By OOI KEE BENG
Recently, former trade minister Rafidah Aziz entertained Malaysia with her comment that the idea that Malaysians like to working in silos was not really accurate since silos are places huge enough for significant things to happen. Chimneys, she thinks, is a better description of the country’s professional preference to keep things opaque and disconnected.
Synergy, for all its proven efficacy, is not a virtue in this part of the world.
No doubt, she was being in character, joking sarcastically—and effectively. One could continue the joke and say chimneys are also too generous a metaphor. Perhaps a drinking straw is a more illustrative image.
But the point is well taken, and it is that when meritocratic standards go out the window, there is a lot to hide, and at all levels. Now, I have some hesitation about how far one should go with meritocratic thinking, mainly because merits are hard to measure and vary from industry to industry, and an employer must always consider an employee’s developmental potential as much as his paper track record; but dismissing merit as a key measure of ability is to undermine whatever system one is building.
One should at this point ponder over what criteria there can be which can be used to disqualify merit as a key factor in employment. It becomes immediately obvious that the issue is a complicated one. Much depends on the management’s goals—short, medium or long term. So, it is difficult to decide when some employment policy is faulty or when a specific employment is biased.
But of course, commonly held biases in Malaysian society are easily listed, and range from gender to religion to race, as well as class-related ones such as school or club affiliation or cultural or age proximity. What marks out Malaysia are the biases stated in the Constitution concerning race and religion. Strangely, one could argue that the Second Malaysia Plan, in its commendable attempt to deconstruct plural society economics, if it had not been hijacked, would have diminished race biases in the professions. But instead, race is now often the elephant in the room, at least when it is not trumpeting its authority.
What we should really be worrying about is whether the employer with clear purpose shuns merit as the criterion for employment. Public tolerance and condoning of such conscious bias is where the problem lies, and when this is informed and supported institutionally, principally and legislatively, as it is in Malaysia, a downward spiral into defensive incompetence comes into play. This is in fact the real punchline in Rafidah’s joke. Except that it is not funny at all since it highlights an insidious rot that affects increasingly large segments of Malaysian society, and bears down on the developmental trajectory of the nation as a whole. We have to cry at the joke.
So, how does this downward spiral of incompetence work? What are its relentless dynamics? How can it be reversed? And is that even possible? Indeed, there is material here for many PhD theses. Studying this matter should be a priority for local universities, if they themselves were not caught up in this sad spiral as well. Hopefully, there are system analysts, political scientists or socio-anthropologists left somewhere in the academic dungeons who are creative, courageous and critical enough to research this further.
In this short article, let it suffice that I list some structural phenomena that set in once the renouncing of meritocracy has become the norm.
First, an incompetent boss will do his best to avoid employing anyone who will make him look incompetent. Having reached his level of incompetence, he is prone to surround himself with underlings who cannot challenge him. This provides the logic for the spiral downward. Once that structure gets going, the competent will also keep away and look for other possibilities elsewhere.
A work place filled with employees who feel less-than-competent is not free of intrigues either, and is prone to serious office politics. Petty territorialism is bound to set in; in other words, silos within silos start to form—the constant shrinkage that gradually creates the “chimneys” that Rafidah refers to.
Aside from such internal machinations, keeping prying eyes from looking in becomes necessary. That is the second dynamic at play—the vital maintenance of non-transparency and of secrecy, and of weak documentation. Keeping information flows weak through delays and bureaucratic language becomes a necessary defence, for hiding both sub-par achievements and structural inadequacies.
This connects to the third dynamic: the exponentiation of bureaucratic procedures to side-track, sidestep and side-line projects, and to hide the ever-growing lack of technical and practical knowledge. This internal lack of technical expertise leads to the happy and relieved embrace of privatisation in the case of the civil service, and in general to the outsourcing of projects and functions, up to and including the planning of projects and the formulation of vision statements
To conclude, working in silos—living in silos is really the point—is a low-level defensive mechanism that undermines all serious nation-building attempts that seek to unify, to synergize and to inspire. It is a conservative attitude grown from disappointment on one hand, and unearned privilege on the other.
Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute, and is affiliated to ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Jeffrey Cheah Institute for Southeast Asia, and Taylor’s University. His recent books include “As Empires Fell: The Life and Times of H.S. Lee, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS 2020).