Wednesday July 4, 2012
Sidek, unusual but most effective
By P. GUNASEGARAM
The former top civil servant can be expected to bring his own brand of overseeing to Petronas.
HE talks in riddles and parables sometimes and his message is difficult to get without some thought and even then you are not sure whether you have got the right message.
He likes to pepper his speeches with stories, sometimes about movies, he fleshes out his content and then he returns to his story and makes his conclusion with a flourish. He is a bit of an enigma and you never quite know what he is thinking.
Perhaps, Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan, retired Chief Secretary to the Government in that respect was your archetypal top civil servant – shrewd, savvy and more than a bit inscrutable but in his own way knows what he is doing.
But that’s as far as similarity goes for he was in many other ways a different kind of civil servant, one who stayed above the fray, forced his colleagues and subordinates to do better, and often took matters into his own hands to get the civil service to be simply more efficient.
An example is that his e-mail address is given out to all and he promises quick action to all complaints. Sometimes, all you have to do is just copy your e-mail to him when you have a complaint against a government department and you can be sure of getting a response pretty fast, often within 48 hours.
Such rapid response was unheard of before Sidek’s time and Sidek himself was fond of saying that if you don’t get paid in time for government contracts, all you had to do was e-mail him. Many did and found out it actually worked.
I first met Sidek when he was secretary-general of the powerful Trade and Industry Ministry or Miti in the mid-2000s. His boss at that time Datuk Seri (now Tan Sri) Rafidah Aziz was getting a lot of flak over the issue of approved permits for cars. Together with some colleagues we were there to interview her.
But when we went there, we were told that she was indisposed and we were to interview him instead. And so began one of the most awkward interviews in my life with Sidek clearly not able to answer many questions satisfactorily simply because he was not the minister.
He never let me forget about that interview when I met him many times later after he became Chief Secretary but I was never quite sure how much he was upset by it and whether he indeed was upset by it and he just accepted it as part of his job as a civil servant. He clearly bore no grudge though.
But the distinct impression I got from him was that sometimes it is not possible to tell the whole truth and the whole truth may not be that palatable.
I understood that civil servants had to work under onerous conditions from their political masters without that ever being communicated to me by him.
He retired recently from the top civil service post where he headed a heady 1.4 million civil servants and tried his best to make them give their best to the Government, the country and the people, something which did not always endear him to many civil servants.
Because of his uncompromising moves to be firm with civil servants, his insistence on promoting those who were good even if it was politically incorrect and his reluctance to play ball with the “pressure politicians” – those who like to lobby for certain interest groups and demand favours – he became a target for criticism on the Net.
But clearly all that cut no ice with the powers that be. His contract was extended several times. And now he moves to a very important position, that of chairman of national oil corporation Petronas, the repository and guardian of our immense oil wealth.
With his appointment, the clear distinction and demarcation between the chairman of the board and the chief executive has been restored.
This will result in a more heightened sense of corporate governance, something that Petronas itself granted in its announcement.
Sidek would no doubt take his new role at Petronas as seriously as he did his previous position as top civil servant. While he is likely to be no less exacting and demanding of performance of senior management, he may have to change tack a bit because of the different nature and role of Petronas.
Petronas is a very important revenue source for the Government and it is by far the largest and most profitable company in Malaysia and one of the most profitable in the world simply because it is the custodian of the nation’s oil and gas wealth.
It has an enormous responsibility to ensure that this task is done honestly, efficiently, in the best interests of the nation, and in a transparent manner with full accountability to all Malaysians.
In future that will call for greater communication and lifting of at least some of the veils of secrecy over its operations because the best guarantee of accountability is transparency which will ensure that operations are at all times above board.
Sidek will no doubt bring his own inimitable but strangely effective style to bear upon Petronas too. It will be interesting to see how he does that.
> Independent writer and consultant P. Gunasegaram admires honest and efficient civil servants.