A mass (or mess) of ministers | Selangor Times
Issue 118


A mass (or mess) of ministers
Writer: REFSA
Published: Fri, 08 Feb 2013

It is the duty of the government of Malaysia to enact policies and deliver the public goods and services that are necessary for the well-being and advancement of our country.  To do this, the government leads via its Cabinet of ministers. The ministers in the  Cabinet decide on appropriate policies and measures which reflect the wishes of the people, and direct the civil service accordingly.  

Hence, efficient decision-making among the ministers who make up the Cabinet is crucial for successful administration by the government.  Efficient decision-making requires balancing the competing goals of a small group size and diversity.  Smaller Cabinets would find it easier to reach a consensus, but Cabinets also have to be large enough to represent a wide range of constituencies. 

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration currently comprises 30 ministers and 38 deputies. So many ministers and deputies cannot interact effectively; and if they cannot interact and communicate, they cannot properly represent their stakeholders. At its current size, our Cabinet is neither efficient nor representative. 

A mess of Ministers and their Deputies

Effective administration of our country is hampered by:  

1. Lack of communication and overlaps between ministries; and

2. The bizarre allocation of responsibilities with some ministries being given roles in which they have no natural expertise.

The most recent example of a breakdown in intra-Cabinet communication is the AES (Automated Enforcement System) fiasco. The Ministry of Transport privatised the installation of a system whereby speeding motorists are captured on speed trap cameras and automatically issued summonses.

However, after the system had been installed, the police, who are under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs, said they would continue to run their own speed trap operations, which might be located near the AES cameras. The likelihood is that errant motorists will be double-booked for the same offence.

Subsequently, the Attorney-General’s chambers in December decided to halt prosecutions of traffic offenders caught under the AES pending a study on the legal issues. 

The shambles created in government over such a simple matter is shocking and could have been avoided. It shows that our 68 ministers and deputy ministers have retreated to their respective silos and do not even coordinate on basic matters. Speed traps have always been under the purview of the police. And yet, no one at the Ministry of Transport was sensible enough to consult with the police when it was developing the AES. Just as shocking is the fact that no one at the Ministry of Transport thought of involving the Attorney-General’s chambers in this matter even though its implementation involves court cases against citizens. 

Also of note is that in Malaysia, there exist positions for 6 ministers in the Prime Minister’s Department (and another 4 deputy ministers) resulting in a cabinet within a cabinet of sorts. In comparison, there is only one Minister without Portfolio in the UK Cabinet, and her role is well defined and essential in the context of the current coalition government there.

Less is more - 16 Ministries should be sufficient

Researchers at the Medical University of Vienna in a 2008 study found evidence that performance of governments declines at larger sizes. For example, Iceland, the world’s most developed country then, had just 12 Cabinet members; the United States, ranked 12th, had 17. At the other end, Myanmar and the Ivory Coast, with 35-strong cabinets, ranked 132nd and 166th.

What is the optimum number to balance efficiency and representation in a Cabinet? It has been suggested that about 20 is the maximum efficient size. We concur, based on our study of four Commonwealth countries - Australia, India, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. 

We use the Pakatan Rakyat-devised framework which divides the administration into seven broad areas to facilitate understanding of our current convoluted Cabinet. The seven areas are:

1.National & International Affairs

2.Economics & Finance


4.Education, Talent & Employment

5.Agriculture and Regional Development

6.Infrastructure, Resource Management & Environment

7.Community Well-being

We suggest that our corpulent Cabinet of 25 ministries, 30 ministers and 38 deputy ministers be trimmed to a svelte 16 ministries, 18 ministers and no deputy ministers, as shown in the infographic spanning the next 3 pages.

Streamlining should be gradual

The streamlining can be conducted gradually rather than suddenly. Instead of entire ministries immediately being scrapped or merged, the existing ministries are retained, but with some ministers holding multiple ministries that will ultimately be merged.

For example, one minister can head the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities, Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry and Ministry of Rural Development. Ultimately, within say 18-months, these three ministries will be integrated into one Ministry of Agro Industries and Rural Development. This practice of one minister holding multiple portfolios is not unusual. Australia averages about 2 ministers for every 3 ministries whereas the UK average is 5 ministers for every 6 ministries. 

This process must also include streamlining the allocation of authority and responsibilities across ministries. The current bizarre allocation must be tidied up and responsibilities delegated based on expertise. For example, the Ministry of Finance should get out of licensing contractors and operating public transport services; the Prime Minister’s Department should hand SPAD, the Land Transport Authority, back to the Ministry of Transport; and the Ministry of Housing should have no dealings with money lenders and pawn shops. 

New realities and inter-linkages must be recognised

The streamlining of the Cabinet is also a golden opportunity to reshape our government administration to meet the new economic realities and challenges of today. 

For example, consider Human Resources and Higher Education, which are presently two separate ministries.  A key purpose of education must be to equip Malaysians with the necessary skills and training to be productive citizens. In this respect, we must recognise the reality that the majority of our workforce will not be graduates. To this end, higher education must also embrace skills and vocational training to match our human resources with jobs available.  Therefore, it would be sensible to suggest that the Human Resources and Higher Education Ministries be streamlined into one Ministry of Tertiary Education, Skills and Talent. 

Another area concerns our international competitiveness as a nation. Protecting and subsidising inefficient domestic industries will become increasingly difficult as the world pushes towards freer trade and our own national resources become scarcer. In this respect, a Ministry of Trade and Competitiveness that combines the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism would better serve our national interests. This merged ministry can help our domestic players be competitive regionally and globally, to help us achieve sustainable high-income status. 

Cabinet Committees need streamlining too

In a clear example of Parkinson’s Law -  work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion - the 68 ministers and deputy ministers spend a great deal of time in committees. There are currently so many committees covering such a wide range of issues that even Najib himself cannot keep track of the exact number. His personal website says he chairs “more than 28 Cabinet Committees”.

Deputy Education Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong believes Malaysia has “too many Cabinet committees”. “There are so many I cannot count,” he said, and he was referring to only those committees headed by the Deputy Prime Minister!

Besides streamlining the Cabinet itself, managing the complexities of government must also be addressed. This can be achieved with the formation of proper Cabinet Committees with clear mandates and sufficient resources and staffing, as opposed to the current ad-hoc scenario. For example, we might have an Economic Affairs (Infrastructure) Committee to consider issues relating to infrastructure. This Cabinet Committee might include the Ministry of Trade and Competitiveness, the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources & the Environment, the Ministry of Agro Industries and Rural Development, Ministry of Transport, Housing & Local Government, Ministry of Works and Ministry of Women, which would make a total of 8 members. 

A detailed exposition of Cabinet Committees is beyond the scope of this paper, but we would suggest further reading of related subject matter, such as Guide to Cabinet and Cabinet Committees, available at www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

Shrinking the Cabinet is not unheard of …

Streamlining and remodeling is normal in any organisation, even government. For example, the UK Cabinet has grown and shrunk, and grown and shrunk again over the years. The celebrated Parkinson found that from 1257 to 1955, an initially small council would steadily increase in size until it reached a size beyond 20, then it was superseded by a new smaller council that would again grow and be curtailed. The British Cabinet went through this cycle 5 times over that 700-year period. 

Parkinson also researched the cabinet sizes of his time and found that cabinets larger than 21 existed only in authoritarian countries. He concludes that it is critical for cabinets to have memberships below 21 for efficient decision-making (the ’Coefficient of Inefficiency’). His explanation for this is that the influence of individual members decreases as group size increases. This is not only because there are simply too many members, but also because the group is more likely to dissociate into separate subgroups. The less influence a member exerts, the more easily new members are admitted which, in turn, decreases their influence further.

A more recent example of streamlining is in Australia, which had 27 Cabinet Ministers in 2008 at the time of the Medical University of Vienna study cited earlier. However, that has now been shrunk to 22 under Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

… and the resources can be better used by Parliament 

Streamlining the Cabinet will also free up resources that can be used to govern our country more effectively. For a start, some of the ministerial talent and civil service resources presently tripping over each other in the bloated Cabinet can be allocated to authoritative Cabinet Committees. These Cabinet Committees will need talented coordinators and skilled civil servants to be effective.

Just as importantly, resources can be reallocated to Parliament to facilitate its restoration to its rightful preeminent role as the supreme legal authority of Malaysia, keeping tabs on the Cabinet and administration. 

In our system of Westminster-style democracy, it is the role of Parliament to provide the vital checks and balances to the government administration.  The final Focus Papers in this series shall suggest how the resources released from the streamlined Ministries can be allocated to more effective uses by Parliament. 


This Focus Paper draws heavily from the report A Comparative Study of Cabinet Structures and Parliamentary Oversight across Australia, India, the UK and Malaysia, commissioned by REFSA and undertaken and completed by Marie Tan Kiak Li on 6 Feb 2011. The study is available for free download at www.refsa.org.

Refsa is currently headed by executive director Teh Chi-Chang who holds a first class degree in Accounting & Financial Analysis from the University of Warwick, an MBA from the University of Cambridge and the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) charter. Prior to joining REFSA, he headed highly-regarded investment research teams covering Malaysia, and was himself highly-ranked as an analyst. He can be reached at chichang@refsa.org.

Help REFSA do more! 

REFSA - Research for Social Advancement - is an independent, not-for-profit research institute providing relevant and reliable information and analyses on social, economic and political issues affecting Malaysians with the aim of promoting open and constructive discussions that result in effective policies to address those issues. 

Do sign up for their mailing list via www.refsa.org and follow them on Facebook and Twitter @inforefsa.

REFSA depends primarily on donations to fund its operations. Research such as this consumes much time, expertise and effort. Please contribute if you share our vision for a better Malaysia and support our commitment to constructive analysis. Donations can be:

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 Selangor Times



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