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My PERDANA Fellowship Experience, and How I Learned to Feel Malaysian

by Samuel Goh
I wish I could tell you that the reason I joined the PERDANA Fellowship programme last summer
was out of a longing to know more about our government, to discover the problems that we need to
fix, and to figure out a way to piece together Malaysia s future. But that all wont be true: I joined
the programme because I had a four month summer, and I didnt want to just stay at home on
Steam all day and grow fat on a diet of chips and coke.
The PERDANA Fellowship is a internship programme organised by the Ministry of Youth and
Sports; PERDANA Fellows, as we are called, get the opportunity to follow any minister of our
choice currently in the Malaysian Cabinet. Its an opportunity to learn more about how the
government and economy works; understand the public policy crafting process; and rub shoulders
with political elites that can open doors for you. All the things that, at the time, I really had no
interest in. I had already etched my life out - to become a hot shot neurosurgeon working in New
York City (Im a big Friends fan). An internship in the Malaysian government wasnt something that
was going to advance that goal, and it was very far away from what I was comfortable with. But I
signed up, thinking that I didnt really stand a chance. I decided to apply to shadow the Ministry of
Health, hoping that was something I could relate to as a medical student. After a short essay, and
a phone interview, I unexpectedly got a place. Then I started worrying.
On day one, they asked me a simple question, What do you aim to do here? That was a difficult
question to answer, because honestly I thought I was supposed to just show up and follow orders. I
knew nothing about doing office work, policy writing, or even how to use a photocopier; my
knowledge of government was only that it was inefficient and slow; and my command of Bahasa
Malaysia had become rusty from years being spent in the UK. I could tell you the symptoms of
heart failure, or the names of all the muscles in the forearm, but knowledge like that had no place
here. So I said very honestly, I wanted to understand how the government works. It was a vague
answer, but an honest one. The secretary said fine, and told me that I could spend the next six
weeks following different departments within the Ministry of Health.
And thats what I did; I would spend 2 or 3 days in each department in the Ministry of Health
meeting with department heads, learning about different projects they were working on, and
understanding what their roles were in the entire master plan for the countrys healthcare. At the
same time, I followed the Minister of Health to various events that he attended. This included the
opening ceremony of Shah Alam Hospital, nomination of doctors into the Academy of Medicine of
Malaysia, various open houses with important politicians and people, and high level policy design
meetings. One of my most memorable experiences was attending a meeting between several
Ministers and the Harvard School of Public Health, where they discussed the future direction of
Malaysian healthcare and what can be done to meet changing needs. High level discussions that
were going to affect the whole of Malaysia, happening before my very eyes - I have to admit that
was really cool. I should emphasise that this was my experience, because I made it my experience.
Other Fellows in my same year did different things, such as speech writing for the Minister, taking

minutes, writing policy papers, and eventually going on to earning jobs in their respective
ministries.
To be frank, you can probably guess the true purpose of this Fellowship. The government realises it
has a problem connecting to the younger generation, and this is a way to get us interested in
government work - and maybe eventually - on their side. I was fully prepared to be bombarded with
nationalism and loyalty speeches reminiscent of a Pendidikan Moral class. But surprisingly I didnt
see much of that - I simply saw people doing their job. Some would voice their patriotism, but at the
same time I heard plenty of cynicism too. Most of the time though, I met nice people who would just
talk about their lives and joke around - with much less political talk than my usual family table. We
saw how government worked from inside and out. From the Minister of Health setting agendas
across entire departments for months to come, to doctors and nurses at each hospital meeting
patients one by one. From the neurotic writer working late hours to finish her speech for the
Minister, to the slack office boy who had nothing to do because there were too many people in his
department. From the flag waving PR head who had a poster of the Prime Minister on her wall, to
the cynical reporter in the far corner that would snicker at each mention of 1MDB. We met people
of all religions, races, backgrounds, political affiliations,and states of Malaysia. I shook hands with
the well known, the powerful, and the everyday man that was just there to do his or her job.
I saw a government that was large, bloated, inefficient - but ultimately a government that was
genuinely trying to do its job. Providing free healthcare to 28 million people is not an easy task, but
nevertheless the people of the Ministry of Health are doing their best. I think its important to
remember that for all the political scandals that we hear about from the political elite, there are a
thousand other anonymous people who, behind, close doors, are actually running the country.
These were public servants, and they are the true unsung heroes.
There are many areas in which our government fails. Policies are poorly executed. There are
sometimes too many workers, leading to redundancies and inefficiencies. And there is the problem
of public perception. We dont trust our government to do what is right. Many of us think the system
is rigged and decide to flock to oversea countries to pursue our dreams instead. But in those six
weeks, I also saw a chance for a better future. In the same year, there were about 84 other
PERDANA Fellows who were shadowing other ministries within the government. These were some
of the brightest minds that I have ever met in my life, and something was unusual about them.
Instead of hearing the usual bemoaning of Malaysia that I usually get from people of my age, I
heard them talk about something else - hope. Hope for a better Malaysian future, built on ideals of
freedom of speech, religion, and constructive discussion about national issues. These were people
who saw problems with the system, but instead of complaining about it, they wanted to fix it.
Do you feel Malaysian? It says Malaysian on my birth certificate, but before this I didnt feel like
one. Having spent six weeks living in the inner hallways of government, surrounded by peers that
will one day be paving the way for Malaysias future - I felt more Malaysian that Ive ever had
before This is not to say that Ive given up my dreams of New York. Six weeks definitely is not
going to change my lifelong dream, and I doubt it would for you. But it made me start thinking about

my home country, which I thought I had long ago wrote off. It made me think of what I can do in the
future to help improve the state of Malaysian healthcare.
JFK said in his inauguration speech, Ask not what the country has done for you, ask what you
can do for your country. Its easy to feel resentment to a country that we believe hasnt done
anything for us. My short advice to you if youre thinking about applying: whether youre cynical
about Malaysia or not, it doesnt matter. This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot to see what our Malaysian
Government is really like - behind all the headlines, all the scandals, all the rumours. Find out what
its like to be a politician, to make policies, to design programs that will affect thousands. If that kind
of calling isnt for you, then its okay. Go back to thinking about your New York.
But if you find yourself interested in this huge, convoluted system, and think you can do something
about it, maybe nows the time to start asking yourself What can you do for your country?

Samuel Goh is a fourth year medical student currently studying in the University of Cambridge, UK.
He enjoys writing, playing guitar, and singing David Bowie in the shower. If youll like to ask him
more about his PERDANA experience, and some advice on application, add him on Twitter at
@sammygee1993 or email him at szfg2@cam.ac.uk.