Malaysia Dateline

Why is the Cabinet not performing to full effects yet? Lack of sherpas and forum to discuss policies

When asked by a reporter if Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad was satisfied with the performance of his cabinet, the elder leader gave it a passing grade of “40/50 points”.

He did, however, add that working with a group of ministers who were not corrupt was better than those who had sold their souls to former Prime Minister Najib Razak.

In this sense, the cabinet under Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad, in time, can improve. But how would it improve ?

To begin with, the Cabinet ministers should be adequately helped by their “Sherpas”. Sherpas are people who lead others to the top of the mountains, then safely, down again.

In any ascent to the summit of Himalayan, for example, the climbers may come with the burning ambition to reach the peak.

But the reality dictates that not all climbers no matter how tenacious and determined they can be, can reach the top.

Those who insist on going to the top, and reaching it, are in fact mountaineers who further rely on the experience of their Nepali Sherpas.

To be sure, all top leaders cannot live without them. In Asean, if the senior officials understand the issues well, the results are a series of well coordinated summits, which can in fact deliver serious policy outcomes that can raise the living standards of the citizens of Asean.

Take the achievements of Asean in reducing inter state conflicts. Since 1979, the inter state conflicts have been reduced by 99 per cent, according to Professor Timo Kivimaki, now at University of Bath in England.

Professor Stein Tonneson at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (Nias) based in Copenhagen, Denmark has found something startling too: with the exception of the border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand between 2008-2018, over the temple site of Phreah Vihear, there has been no inter state wars in East Asia.

This long peace is now widely known as the East Asian Peace. A term that is widely associated with the scholarship of Professor Timo Kivimaki and Professor Stein Tonneson.

One of the reasons for the East Asian Peace is the admirable role performed by Senior Officials Meetings (SOM). They have a function similar to Sherpas.

Since the withdrawal of the United States from southern Vietnam in the mid 1970s, the number of SOMs also shot up to more than a thousand a year, often touching on issues like peace, economic cooperation, confidence building measures and basically anything and everything that can keep the region in tact, ostensibly, on the basis of non intervention.

The figure is well noted by academic specialists who run into Track I and Track II meetings.

Non intervention, according to retired academic John Funston, an Australian, also acquires another distinct meaning.

Writing in the journal of Contemporary Southeast Asia in 1997, he argued that the ‘member states of ASEAN shall not support the opposition of another state, while they should also have zero say on the military alliances of their respective friends in Asean.’

Based on these two templates alone, Asean has achieved close to 100 per cent of clean records

Another a key criterion to working well, both within and across the ministry in fact through out region is the willingness to listen to the views of their respective think tanks and brain trust.

Take the Bretton Woods international financial system in 1972. When the US decided not to peg its dollars to the gold, the US dollar became a fiat currency based on the value of the paper alone.

To maintain the US dollar as the international currency of the first and last resort, unbacked by any precious metals, the economies of the key countries would have to stay largely well coordinated; especially their monetary targets and interest rate.

To this end, a group of Sherpas representing Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, the United States, France and Japan, had to meet constantly before their respective leaders ever did.

Research of Professor Putnam, at Harvard University, confirmed that such a group existed. Their first meetings began in the lower ground of the White House in mid 1970s.

Sharing the same causal knowledge that none of them must have interest rates that are either too high or too low the Sherpas in this “Library Contact Group,” as they were then called, managed to stabilize the global economy.

President Gerald Fort, advised by George Shultz, saw the value of the Sherpas, each of whom had high policy sophistication and expertise.

The “Library Contact Group” was transformed into an entity that led to the creation of the Group of Seven by 1976.

In Asia, when the economies were booming, especially in the 1960s, Australian economist’ like Ross Garnaut and the late Japanese economist such as Saburo Okita formed what is known as Pacific Asia Free Trade Association and Development (PAFTAD).

The goal was to engender some kind of policy dialogue to augment the over sight of the government in the region—-to make Asian economy more receptive to free trade.

A decade later, the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) and the Pacific Basin Economic Council (PBEC) were formed, again to provide the policy expertise to the ministers.

Even when Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was formed in 1989, APEC’s internal dialogues were all supported by PAFTAD, PBEC and most notably PECC. APEC also spawned the creation of the APEC CEO business councils.

In the case of Malaysia, the late Tan Sri Nordin Sopiee performed admirably in all his roles on the above dialogues, as did Professor Mohamad Arief from the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research.

However, none of these think tanks focused on training the next generation of new thinkers. Thus the intimate knowledge of the state and the market across the region were lost.

Almost no one knows Professor Paul Evans, Professor Andrew Mack and Professor Ippei Yamazawa, for that matter, Professor Jia Jingguo of China.

Each of them may be from University of British Columbia in Canada, International University of Japan and Bejing University. But they are well trusted by their academic fraternity and governments, which makes their contribution to policy dialogues varied and valuable as well.

In fact, these strategic analysts have corpus of knowledge that can help the region face key problems.

The Malaysia cabinet does not have good Sherpas at this stage. When the ministers are over whelmed by their official duties, there are almost no one to plug the gaps, and play their roles.

Some may meet in events like the “New Dawn: Malaysia,” organized by the Ministry of Finance, or, the Asia Pacific Roundtable held in Kuala Lumpur each June.

But they can’t seem to help their ministers any further than they have. When the Sherpas, such as policy aides and political secretaries, are themselves unsure of how to help their superiors, not within one ministries, but across the entire span of the government, the net performance of the ministry is likely to face information and knowledge deficits.

When they do, they look forward to every Wednesday to see what the cabinet will say in the cabinet meetings. The cabinet will in turn look to their Sherpas. It is this mutual stand off that makes the government officials in most cases, clueless and unsure, on how to proceed.