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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Farizan bin Darus (Part Two): Disruptions Await Society and the Civil Service

By Ooi Kee Beng, Penang Monthly: Penang profile, September 2021

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* Dato’ Seri Haji Farizan bin Darus

THIS IS PART Two of an interview Penang Monthly’s editor Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng had with Dato’ Seri Haji Farizan bin Darus on April 15, 2021. Farizan retired as State Secretary for Penang State in 2019, and is now CEO for the Penang Infrastructure Corporation. Here, he talks about the longerterm effects of Covid-19 – on people in general, and on the public service.

You were the State Secretary when Penang2030 was launched in August 2018 by Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow. The socialising of the vision and paradigm within the civil service was done under your watch, and you have always been very supportive of the whole initiative. Now when you have retired, what do you think of Penang’s future directions?

It has been three years since the launch, and the Chief Minister gave a review on Penang2030 last month. It is good that Penang Institute has completed the Happiness in Penang Index.

Yes, the final report will be out in September.

The latest I hear is the plan to highlight certain areas in the state for accelerated dynamic and digitally-powered growth, which the Chief Minister and the Penang State Government are supporting. The top priority is Creative Digital District in George Town, around Gat Lebuh China and the length of Lebuh Pantai, to be called CD2@George Town, or for short, CD2.

I do see that having a definite physical area, with special lighting like LED, and lampposts to mark it as special and vibrant can excite people. There is much the city council can contribute on that front. Business hours can be varied, parking rates, public transport, bicycle service, and so on. This can be a good way to stimulate creativity and entrepreneurship, aided by digital technologies and youthful energy.

As I understand it, Penang2030 is not about government initiatives only. It is also about the private sector, the government-linked organisations, and the young people who are looking for opportunities and who need encouragement in their endeavours. It is about people empowerment.

On the Seberang Perai side, one should look at some vibrant area. The problem there is that business areas can be too spread out. But since Seberang Perai has a masterplan in the works, the timing is right for a CD2 there.

The plans to turn the Middle Bank off the east coast of the Island into a marine conservation park is exciting as well.

These are things I feel that people in Penang can easily relate to.

Also, I think Penang2030, and the inclusiveness that it wishes to project, should be discussed at the secondary school level. The next 10 years will affect these young people the most, in how they think politically and how policymaking affects them. So they would be interested in what is being planned in their state. That is something the state should think about.

A Time of Opportunity

Dato’ Seri, what are your ideas with regard to the New Normal that Covid-19 might bring, and to how the civil service, for example, will be affected?

Yes, good question. When I think of the present policy of bringing the onsite workforce down to 30% (20% during the MCO that soon followed), while the rest “work from home”, I must wonder whether or not the 30% can actually do the work. If they can manage, then we have to look at the whole structure, and wonder what the remaining 70% have been doing.

If the 30% can’t manage, then maybe we should think of 50% being onsite for example. In any case, we have to calculate what percentage can actually be reduced from the civil service. I remember very well over the years how there were often policy discussions within the Federal Government about reducing the size of the civil service. In fact I said as much about that need in one of my speeches during a quarterly gathering of the State Civil Service.

We cannot progress if we do not make proper use of our labour force and our civil service spending. Also, throughout this long period, the civil service has not had pay cuts and drops in income, unlike those suffering in the private sector. It’s a good time to look into efficiency, and to restructuring, so that we get the most out of public money.

On the plus side, many now get new experiences in working with technology, with the internet, with their computers. Those new skills and the new interest this generates should be taken advantage of. Such exposure should lead to changes in how the civil service works in the near future. In any case, luckily, the young generation in the service is now much more savvy where the use of technology is concerned.

The question is, how far will the government invest in technology? We should no longer worry about office space the way we did before. And there will be more redundancy, that cannot be avoided.

Will this shift boost e-governance in Malaysia?

I think it will. The investment needed is not beyond our capability. It is how we plan that is important. Now, to go back to your team’s idea about CD2… we should dare to move ahead, get the infrastructure into place, and get the buy-in from as many agencies and corporations as possible.

How does our civil service compare to countries in the region, in the area of IT?

I am not that well versed about these countries. I read about them, but in Vietnam for example, the government invests but their education may not be at the right level yet. In Malaysia, that is also a concern. It’s generational, really. Our children are all learning to be IT savvy. But still, this matter should be a government priority. We don’t want to lose another generation, and everything else that goes along with it.

Furthermore, besides the public sector needing to be rationalised, and the changing mode of work, there will be social issues to manage. For example, will people meet less, and what are the long-term consequences of that?

In any case, a lot of “unnecessary” travel will be cut. So the transport system will be affected. We need to seriously think about that as well.

Then there is the inevitable coming of a cashless society… How prepared are we for this? In China, I hear that even beggars can go cashless. In Malaysia’s rural areas, especially, are they prepared for this? How do we prepare them for this?

One key goal we put into Penang2030 through the subsequent establishment of Digital Penang was the development of a digital community, of raising digital literacy among our people. It’s a necessary step. We have to overcome the deep fear of technology which is still prevalent.

Definitely. In banking for example, people don’t always feel safe. Much software development and more convincing advancements are still needed. We should not be nostalgic about how we used to do things.

The world is changing. In the public service, the lack of paper is still a problem. How we are to archive and document in an integrated manner is an important problem to solve. If this is not done, we will lose the historical contexts, and this will affect how we make decisions and how we serve the public.

My office pays for a fixed line telephone, but I don’t remember when I last took an external call on it. All calls go through my handphone; in fact, I text most of the time. But I do notice that although we can be more efficient now, we seem to have much more work to do. Private time and work time merge, all because of the advancement of technology.

There are major changes in the labour market as well. Foreign workers are feeling a stronger need to move back to their home countries, partly due to job shortages here and partly the weak Ringgit that they earn. It is not impossible that we will in the near future see our people moving to neighbouring countries to do the low-end jobs. That has in fact been the case with Singapore for a long time.

In the long run, this is not necessarily only negative. We do know that people who work overseas tend to learn from their exposure and become more successful, either where they moved to, or when they return home.

You know, we should carry out a study of how foreign workers who have worked in Malaysia fare back home. That would be interesting. One question I ask of our young people is, “Should they go out now as a choice, or should they go out later when they have no choice?” I believe that exposure is very necessary to success. Our civil service should encourage this, and develop procedures that allow their employees to be more exposed and more daring in their thinking. This is a good way for innovativeness to be injected back into the home institution.

Digital voting is another thing we should look into, and to develop. Once you come of age, you register and you vote according to certain standard procedures. That would make democracy more effective; imagine what we would save on travel, both by the voter and by the campaigner.

Participation would also shoot up.

We can start slowly; we can start with a regular online survey system, say, for the Penang State Government, or for individual state assemblymen. This would merely be a query on what the public thinks of the performance of the government; so no new legislation is needed for that. We must innovate and see what is easily possible. Transparency and efficiency in governance depend very much on our databases being reliable, accessible and integrated.

Yes, I agree. Dato’ Seri, I won’t take up more of your time. I have taken up two hours in your busy day. Thank you for sharing your ideas about the uncertain future we are all facing at the moment.

You are very welcome.

About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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