Idris Jala is an outsider who became the ultimate insider.

He grew up in a longhouse in rural Borneo, part of one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak. His father instilled in him a “burning desire to win,” which saw him study in the UK and work in business for 23 years – rising through the ranks of Shell before turning around the country’s airline.

A figure without any political background, in 2009 he was brought into the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office and tasked to provide a fresh perspective.

“When you’ve been staying inside the house for a long time, you don’t see what’s wrong with it,” Jala explains. So he started PEMANDU (meaning “driver” in Malay), a delivery unit bringing private sector rigour to public service delivery.

Over the past five years, Jala has sliced through bureaucracy and ruthlessly focused on results. He can reel off statistics achieved, targets set, and new expectations – but it has been a big task.

Jala had to overhaul how government operates: busting silos, bringing business to the table, and constantly questioning progress. He sat down with GovInsider to discuss how he makes agencies deliver, and his views on the future for Malaysia.

Fresh perspective

When Jala joined government he spotted a lack of prioritisation. “In most governments of the world – not just Malaysia – they tend to want to do everything under the Sun. And if you want to do you everything under the Sun, you’ll probably end up being Mr. Average”.

To help Malaysia prioritise, PEMANDU surveyed citizens on their problems. It found six key points: corruption; crime; rural infrastructure; urban public transport; low-income households; and education.

These broad goals were given specific, measurable targets – which are published in two strategy documents: the Government Transformation Plan and the Economic Transformation Plan. All agencies are tasked with working on these, with annual progress updates published using red, yellow and green assessments for each task.

The Prime Minster measures his Ministers against these objectives, appraising them regularly. Meanwhile, PEMANDU holds a weekly meeting to run through its dashboard of data. For Malaysia, “it is a new way of working: monitoring on such a regular basis,” Jala says.

It sounds a more like a technology company than a traditional government agency, GovInsider says. Jala agrees; adding that he wants PEMANDU to inspire other agencies to modernise.

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Bringing in the private sector

He also observed that that agencies are far too siloed – excluding other departments and the private sector from their work. So he started using a technique he calls “labs”, which he first used at Shell. These labs pull all agencies and outside organisations together to work on a tough policy problem.

“The joke I had was that the lab is like Hotel California, you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave…you stay there for six weeks until you solve the problems,” he says. “It is very, very intense”.


“It is very, very intense”

For example, the government wants to attract more Chinese tourists, who seem to prefer going to Thailand. PEMANDU ran a lab series to discuss how to increase tourism revenues. “If you put AirAsia people in the room, Malaysia Airlines in the same room, you get the government people in the room, the hotels in the room, the immigration people in the room, the taxi drivers in the room… they figure out how to work together,” he says.

They discovered that tourists find it much easier to get a visa for Thailand – so they discussed a radical solution: eliminating visas altogether. “Immediately, you’ll get the tourists to come,” Jala says.

The problem is that security becomes harder to manage, and the Ministry of Home Affairs were worried about an influx of criminals. So a trade-off was agreed: trial the new approach for a year; monitor the data; and see whether the new approach is effective or has caused a spike in crime.

A second lab has trialled a new approach on street crime, which was rising every year. PEMANDU set out to cut this by 20% within one year. “In the beginning they said ‘you’re mad. It’s not possible’,” Jala says. When he pointed out that the US and UK had done so, officials responded that they had different rules.

Malaysian Police were bound to provide equal policing to all areas, rather than prioritising crime hotspots. Cutting policing in safer areas is politically risky, but the Prime Minister decided to trial the new approach. The result? The crime rate dropped by 25% in the first year.

A third lab cut cancer treatment waiting times from over four months to just three weeks. The hospitals argued that they needed more machines to provide faster treatment, but the officials pressed them on specifics. How often were the machines used? What were their working hours?

It turned out that the machines were only used during the day. A night shift wasn’t possible, they said, because there were too few staff to fill the extra time. Further examination showed that many of the staff spent much of their time on administration instead. So the labs found a solution: hire clerical workers to run the administration, and let the health workers dedicate all their time to patient treatment. A night shift was run and waiting lists were slashed.

Making big, fast results happen

Labs aren’t a one-time event, but part of a bigger process Jala calls “Big Fast Results”. It has eight clear steps, which are:

1. Setting a strategic direction
2. Running labs
3. Sharing output with external parties and getting their feedback
4. Creating a new plan
5. Setting Key Performance Indicators
6. Implementation
7. External audit of progress
8. Annual reporting to the general public

Malaysia is serious about pushing these changes through the bureaucracy. So when agencies don’t collaborate on a task, the Prime Minister holds something called a ‘Putrajaya Inquisition’. Agency chief executives are summoned to meet with the him personally and “it is almost like a naming and shaming,” Jala says. The process mostly works as a deterrent, he adds, with 60% of cases getting resolved before the meeting ever takes place.

Taking BFR abroad

Other governments have noticed PEMANDU’s success, and BFR is becoming a national export. For example, India’s government has partnered with it to run labs in the state of Andra Pradesh, focusing on improving retail and education.

Equally, the government of Tanzania has set up its own delivery unit based on PEMANDU. Twenty people from Malaysia are seconded to the unit, which is jointly funded by the British Government, the United States, the Swedish and the World Bank.

“In some areas, they run faster than us,” Jala says. In rural infrastructure, for example, “they delivered what it took us four years to do.” Delivery units can learn from one another, he believes, avoiding mistakes that others have made.

Looking ahead

PEMANDU is currently charting the way for Malaysia’s next phase of reform. The key, he says, it to build a culture of innovation and develoment.

“A large chunk of what we do in Malaysia is really about growing the market internally…we haven’t reached the level of South Korea, building our own Samsung,” Jala says “Post-2020 we have to learn how to innovate, to create products and services that can win in the international market”.

It’s crucial that Malaysians focus on outcomes, and stop making excuses when they encounter obstacles “When people say the ecosystem is not conducive, therefore I am not [succesful], that’s absolute rubbish. It’s an excuse. People who are innovative don’t look for excuses. They look for winning ways to make sure their products are better than the competitors,” Idris said.

He also believes that Malaysia should embrace the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). “Malaysia is a huge trading nation. Our total trade, imports and exports, is 151% of our GDP. If we try and create an autarchy and isolate ourselves and we now want to protect, we will never be able to make it beyond 2020.”

With the TPP there are now 11 other countries whose markets are open to Malaysia without any tariff. “It’s a tremendous opportunity, if Malaysians can come out and say: ‘Look, for goodness sake, the oil palm business today, we can enter the whole of US, the whole of Canada, without tariff. Our biggest competitor is Indonesia, they’re not part of the TPPA’. A wonderful opportunity, isn’t it?”

“Malaysia is a small country, we cannot continue to sustainably be a high income country and be rich for a long period of time if we just want to protect our own small market,” he warns. “So I think the future for Malaysia is to think beyond our shores. And get out of looking for excuses.”

Jala is certainly not prone to making them, with his ‘burning desire’ evident in this interview and his actions. He has less of an outsider’s perspective than when he first joined the government, but his desire to shake things up has not remotely weakened.