Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

The Carrot and the Stick

Written by johnleemk on 8:20:48 am Sep 20, 2006.

The notion of using carrots and sticks as incentives to reinforce or suppress particular behaviour is probably a notion as old as mankind itself. Recently, there's been talk of providing more carrots to police officers in Malaysia so as to reward them for their hard work. The problem here is that we've been looking at the small picture instead of the big portrait as a whole. Malaysia suffers from an overwhelmingly imbalanced distribution of carrots and sticks.

Under the present situation, we see a large number of carrots being handed out to a small number of special interests. These include government contractors, cronies of present high-ranking officials, and other assorted "towering" Malaysians.

The carrots handed out take a variety of different forms. "Education" is one carrot - notice how the government promises universities to opposition stronghold states whenever it is election time. Transfer payments disguised as valid pecuniary compensation is another form carrots may take. The disguise can be anything from approved permits for importing vehicles - permits are awarded to a crony with no competence in the industry whatsoever, who then hooks up with a real automotive company and uses his permits to import cars for said company while making a huge profit - to government contracts - the government awards a contract to a company without any real expertise, whereupon the company subcontracts the deal to another company and thereby reaping the arbitrage (the difference between the money the government paid the original contractor, and the money the original contractor paid the subcontractor).

The obvious problem with these carrots is that they're not acting as an incentive for anything except further reliance on the government for more carrots. The government's intent was to create a class of entrepreneurs by granting these permits and contracts so these people would actually work instead of living off the dole. The problem is that they forgot to include any sticks to keep these people on the straight and narrow path. As a result, they've wandered off the path and into the rainforest of dependency on taxpayer money.

At the same time, the exact opposite has occurred with those who point out these problems. The government has a whopping huge array of sticks at its disposal here, and does not shrink from using them. Although one could probably name a lot more than a few who have been the target of these sticks' blows, perhaps the most obvious class of people one would look at is that of political dissidents.

Originally, our Constitution was supposed to check the power of the government (the executive branch, in particular) to do whatever it desired without consideration of others' views. However, since independence, successive Prime Ministers have been doing their utmost to insulate themselves from any checks or balances on their power. Parliament has always been an extension of the Prime Minister's Office - when was the last time they rejected a particular piece of legislation? Any MP who voted against the government's wishes would get the boot immediately. (See the stick?) Likewise, after the castration of the judiciary in 1988 by Mahathir (the stick again), what judge would defy the Prime Minister?

Not that it ever mattered much anyway. The government has been slowly insulating itself from judicial review, allowing it to beat dissidents with the stick harder than ever. Detentions under the Internal Security Act (ISA) are not open to judicial review; neither are classifications of documents as secret under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), just to cite two examples. As a result, we have seen information as critical to national security as the air pollution index censored simply because some smartass thought it would be wise to call it a secret. We have seen the detention under the ISA of people whose only crime was speaking up against the government and pointing out its unequal distribution of sticks and carrots.

To right our country's wrongs, the government needs to straighten our its priorities and balance the usage of sticks and carrots. Over and over, we hear the same old story of scholarship recipients who never fulfil their bonds or student debtors who never pay back the taxpayer monies used to fund their education, while worthy students who gain admission to prestigious universities do not see a single sen from the public coffers. The competent contractors are overlooked in favour of the incompetent, simply because the incompetent are of a different skin colour than the competent. When an opposition member points out that an important public servant has committed the serious crime of rape, who gets the stick? We all know how this story ends.

It is high time that we do something about the inequities we see in this country. The government needs more stringent sticks to back up the purpose of its carrots when it comes to government contracts, so the incompetent have an incentive to become competent. At the same time, the rule of law must prevail, so that those who have been wronged do not get a blow of the stick but instead see that justice is done.

And what of the oft overlooked civil servants? After all, the supposed plight of the police is what has triggered this debate over sticks and carrots. It does not take a Nobel Prize-winning economist to see that our civil servants are, by and large, overworked and underpaid. While the government has a surprising wealth of money to build new schools and highways, it can't seem to find the money to appropriately remunerate those who man these schools and highways. This is another carrot that must be distributed if Malaysia expects to achieve developed status by 2020. And likewise, it must have an accompanying stick to punish those who continue to give our public servants a bad name through bribery, extortion, and the like. A first world civil service does not get a third world salary - or demand third world bribes. And a first world country does not hand out sticks and carrots like a tinpot dictator. We must have a balance.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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