Just being cynical

Yes Minister

1. Am I a cynic? Yes if the definition of a cynic “is what an idealist calls a realist”.

2. I’m reminiscing the hilarious moments while watching the satirical British sitcom, Yes Minister. I had the opportunity to follow the series from the beginning while studying at The LSE on a Colombo Plan Scholarship for my MSc. It was written by Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn and aired over the BBC from 1980 -1984, then followed by Yes, Prime Minister from 1986 – 1988.

3. The three main characters were Jim Hacker MP, the minister (later became Prime Minister), Sir Humphrey Appleby, his Permanent Secretary (later promoted as Cabinet Secretary) and Bernard Woolley, his Principal Private Secretary. Sir Humphrey occasionally sought advice from his administrative boss, Sir Arnold Robinson, Cabinet Secretary (his predecessor).

The cast of Yes Minister

The cast of Yes Minister

4. It was the favourite television programme of the then British PM, Margaret Thatcher.

5. When I came back in 1981, I took the opportunity to propose the sitcom to the then Minister of Information, Datuk Seri Adib Adam. It was shown on RTM some time in 1981/1982. Of course, the decision may not be related to my proposal at all.

6. Like P. Ramlee’s films, it is strongly recommended that this sitcom should have a second re-run. I’m very sure, it will still attract a large horde of viewers. Perhaps DSU Dr Rais Yatim can favourably consider this humble request.

7. In summary, the sitcom revolves around the inner workings of British central government, imitating the daily politics, happenings and intrigues that are plaguing the government machinery. “Many of the episodes revolve around proposals backed by Hacker, but frustrated by Appleby, or promoted by Appleby, who does whatever is necessary to persuade Hacker that the policy should go into force.…”.

8. “Much of the show’s humour thus derives from the antagonism between Cabinet ministers (who believe they are in charge) and the members of the British Civil Service who really run the country.”

9. It also reveals the naked truth that “government does not take place in the House of Commons; some politics… and much theatre takes place there. Government happens in private. As in all public performances, the real work is done in rehearsal, behind closed doors. Then the public, and the House, are shown what the government wishes them to see.”

10. Admittedly, the above landscape is not the monopoly of British government service only. It can be found in any government, Malaysian included.

Malaysian examples

11. I’m going to pick only a small part of the sitcom and draw parallel examples from Malaysian context.

12. It is about the various plans / innovations that ministers are trying to push thru’ but resisted by the government servants because they “genuinely believe that it is the Civil Service that knows what is best for the country … which is usually what is best for the Civil Service” or they are not worried about those plans/innovations because “the minister may be gone at any time”.

13. Have anyone heard of (or remember) desk files (fail meja – FM) and work procedure manuals (manual prosidur kerja – MPK)? It was introduced by DS Dr. Mahathir, the then PM some time in 1982 / 1983.

14. Indeed, they are very time-consuming to prepare. However, undoubtedly, the documents are very useful to officers who are new to an assigned job. Nevertheless, can MAMPU vouch that each and every staff of the 1.2 million government servants has these 2 respective documents on the desk?

15. If one asks an officer about this and if the answer is “it is half way thru’”, it means “not yet started”; if the answer is “it is almost finished”, it means “just started”.

16. The officer can also choose to lie with sophistication in “Civil Service language: ‘Sometimes one is forced to consider the possibility that affairs are being conducted in a manner which, all things being considered and making all possible allowances is, not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps not entirely straightforward.'”

17. While many are still struggling to understand the concepts and objectives of FM & MPK, the government ministries / departments were asked to prepare and implement a more complicated procedure (ISO) some time in 1995.

18. While it is noted that many ministries, departments / local authorities had announced that they already had the ISO Certificates, one has to be careful not to jump into conclusions that as if ALL their functions / activities had achieved the ISO standards. More often than not, and just for the sake to be seen they are following directives, only a few are ISOed. MAMPU is the legitimate body to debunk this cynicism.

19. At the same time, one must not be too carried away with ISO. After all, in simple terms, ISO is ‘to write what you do, and to do what you write.’ If one cannot do what one writes, then just lower the standards in order to avoid non-compliance. Very simple solution.

Con the sultans

20. At the end of the day, who make the most money? The consultants! (con the sultans?). They make sure their clients will get the ISO certificates so that they can be rehired / recommended to other agencies. Then the mind start to wander …who ever recommended the idea to the government may be working hand in glove with certain groups. (P.S. Similarly, the text book writers and the printers / distributors will make tonnes of money as a result of the government’s decision to abolish the PPSMI. Any surprise?).

21. DS Dr Mahathir had no opportunity to follow thru 100% since he voluntarily retired in October 2003 (alas, the [prime] minister may be gone at any time). Unfortunately, Pak Lah was not so interested in ISO since he fell in love with KPI (more complicated than ISO) without realising that ISO is a pre-requisite to KPI.

22. Again, the mind wanders as whom make the most money…

23. Before Pak Lah retired (again, the [prime] minister may be gone at any time), how many ministries / departments / local authorities already had their KPIs in place? Can MAMPU provide the statistics?

24. In between the ISO and KPI, balanced score cards was also promoted but it was not that popular among the public sector. Much more complicated.

25. It seemed Sarawak State Government did try to implement it but there were no much news.


26. Now DS Najib is seen to be pursuing and implementing KPI with much vigour. However, he must realised that the PRE Critical Success Factors (CSF) are in recognizing the following facts that :

– the earlier initiatives were not entirely successful;

– the Civil Service will defend the status quo as a matter of principle;

– the government officers may adopt the advice that “never refer to the matter or reply to the [Prime] Minister’s notes. By the time he taxes you with it face to face, you should be able to say it looks unlikely if anything can be done until after the election.” And DS Najib is fighting for his political life in the impending 13th. General Election;

– alternatively, they can sabotage any initiative by adopting the strategy that “if you are not happy with [Prime] Minister’s decision there is no need to argue him out of it. Accept it warmly, and then suggested he leaves it to you to work out the details”; and

– “in government, many people have the power to stop things happening but almost nobody has the power to make things happen. The system has the engine of a lawn mower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce.”

27. However, in all these endevours, JPA, MAMPU and INTAN seem to be the luckiest institutions / biggest beneficiaries as they are perceived to be continously promoting modernisation and improving the government delivery system; a perfect raison d’etre! By the way, any KPI on this?

28. Now lets us sit back and pause for a while.

29. What are FM, MPK and ISO? They are basically repackaged complicated ‘check list or duty list’.

30. What are ISO, balanced score cards and KPI? Again, basically, they are repackaged complicated ‘targets’.

31. The lazy management gurus are desperate to be instant millionaires; hence they repackaged and recycled the old ideas and get away with it.

32. To pick up few more examples, the following suffer the same fate as the forgotten FM, MPK and ISO:

– Ministry of Rural and Regional Development introduced Desa Wawasan (Rural Vision) a few years ago. TS Muhammad Taib wanted his own brand. He introduced early this year Pelan Tindakan Desa (Rural Action Plan). DS Shafie Afdal, the current minister, hardly talked about it. In all probability, he is busy conceiving a new plan. However, he should be cautioned that “any unwelcome initiative from (him) can be delayed (by his officers) until after the next election by the 12-stage delaying process:

1. Informal discussions
2. Draft proposal
3. Preliminary study
4. Discussion document
5. In-depth study
6. Revised proposal
7. Policy statement
8. Strategy proposal
9. Discussion of strategy
10. Implementation plan circulated
11. Revised implementation plans
12. Cabinet agreement”

Vision 2020 was forgotten before ministers, KSN and secretary generals can even remember the nine Challenges because Pak Lah wanted his own slogan – Islam Hadhari and National Mission.

– DS Najib admitted that he also wanted to have his own slogan (brand). Hence, currently he is vigorously promoting 1Malaysia before the Civil Service had the time to open the 9th. Malaysia Plan and to understand the National Mission (hurrah…the [prime] minister may be gone at any time).

33. Together with other changes and announcements DS Najib are making, believe me, in no time the government servants will be giddy and vomiting. So they may decide to wait until the coming general election before browsing thru’ the proposed changes.

34. Now am I a cynic or a realist? I choose not to answer because “as long as there is anything to be gained by saying nothing, it is always better to say nothing than anything.” Agreed?

  1. #1 by asrilamirul on July 22, 2009 - 8:59 am


    I yet have not the opportunity to watch yes minister. But I believe brit jokes have a quality of their own. As per my comment in my last previous posts, satire has always been a good medium in conveying thoughts and ideas. Sadly in this country satire such as that will be branded outright as anti establishment effort.

    ISO is ok but the effort put into obtaining ISO certification is not. All effort put into it at the same time erode the much needed working hours which then degrade the quality of one’s work. KPI is much better. It enables us to see one’s progress and achievement. True to the latest slogan ‘pencapaian diutamakan’.

    On a personal note I really miss Vision 2020… This country seemed better spurred under that vision. Wallahualam.


    • #2 by darahtuah on July 27, 2009 - 12:13 pm

      I did read your posts. Enlightening.

      Check list, FM, MPK, SKT, ISO, KPI are useful management tools indeed. However, one has to view/analyse them in the context of civil service work culture.



  2. #3 by sujini on July 27, 2009 - 9:03 am

    Assalam Mulaikom Datuk,

    Are you still in UK? It’s good to read your updates on Twitter. Hope you and yr family are well over there.

    (Since you’ve forgotten me, your visitor to your blog, I’m a Puan. Tkz)


    • #4 by darahtuah on July 28, 2009 - 7:39 pm

      W’lam Puan Sujini,

      Maaf, saya tak berapa pasti tempoh hari. T/kasih atas ingatan ini dan membaca apa yang saya nukilkan.


  3. #5 by Adam on July 31, 2009 - 8:12 pm

    I’m so glad to know of another person keen on the comedy series “Yes Minister” and its sequel “Yes, Prime Minister”.

    I certainly second the motion to have them re-aired in this country. I watched them both in UK and in Malaysia. But for some reaons, I missed quite a few episodes.

    A lot can be learnt from the series. No wonder Margaret Thatcher liked them. If only the young man who somehow managed to become Ketua Pemuda UMNO had watched them, he would not have announced wanting to be PM by 40. They made a lot of jokes on the expressed and unexpressed intentions of politicians there.

    Alas, those liking that kind of humour may be a dying breed in this country. The BM language stream in schools many years back has produced Malaysians lacking in English proficiency. The kinds of problems emerging in the country in the last 5-10 years have, it seems to me, produced Malaysians lacking in humour.

    I hope things would change soon but I haven’t seen light at the end of the tunnel.


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