Jul 13, 2008 By HUZIR SULAIMAN
By global standards of ministerial responsibility, Malaysia’s performance leaves much to be desired.
THE Westminster Parliamentary system, for better or for worse, is our former colonial masters’ gift to us, and to many Commonwealth countries. According to its conventions, Cabinet ministers are bound by both collective and individual responsibility.
Collective ministerial responsibility means that the Cabinet must speak with one voice. Whatever disagreements may take place behind closed doors, there must be a united front on policy matters in public.
A rare example of a Malaysian breach of the convention of collective responsibility occurred in 2005 when Deputy Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Dr Sothinathan questioned the Government’s decision not to recognise Ukrainian medical degrees, and as a consequence was suspended for three months.
The Westminster principle of individual ministerial responsibility, however, is probably of greater concern to Malaysians. It is explained by Rodney Brazier in his 1997 book, Ministers of the Crown:
“Broadly, each Minister is responsible for
(1) his private conduct,
(2) the general conduct of his department, and
(3) acts done (or left undone) by officials in his department.”
Let’s look at the first responsibility: private conduct. When confronted with evidence of personal impropriety, Malaysian ministers – with the recent exception of Chua Soi Lek – usually do not resign. In other democracies, resignation, though reluctant, is still the norm.
Looking at House of Commons research papers, for example, we find that of the 125 British ministerial resignations in the 20th century, no fewer than a dozen were for reasons of “private scandal” and two were for “private financial arrangements”.
In many democracies, even unproven allegations are sufficient to provoke resignation. In November 1997 the Portuguese Minister for Defence, Antonio Vitorino, resigned following accusations that he had not paid the full property tax on his country house.
“If there are doubts or suspicions over my behaviour, the situation must be fully clarified and therefore I must take responsibility as a citizen,” Vitorino said. “In view of the way I have always conducted myself in political life, I think it is impossible to hold public office at my level under any type of suspicion.”
Among legislators more sensitive to questions of honour and shame, the desire to minimise the stain on one’s reputation can lead to tragedy. Last year, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, the Japanese Agriculture Minister, went a step further then mere resignation when, embroiled in allegations that he filed false expense claims, he hanged himself in his Tokyo flat.
Perhaps the most stringent standard for private conduct was set by Mick Young, the Australian Immigration Minister who resigned in the 1980s. His crime? He failed to declare a stuffed toy in his suitcase to customs officers when he returned to the country.
The “Paddington Bear Affair” led to his resignation but established in the minds of many the international standard of conduct for ministers – a standard of probity to which I think even Barisan Nasional supporters would agree our Cabinet does not hold itself.
So much for private conduct. What of a minister’s responsibility for “the general conduct of his department, and for acts done (or left undone) by his department”?
As Noore Alam Siddiquee of South Australia’s Flinders University wrote in 2006 in the International Public Management Review, “the principle of ministerial responsibility as seen in mature democracies is either weak or missing in Malaysia. The principle means that the minister accepts responsibility for any lapses or irregularities within his ministry and resigns from the office.
“Despite reports of numerous irregularities in various agencies at different levels, misappropriation of funds by individuals and groups and increasing volume of complaints received from the public on the quality of services and responsiveness, rarely has a minister chosen to accept responsibility for such irregularities.”
Siddiquee points out that despite the 2004 public outcry over shoddy construction projects, the then Works Minister “not only rebuffed calls for him to step down, he practically took no responsibility for the defective projects and other anomalies, and has had no problem retaining his ministerial office.”
But Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu was able to rebuff those calls for resignation – which came not just from civil society groups and Opposition lawmakers, but also from BN backbenchers – in large part due to the unwillingness of his Cabinet colleagues to apply the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility to him, perhaps lest they themselves be judged by the same standards.
In Cabinet Governing in Malaysia (2006), Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim reveals how they protected Samy Vellu: “Finally, after what was a prolonged episode that almost cost him his job, the Cabinet found that he took it upon himself more than he should have shouldered. ?. The Cabinet session of 20th October 2004, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak, discussed at length the background of this public outcry. Datuk Seri Samy Vellu’s extensive reports to the session were noted by the Cabinet with the view that the Minister ought not to take it upon himself all the blame hurled by the public as there were various parties that were responsible like consultants, contractors, engineers, architects, etc.”
Following this logic, it would appear that a Minister only need resign if he were a one-man ministry, doing everything himself. In reality other parties, whether external or in the civil service, are always there to take the blame.
In Cabinet Governing Dr Rais repeatedly talks about the difficulties that ministers have with the civil service, shifting the responsibility onto them:
“It takes years to rid a public servant who misbehaves or who does not perform and by the sheer procedural rigmarole it involves, bosses are quite reluctant to effect the actual brunt of the General Orders.
It is instructive to know, lacking in acumen and productivity are not listed as grounds for dismissal. Neither is the inability to achieve results put in as a factor to dismiss or suspend.”
While this might perhaps be true, it is distinctly at odds with the principle of ministerial responsibility in the Westminster system, and it leads to a complete abdication of a minister’s duty of ultimate supervision.
Contrast this Malaysian blame-shifting with the 1954 resignation statement of Sir Thomas Dugdale, the British Minister for Agriculture:
“I, as Minister, must accept full responsibility to Parliament for any mistakes and inefficiency of officials in my Department, just as, when my officials bring off any successes on my behalf, I take full credit for them.
“Any departure from this long-established rule is bound to bring the Civil Service right into the political arena, and that we should all, on both sides of the House, deprecate most vigorously.”
Similarly, when in 1982 the junior British Foreign Office Minister, Richard Luce, resigned along with his two ministerial colleagues, accepting responsibility for the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, he said, “It is an insult to Ministers of all Governments, of whatever colour or complexion, to suggest that officials carry responsibility for policy decisions. Ministers do so, and that strikes at the very heart of our parliamentary system.”
In November 2002 South Korea’s Justice Minister and the prosecutor general both resigned to take responsibility for the death in policy custody of a murder suspect.
In the same year, Britain’s Education Secretary resigned because the nation failed to meet targets for child literacy and numeracy.
Last month, the South Korean Prime Minister and his entire Cabinet offered to resign in response to public unhappiness about the beef import deal South Korea has made with the United States.
Would our ministers do any of that?
Huzir Sulaiman writes for theatre, film, television, and newspapers