I’ll be honest here. Being a Perdana Fellow, whilst entirely rewarding, has put me in a very awkward position. For the cynic, there’s the typecasting of all Fellows as foot soldiers in the BN government’s charge to win over the youth. For the optimist, there’s an expectation that I’ve got this inside look into the inner workings of the highest levels of the Federal government. So you can imagine my trepidation whenever someone asks me what I did as a Perdana Fellow. This next paragraph is my, unfortunately, too well rehearsed answer to that question.
A brief disclaimer: in almost all cases, I’ve been asked specifically about my experience as a Fellow to the Prime Minister so my answers acknowledge both my experience as a Fellow and of working in the PM’s Office.
“Actually… I didn’t do much as a Fellow. I considered it paid leave by the end of it.” This is my awkward joke to feel the room.
If my joke goes well, the story continues, “Then again, to be fair, I did start about two weeks after that Cabinet reshuffle when Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was sacked, so I can’t blame the office for not having much for me to do. I mean if I were in the PMO at a time when allegations of leaked government secrets were flying around, I’d be suspicious of this first-year university student sitting my office for 6 weeks. Not to mention the fact that I’ve never painted myself as the biggest supporter of the government. But still ok lah, the PF Secretariat really helped me find some work to do and I ended up doing communications and media monitoring work, which is my interest anyway. Also, I met a lot of interesting people in my PF batch and made quite a few really good friends too.”
If asked about recommending the programme, I always say that the PF programme is worthwhile especially for anyone with an interest in public policy or politics. With that being said, go in with an open expectation about the work you get and make the most of any situation.
It all ties back to this distinction between being a Perdana Fellow and a Fellow to Minster XYZ. There’s a big difference between the experience you get as a Fellow and in your Minister’s office. In the PM’s Office, I mainly milled around aimlessly for 3 weeks before doing daily media monitoring and reports. As a Fellow, I attended sessions with different Minsters, got to make friends with people who were truly interested in policy-making and politics and just learn about how the different Ministries operate.
The distinction between individual political leanings, government bureaucracy and policy making is probably the one element that I feel anyone applying for the Fellowship needs to keep in mind. In my case, I chose to leave aside the first part and use my Fellowship to learn about the latter two. It’s also a good argument to use against those who label you a government sell-out. Working as a Fellow gives you the unique insight into government operations, which is useful regardless of which party forms Government.
In fact, I’d go so far as saying that these distinctions were my biggest takeaway for my Fellowship. Shadowing a Minister means working with their office. This, as my friends attached to the Home Ministry experienced first-hand, means that you move with your Minister as they move. As such, there’s an important distinction between the Minister’s office and the ministry itself. Within the Minister’s office, there’s also the tension between the roles of a Minister. While you may be tasked with shadowing them in their ministerial capacity, that does not mean that your tasks may also service their duties as MPs and as party politicians.
All in all, these distinctions and crossovers can become very messy. It also raises the question of whether all these boundaries are effective in ensuring the proper development and implementation of national policy. When I explored opportunities in the British Civil Service, one of the biggest points that was emphasised was the non-partisan nature of the Civil Service. In fact, I’ve spoken to individuals working in the British Civil Service whose policy work is almost independent of what the Ministers may believe. Yes, different parties take different positions but the core of the government still stays the same.
My Fellowship, showed me that the demarcation of roles between civil service and politics are in place. Yet, the tweaking of policy to serve partisan interests still do not seem to have been rid. Perhaps it’s something I’ll explore more of in my next column. At first glance, it may have something to do with the fact that we simply are not used to dynamic party politics in Malaysia or that there’s an expectation of partisan leanings that may or may not be unfairly enforced.
Before doing my Fellowship, I would have never considered these questions, which affect the very mechanics of how our government functions. I’d even hazard to say that most Malaysians wouldn’t consider these questions either. There’s a lot of bickering over which side is right and wrong and what politicians have done but unfortunately, I feel, we are lacking in people who talk about government without its political connotation.
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