been retained had to accept new terms in their contract, which included the prospect of having their services terminated with only two months’ notice. That was why MAS workers were unhappy. Cronies were rewarded. Genuine, hard-working employees were treated shabbily.

So, did Mueller decide to leave because he has a conscience? Or was he concerned about his reputation? He once turned around the ailing Aer Lingus, but with all that is happening in Malaysia now, he probably realises that the longer he waits, the more he risks messing up his CV.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many proud Malaysians were happy to serve MAS. It was a respected and successful airline. If we were to remove political interference, MAB could soar in the skies once again.

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: A life devoted entirely to Singapore

Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

MAS and the Mueller Story

April 28, 2015

MAS  and the Mueller Story

by P Gunasegaram


QUESTION TIME | Malaysia Airlines Bhd’s first non-Malaysian CEO Christoph Mueller announced he is stepping down last week barely one year at the top seat for “personal” reasons. Why? And, was he good for Malaysia Airlines?

Khazanah Nasional is now pumping in some RM6 billion into the airline for its recovery plan and in addition to the RM17.4 billion pumped in over the last 14 years, the total spent is soon likely to hit a massive RM23.4 billion. Will it be worth it?

Unfortunately statistics from Malaysia Airlines are insufficient to say how good a job Mueller has done. Where there is a paucity of information there are usually problems – why would anyone hide good news?

Mueller, appointed in March last year, will step down in six months as he serves his notice out – one and a half years before his contract ends. He will be a non-executive director after that. That Mueller can stay on for another six months is clear indication that his “personal circumstances” are not urgent, indicating other reasons why he is stepping down.

There are two sides to turnaround – cutting costs and increasing revenue. It is not only about turning to a profit – it is about sustaining a profit which the airline is capable of given its previous track record.

The easy way to turnaround is to shut down unprofitable operations, sell related assets and keep only profitable ones. That mean smaller profits but forever destroying the ability to rake in larger profits. If you want to turn around the entire operations, it’s a lot more work.

Mueller has overseen the cost-cutting quite well, much of the groundwork having already been laid by Khazanah Nasional before he came aboard. Some 6,000, or about 30 percent of workforce, have already been laid off. Routes have been cut drastically – and Malaysia Airlines is now just a regional airline with Emirates providing international connectivity. That may be a major problem.

At the heart of all airline operations is revenue management – the fine-tuning of ticket prices to ensure  the plane is sufficiently filled at a price which will maximise revenue. This is done for every single route.

If this is done right, the yield or amount received per revenue passenger km (RPK – no of paid seats multiplied by km flown) increases while the load factor (the amount by which seats are filled) are optimised to give maximum revenue.

This excellent article titled ‘What’s wrong with Malaysia Airlines’ gives a full explanation of how yields work for those who want a fuller explanation. The bottom line is if your fares are too low, you can have a serious problem.

From the chart, yields at Malaysia Airlines grew sharply after Idris Jala became CEO. By 2006 MAS’ yields were in tandem with some of its regional peers like Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways. The impact of the increasing yields on MAS’ bottom line was quick, and in 2006 losses were reduced to RM100 million from RM1.3 billion previously.

By the end of 2007, Malaysia Airlines’ yields were the highest among the regional airlines, and its net profit among the highest ever historically with some RM900 million. The onset of the global financial crisis resulted in yields tumbling across the board but Malaysia Airlines’ yield was the slowest to recover in the subsequent years and tumbled sharply post 2012, showing a wide gap with the yields of other airlines – the underlying problem for the airline.

Malaysia Airlines actually had a cost advantage over the other regional airlines in terms of costs per available seat kilometre (ASK – available seats multiplied by kilometres flown, a measure of capacity). Thus yield, not costs, was Malaysia Airlines’ core problem.

Khazanah Nasional figures show that Malaysia Airlines yield, measured this time in terms of revenue per available seat km, or Rask, at 20 sen, has a yield gap of 2.7 sen compared to the average of four other regional airlines – Cathay Pacific with a Rask of 24 sen, SIA (22.9) Garuda (22.5), and Thai (21.5). This means among the five, Malaysia Airlines charges the lowest fares relative to its capacity.

This is important – former CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya estimated that one sen in Rask accounts for RM500 million in revenue. That implies that 2.7 sen accounts for RM1,350 million. If Malaysia Airlines’ yield improved to industry average, the airline will be easily profitable. Also, Khazanah Nasional figures show that Malaysia Airlines has costs per ASK or Cask of 21.4 sen, below the peer average of 22.2 sen.

A battle Malaysia Airlines will lose

The problem becomes clear – Malaysia Airlines has the lowest unit cost which is good, but it also has the lowest unit revenue which is bad. All it has to do is to increase the unit revenue and its safe home. That however is a complex process undertaken with complex computer simulations and trial and error.

Has Mueller managed to do that? Unfortunately we don’t know because Malaysia Airlines does not provide the necessary figures. All he has said recently is that the airline turned to profit in February and even then did not say how much and how. What he should have shown is the progression of unit costs and revenues relatives to its peers. Then we would have known exactly what he has achieved and what he has not.

The paucity of information means that Mueller probably has things to hide. Anecdotally, there is evidence to indicate yield management is poor. I checked return ticket prices to Bali from Kuala Lumpur three months out for Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia. Guess what, it is about the same price of around RM850.

If a full-service airline is charging low-cost airline prices there really must be something wrong over its pricing especially for Malaysia Airlines, which has been on Skytrax’s list of 5-star airlines many times but recently seems to have dropped out though.

On top of that, there is the silly decision from this year to suspend serving of alcohol on short flights of three hours and less, even on business class and first class, a short-sighted decision that puts it severely at a disadvantage relative to its peers. Even all the major Middle Eastern airlines serve alcohol with no restrictions.

The way Malaysia Airlines is going, it is becoming a ticketing agent for Emirates internationally with the code-share arrangement it signed while it is shrinking its operations to become a regional airline taking on the likes of successful low-cost AirAsia – a battle it will lose. A full service airline cannot compete on cost with a low-cost airline – Khanazah Nasional figures show a huge 6.3 sen cost gap between AirAsia (14.8 sen Cask) and Malaysia Airlines (21.1 sen).

If Malaysia Airlines’ intention is to give up the international routes in favour of Emirates, to which it effectively becomes a ticketing agent, and fight an unwinnable battle regionally on cost with AirAsia – it might as well close shop and save the country billions of ringgit.

The true test of turnaround is not an indiscriminate lopping of loss makers but a carefully considered attempt to turn into profit a substantial portion of an enterprise’s entire operations. Otherwise, we might as well appoint liquidators.

P GUNASEGARAM laments terribly the extreme erosion of the Malaysia Airlines brand name, a reasonably competent and efficient airline whose service is still among the best in the industry, over the last few years. Contact: t.p.guna@gmail.com.


Malaysia is lucky this guy is not Bank Negara Governor

Malaysia is lucky this guy is not Bank Negara Governor

Tan Sri Irwan Serigar Abdullah today accused Wall Street Journal of falsely claiming that he was offered the post of Bank Negara Malaysia Governor. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Enough of Mamaks with top jobs in Malaysia


Tan Sri Irwan Serigar Abdullah today denied he was offered the post of Bank Negara Malaysia Governor, accusing US-based Wall Street Journal of falsely claiming he would head the central bank.

The Treasury Secretary-General’s remarks came after the Prime Minister’s press secretary Datuk Seri Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad similarly accused the newspaper of “lying” in its reports that claimed Irwan had been chosen to succeed Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz.

“I was never offered the post of Governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, as the Wall Street Journal and Sarawak Report have repeatedly claimed. His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong never signed my appointment as Governor, as is alleged.

“These are outright lies with absolutely no basis. These foreign media should stop their attacks on Malaysia,” Irwan said in a statement today. Datuk Muhammad Ibrahim was yesterday named as the replacement for the retiring Zeti, who is leaving after 16 years at the head of BNM.

He was the Deputy Governor up until his appointment, and his selection was consistent with Zeti’s call for her successor to be someone with a financial and banking background instead of a politician.

WSJ previously reported based on anonymous sources that Irwan, who is Treasury Secretary-General, would be made the next BNM governor.

The newspaper today responded to allegations that its reporting was based on uncorroborated details from anonymous sources and Tengku Sarifuddin’s claim that it was being used as tool to depose Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

“We stand behind our fair and accurate reporting of this evolving story which has in no way been undermined by recent events, and remain committed to providing robust coverage of events in Malaysia,” a Dow Jones spokesman told Malay Mail Online.

Dow Jones is the publisher of the WSJ. The US paper has reported extensively on 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) since last year and was the first to reveal the RM2.6 billion deposited in Najib’s accounts prior to Election 2013.


Malaysia Airlines:What Mueller could not do

April 28, 2016

Malaysia Airlines:What Mueller could not do

by Marion Tharsis


Khazanah Nasional Berhad probably expected too much from Christoph Mueller when it hired him to work his charm on MAS. Despite his glorious past, the turnaround expert probably didn’t count on the work culture and ethics and, most of all, the political environment in a government-linked company.

Mueller made all the obvious moves. He trimmed the work force, removed unwanted suppliers and closed unprofitable routes. What he could not do was remove political control. He probably learned soon enough that it would be futile to continue with his work, with so many hands pulling him from all sides to do their bidding.

Another person may try his or her hand at making MAS profitable again, but the same pressures will reduce the CEO’s position to that of a puppet to be manipulated.

So our once glorious airline is back to square one. The competition is overwhelming. Other carriers, including our very own AirAsia, are always looking into ways to make their companies more profitable through innovation.

We should not expect too much from the incoming CEO. He or she may be prevented from cleaning up certain kinds of mess. For example, he or she might not get a free hand to select a management team that would be capable of taking MAS on the path of good and solid governance.

An airline cannot run effectively merely on superficial changes. It needs an operating system that is smooth, unhampered, cohesive, innovative, customer focused, and competitive. Only then can it stay afloat in a tight and narrow market and play on a field that keeps re-inventing itself.

An airline that is subject to too much political control will keep failing and continue to be an embarrassment.

Marion Tharsis is a  FMT reader.