by Gan Pei Ling / 7 December 2012 © Selangor Times
DATUK Mohammed Khusrin Munawi reported to work amidst fierce dispute between the federal and state government over his appointment as the state secretary on Jan 3, 2010.
Having served at district offices, local councils and the state secretariat extensively, the 56-year-old is well acquainted with the nuts and bolts of the Selangor civil service.
But the Menteri Besar and his executive council (Exco) had then opposed Khusrin’s appointment as it was done by the federal-led Public Service Commission (PSC) without consultation.
Almost two years down the road, Selangor Times spoke to Khusrin at his office on Nov 26 to find out how he has coped with the job thus far.
The father-of-four gives us a glimpse into his working life as the chief public servant in Selangor. He spoke candidly about the challenges he faces in tackling inefficiencies and corruption in a 25,000-strong state machinery.
Can you share with us what your main responsibilities are as a state secretary?
We have 41 standing committees chaired by exco members on various subjects in Selangor. My main task is to coordinate and make sure state officers implement policies and projects approved by the state and federal government according to procedures and the time given.
How many employees are under the state?
We have about 25,000 people working in state agencies, the 12 local councils, nine district and land offices, PKNS (Selangor State Development Corporation) and PKPS (Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation).
They all report to you?
What about other state-owned companies like KDEB (Kumpulan Darul Ehsan Bhd), SSIC (Selangor State Investment Centre Bhd) and such?
They report to the Menteri Besar but I’m also on their board of directors.
So what’s a day like for a state secretary?
I have meetings almost every day. Every Wednesday I have to attend the exco meeting and Thursday the MTES (Selangor Economic Action Council) meeting. So I only have three days in a week to meet with my officers, supervise, follow-up and make sure decisions made by the exco are implemented.
I have a post-exco meeting every Thursday morning to convey the exco’s decisions to the heads of department. Sometimes actions need to be taken immediately so we don’t wait for the minutes to act.
Every month I also have a meeting with all the district officers, local council presidents and mayors.
How is the exco meeting different from the MTES meeting?
The exco meeting on Wednesday is exclusive for exco members. We discuss papers prepared by state departments, UPEN (State Economic Planning Unit) on policies or district officers on land matters.
Issues that we cannot solve in exco meetings, we bring to MTES. We invite the stakeholders to MTES meeting. It’s more open. Let’s say we have a LRT (Light Rail Transit) project, we call the company to give a briefing, and the local council president, district officer and residents involved, whether they agree with the alignment and try to solve the problem.
We give an opportunity for everyone to air their views at MTES meetings before making any decision.
When we receive complaints from the public, MTES is where we bring the complainants and the state will listen to the communities’ grouses.
I see, right, I remember there were MTES meetings on the high tension cable projects in Rawang and Cheras?
Yes, we also call the state assemblypersons and members of Parliaments involved to voice their concerns.
Okay, what are the main challenges that you face in your job?
Compared to previous governments, it’s more challenging (for public servants now) because the current Menteri Besar wants everything to be transparent.
As Tan Sri (Khalid Ibrahim) often says, the public has a right to know what we do and Selangor is a developed state so most people know their rights. They want to know the reasons behind decisions made, not just by the state government but local governments as well.
And starting Jan 1, we will implement the FOI (Freedom of Information Enactment), so it will become even more challenging (for the public service). Most importantly we must always be transparent, we cannot hide things from the public.
There are still public complaints that the civil service is inefficient and unfriendly? What is being done to address this?
We have done a lot (to improve and streamline). For example, even though the federal government requires us to reimburse claims made within 14 days, in Selangor we have managed to shorten the period to three days. We process 80% of the claims from contractors or suppliers within three days. That’s our achievement in speeding up the public delivery system.
Also, previously it took weeks or months for the district and land office to approve the transfer of land titles, now if you want to sell your land you can get the approval within one day. Now operators of risk-free businesses (such as stationery and convenience stores) can get their licence within an hour of application.
Is this because the application process has been computerised?
Yes and we simplify the process by using checklists and make the process transparent. Now the public can also pay their quit rent and assessment tax through online banking or at post offices.
We are trying to improve the public delivery system, it’s an ongoing process.
But sometimes we still receive residents’ complaints that local or state authorities do not respond to their problems in time?
That I do not deny, there are still lower officers that procrastinate and delay the processes. We try our best to improve but public expectations are high and there is a lot that needs to be done.
We award departments or agencies that have provided the best services with RM25,000 cash grants to encourage them to continuously improve their delivery system. It’s up to the departmental chiefs whether they want to use the reward to organise a feast or trip for their staff.
What have you achieved over the past two years? Are you satisfied with your own performance?
There are many things still that I have to do, to say if I’m satisfied, I’m not. There are many things that still can be improved such as the speed we respond to complaints, procrastination and non-compliance of rules and regulations among civil servants.
I plan to go down to the ground to conduct spot checks next year because we have received complaints that our officers are not at the service counters. There have also been complaints that our officers are unfriendly and some rural villagers were scolded when they go to local or state departments.
The villagers came from afar because they have a problem they want us to solve, we shouldn’t add to their problems. This sort of incidents shouldn’t happen again. I was even told some were eating while serving the public. (Frowns) There is a code of ethics to how we should entertain the public. Our officers must always be ready to serve.
We are also trying to get Chinese and Indian officers to serve villagers that cannot speak Bahasa fluently. Public expectations are high so public servants cannot be complacent and laidback anymore.
If something cannot be done, we must train our officers to tell the truth. For example TOL (Temporary Occupation License) application on road or river reserve cannot be approved according to state policy. I have instructed our officers not to sell any plans and tell the applicants upfront such land applications will not be approved by the state. We have to explain nicely even if they were to get angry because that’s the state policy.
What about corruption complaints against the civil service? How serious do you view the problem and what steps are being taken to address it?
We still receive complaints about corruption but not many. We have a report from MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission) every two months. The amount of investigation cases and arrests have reduced over the years. Compared to the private sector, cases involving the public service are fewer.
It also helps that now we have a very clear policy of awarding contracts to the lowest bidder. No lobbying is allowed unlike last time. With low profit margin, contractors also cannot afford to give bribes.
Still, I view this problem seriously and we work closely with MACC in sand-mining operations and raids on massage parlours. We invite them to be part of the team (as observers).
Corruption is between the person who receives (the pay-off) and the person who bribes, so we hope the public can report to MACC.
What about local enforcement officers? Many graft allegations from the public implicate them.
It’s not easy to find evidence and catch them. We need proof. I think if we can simplify the work processes, with a checklist and very clear SOP (standard operating procedures), then few can manipulate it. If the process is complicated, then it may leave loopholes and room for corruption.
For instance, the problem with the enforcement process for illegal cybercafes is that the errant operators have bargaining power. They can appeal to the enforcement officer to reduce their fines according to the bylaws. That’s why we insist MACC officers to be on site during the raids because we don’t want the bargaining process to happen and open the doors for bribery. The enforcement officers must also go in one team instead of one, two persons. It’s harder to bribe an entire team.
It’s not just in local governments, any enforcement department must have clear SOP and close supervision of the subordinates to reduce opportunities for corruption. There will always be staff who try to exploit the loopholes.
Also, every civil servant has to declare his or her assets before accepting a job confirmation and promotion.
What if they choose not to declare or try to hide?
We can take disciplinary action against them if they failed to declare their assets. Last time it was hard to enforce this rule because we collect the information manually but now everything is in the computer system. If you sold your house or bought a new car, you have to update the system.
How is your relationship with the Menteri Besar and exco now?
I have no problem with the Menteri Besar or the exco members. There may be some negative perception in the beginning but it’s not that they don’t accept me but the way of appointment. The PSC appointed me without consulting the state government, that was the main issue. According to the state constitution, the state government should be consulted on the appointment of state secretary, legal adviser and financial officer.
As a government servant, I serve as a professional to the government of the day and make sure all state policies are implemented and followed by the state’s civil service. Politicians come and go. Regardless of the political parties in power, we as government servants must implement the policies as long as they are within the laws and regulations.
As a civil servant, do you face challenges dealing with politicians? For example, sometimes they may not understand SOP in the public service?
We had a few problems before. Previously some exco members made direct purchases without approval from the state treasury and exco. But we have explained to them we must adhere to treasury instructions.
We have a procedure. Before making a purchase, we must have a budget and approval from the exco or state financial officer. Let’s say we want to buy T-shirts for students, we cannot just walk into a shop and buy. We have to get at least give five quotations, compare the prices and buy from the supplier with the lowest price. The supplier must be licensed and registered with the Finance Ministry as well.
We need to get the state financial officer’s approval if we want to make direct purchases. They were new (to being in the government) so some of them didn’t understand but now they are okay.
If we failed to adhere to the procedures, the MACC and auditor-general will be after the civil servants, not the politicians. They come and go. We will be held answerable because we are the ones who sign the cheques and purchase orders.
Even the allocations for state lawmakers, we have guidelines on what and how it can be spent. We have to tell them when they fail to follow the guidelines.
So far the assemblypersons have been compliant?
Yes, they also do not want the MACC or auditors to investigate them right?
Any message you want to add to the public?
I still receive many complaints from the public about our officers but I hope they can remain polite when communicating their grouses.
For example, I’m receiving more than 10 emails a day from a complainant hurling personal insults at the Petaling Jaya mayor for the traffic congestion problem at Kelana Idaman. There are already plans to widen the road but the project will take some time to implement, to acquire the land and get the allocation for the construction.
Some members of the public refuse to understand even after we have explained. We have our limitations too, we are not Aladdin. It’s demoralising when receive personal insults like these.
We are here to serve and we will try our best to resolve your problems but please be polite.