'Teamwork among staff essential'

Syed Umar Ariff and Nuradzimah Daim

In the final part of an interview with Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abd Kadir, he shares with Syed Umar Ariff and Nuradzimah Daim about how camaraderie plays a large role in the success of his ‘permukiman’ programme

Question: When you became menteri besar, what were the glaring problems you saw?

Answer: One of the things I did during the first part of my administration was asking what went wrong. We have to keep questioning ourselves rather than being complacent with everything. There is a need to question when something is not right to trigger a solution.

We (my staff members and I) have been working closely. We work in an open atmosphere so that my staff and officials can give me feedback. Of course, one can’t simply whack the government — that is not right. Because our role here is to find a solution, we have to allow people to speak up to find a solution.

Take the issue of land processing or ownership transfer, for instance. Sometimes, it requires more than a year to get it done. Logically, the process can be done in one or two days. Of course, it was a shock therapy when I first posed this question to many of them (Zambry’s staff).

I told them nothing was impossible. Instead of revolutionising everything and pushing them into a corner, what we did was we tried to understand them.

They are the implementers and are working within the standard operating procedures. The files are on their tables, and they work on them according to turns.

So, instead of blaming them, I asked them if it was possible to speed up the process (on land ownership transfers). Can we shorten the process to less than six months? They said yes, it was possible. After a few months (of reaching the target duration), I asked them if it was possible to do it in three months, and again, they said yes.

Now, it can be done in a day.

Q: Was it difficult to change the mindset of the implementers?

A: It is very challenging, but we cannot stop the process of engagement. The problem previously was that everyone operate within his territory. They seemed to have their own fiefdom. When I came in, I wanted everybody to be a part of (the bigger team) and instilled the spirit of teamwork. I wanted to make it more integrated. You can see their level of engagement with me now. They don’t feel the distance.

One of the important aspects is to break the wall that separates a person and his staff. That was what I did. During dinner yesterday (last Friday), they felt at ease without hinges of protocol. They held me and took selfies with me. The line has been blurred and also, I must say, erased.

As you know, it’s very difficult for (those) in civil service because they have been trained to follow protocol. I inculcate the spirit of respect. You respect me and I, as your boss, also respect you. At the same time, we work as a team.

You can see that whenever they are asked to do something; I will be a part of that. For example, when I go to the ground to collect rubbish, I was a part of them. We feel so emotionally attached (in the context of camaraderie in teamwork).

Q: You were speaking to the people in Changkat Lada on toilet cleanliness. It seems that you want to touch on everything right from the biggest things to often overlooked topics.

A: Yes, on the cleanliness of toilets, for instance, I have reiterated that if we want to build or develop something that moves us forward, we need to begin with something we usually take for granted, which is hygiene.

I am a student of comparative history, so I can safely say that if you look at the advancement of prominent civilisations, it began with (the practice of) cleanliness.

You do not have to go far. Just look at how (the late Singaporean) Lee Kuan Yew changed Singapore. Read his book. We look at the positive examples. We look to Japan and the West. And we often say that Islam began as a religion that places utmost importance on hygiene.

Q: What have you achieved in changing the mindset of the grassroots?

A: I do not have any specific measure to gauge how much I have influenced the people. But, from my observation, there are changes. People are beginning to realise the need to practise cleanliness (for example). At least, whenever they know the menteri besar is coming to visit, people will get busy (sprucing up their town or areas). They know that the menteri besar will visit the public toilets, hit the streets and look at how clean their towns or villages are.

I have been doing spot checks for some time. It is not a once-a-month practice. Sometimes I do it every week, or twice a week. Whenever my chauffeur drives me around, I tell him to stop by the roadside (to check on something).

We have to listen to the voices of the people from various sources, including newspapers and social media. We also have people calling and texting us as well.

Sometimes, I would come unannounced and call the relevant authorities or municipal councils to solve the problems. We can’t wait for too long, especially in managing garbage or waste. We have to be quick.

Q: Some people suggested a more stringent enforcement in addressing issues relating to cleanliness.

A: Exactly. You need to have levels of engagements. Between the stick and the carrot, what is the best approach? But, I believe in being educative, rather than punitive. It all depends on how or where such a policy is being implemented. The best way is to create civic-mindedness but that has to start from childhood.

Q: Some observers could not correlate well between the number of people attending the “permukiman” programme and its impact.

A: We should not misunderstand the concept of turun padang. I don’t focus on large gatherings. I do not gather them (to come and see me). Otherwise, we will have people coming in buses. That would have been cosmetic (on presenting the success of the programme).

I go to the ground and meet the people. In Parit, for instance, there were 130 programmes. Every place we went, there were at least 100 people. There was a total of 10,000 people. That is real. Let us go to them, not the other way round.

Q: There were also people-centric issues during the previous administration. Have you managed to solve them?

A: Yes, we have solved most of them. Some of the issues are political in nature. The real issues on the ground, which involve the people, yes, we have solved most of them. Except for issues that are being politicised by the opposition. That is something we can’t stop. They will continue to do so.

For example, they have been playing up issues on the Menteri Besar Incorporated (MB Inc), or Perak supposedly being the poorest state, whereas they know for a fact that MB Inc has been revived not for me, but for the people. But, they have been trying to influence the people by telling them lies that MB Inc belongs to the menteri besar.

Q: Do these issues played up by the opposition work? Were there people who raised them during the “permukiman” programme?

A: No, because I have been explaining to the people. But, the opposition will keep trying since they don’t have anything to debate on. They will continue to politicise and play up issues like MB Inc.

Whenever I attend a “permukiman” programme, they will talk about big projects, some by the private sector, that have yet to materialise. If anybody (at the state assembly) asks, I will answer them.

Q: Are you satisfied with the improvement in your administration since you took office?

A: I do not want to say that I am dissatisfied, as that will give the wrong impression to officials. Because as far as I am concerned, they are working very hard with me. I believe in continuous improvement or kaizen, because today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today.