Friday 23 October 2009

The Civil Service - a Malaysian perspective.

The Civil Service assist the business of Government with the ruling party of the day. The Civil Service has in the past recruited its employees based on the principle of selection on merit and on the basis of fair and open competition. With the British the key element of the Civil Service is its political impartiality.  The Civil Service administrative impartiality in Malaysia has been brought into question by UMNO’s distinctive approach to Public Administration. We need to examine what is the nature and impact of political involvement by the political elites on the Civil Service of our country.

When we first got our independence the Politician makes the policy and the Civil Servant execute it. There was no corruption and everything was accountable and transparent. To buy a small item one must have a quotation. The more expensive item has to be tendered out and the development project was carried out by the JKR.

But things slowly began to change, as UMNO wanted a politically committed Civil Service because they perceived that Party allegiance is important to those who were going to implement their policies. UMNO embarked on a strategy to enhance their control over the Civil Servants to ensure bureaucratic compliance with their way of doing things e.g. the award of tenders to preferred contractors and cronies, divide and rule of the people based on race, selective prosecution of the opposition, a Police Force that will do their biddings etc etc.

The appointment of political appointees to “advise and to oversee’ the Civil Service and the appointments of preferred top civil servants by the politicians was done on the mistaken premise that this would energize a normally neutral Civil Service into a “Committed Bureaucracy!” Political influence over appointments in Public office – especially at senior levels – became more pronounced. This in turn resulted in the pervasiveness of patronage by these Civil Servants to the Politicians.

We should give thought to not only how these Senior Civil Servants were appointed but also in the manner of their leaving. Some are transferred laterally, some are put in cold storage and some will have their retirement postponed and their tenure extended on a contract basis at the pleasure of the Barisan Politicians/Ministers. All this is indicative of the politicization of the Civil Servants.

So what now defines the career of a civil servant – merit or political patronage? And what is the impact of these changes? As Barisan Nasional tighten its control over Government and the Civil Service, did it actually make any difference to the implementation of Government Policies or was it done more for the maintenance of the Political elites and the elites within the Civil Service?

Let us look at the coming of Daem. When Daem became the Finance Minister, with a view of political expediency, the whole system was changed. The Ministry of Finance took over the tender part from the JKR on major projects. In some projects there was not even a tender process – direct negotiation with the contractor or the supplier was conducted. The line continued to blur and accountability and transparency was not heard of anymore. The Government officer followed  the orders of his Ministers and other political appointees. And since there was no change of political party for the last fifty years this became the accepted norm throughout the Civil Service. The KSU and his Department became an extension of his Minister’s ‘team’. The Civil servants continued to become the yes man to the politician whether they like it or not. The Barisan Nasional politician was all-powerful that they could make the job as a government officer miserable if you did not do their biddings. 

Remember all government money is given to the Head of Department via an Allocation Warrant and politician cannot spend the money without the approval of the Head of Department. So to play safe Government officer just play along with the politician and execute what the politicians decided. Thus the Malaysian Civil Service became a mirror of what was happening within UMNO – or to be more brutal, more often then not colluded with the politicians and too often became willing participants of the politics of patronage. . A number of KSU were beneficiaries of political patronage and retired wealthy beyond their means! Some even joined business that they had ‘assisted’ during their kSU’s tenure – compromising not only their personal integrity but also that of the Civil Service.   

The March 8th 2008 election changed the status quo of a number of states. The different is that in some states like Selangor, Penang, Kedah the Barisan Nasional was no longer the Policy maker. The Pakatan Rakyat party replaced them. It looks like the Government officer are learning and adjusting to the situation well. Of course there are government officer who are loyal to the BN and there is where the problem start but I think eventually the government officer would all wake up from the BN spell and be a truly executive power. It is only natural that the ruling party  would want officers who are loyal to them. But I think the Government officer are learning fast and would be loyal to whatever government is in power be it BN or PR.

It must be noted that the extension of the service of senior civil servants beyond the mandatory age of retirement is detrimental to the morale of those in the lower echelons and should be discontinued. Nobody is indispensable. However the retirement age of 56 yrs is too young for the present generation whose life expectancy is 72. The British did the pension law during a different era. Now folks are healthier and will live up to 70. Singapore has increase the retirement age to 60 years. There are good officer that should be retain - especially the professional one - but the law has to be change and the retirement age be raised as in the advance countries. Possibly 56 is too young to retire.

We are a changing society and the government officer as well the politician is learning as well. But this is a capitalist Democracy and the party in power surely want to exploit the monetary benefit of being in power. That is the reality and we all have to live with it. But what the rakyaat want now is simple. Accountability and transparency. 

The lack of succession planning in the civil service has reached serious proportions. If the Malayanisation policy has worked before where our officers were groomed to take over the reigns from the expatriates, I do not see why we could not emulate this now. All I can say is that it works to the advantage of politicians rather than the civil service, whereby the " Contractors" are beholden to them by virtue of such extensions and completely owe their loyalty to the Members of the Administration instead of to the King and Country.

In conclusion it must be said that the Civil Service is a loyal servant of the Government of the day. Our problem is that when a Government takes it upon itself to compromise the Civil Service for its own end, not for the Rakyat, then a conflict of interest will arise. The Rakyat now knows more about the success and failures of Government initiatives. Ultimately Government and the Civil Service accountability is to the Public – the Public will want to know what are the benefits they  derived from these public expenditures. Are their needs being resolved or are the Civil Service becoming increasingly distance from the voting public? Are the demands of the Political elites being met at the expense of the Rakyat?

We have seen what happened in Selangor with the SELCAT inquiries. The Politican leave but the civil servants remains. All KSU are PTD and are loyal to the government in power.  Actually the relationship of Government officers and Politicians is a Love and Hate relationship. In creating projects most of the input are from government officer. Only the big project come from their political masters but the working paper are still done by the government officer. Actually the country could run without the political leadership. The administration that we inherit from the British is good and could do better with educated KSU and Heads of Department. This is happening now. Soon we would be like Japan where the change in leadership does not make much difference. 

For now the Civil Service serves two masters. The Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat. It will evolve to meet the expectations and aspirations of their Political Masters. We wait to see which Master will put the aspirations and expectations of the people ahead of the interests their Political parties and their personal self.  

Note: I would like to express my Terima Kasih to saudara Abdul Halim Shah for his inputs in this article.


  1. The civil service is at the peak of incompetency!!! and it will remain so unless there is a change of government and a major overhaul is required!!!!!
    Mediocrity supersede meritocracy in the light of ketuanan melayu. Apple polishing is the order of the day and political patronage will decide where you will be!!!
    There are good people around but they will not last long in the current environment of the civil service, so you can't beat them, join them!!!???
    There is a real need to closely watch the civil service as well as the military before it continues to slip further to the detrimental of the nation. The fish rot from its head- so that is the key issue!!!

  2. I think it's a fair assessment coming from a person who saw and experienced the deterioration of the civil service.

    Just wish to add a note here. It's about the extension given to selected few of the civil services. Why can't they see or accept the facts of employment:

    1. A person quit
    2. A person got fired
    3. A person is called back to one permanent home.

    The later is the one beyond anybody control.

    I believe the extensions are just for selfish reasons. The person who continues will say that the deputy is not ready to be at the helm. Actually, like the malay saying "tepuk air didulang naik kemuka sendiri." Is it for the person who got extended determine who's next.

    Aren't they suppose to devise the policies and plans based upon consensus ? Secondly, doesn't there any succession plan ? And isn't INTAN that provides the applicable courses to prepare each to be at the helm ?

    If they are really good as they claimed. Why don't they just retire and write books for reference of the future civil services. I guess it's just about money and power with some politics thrown into it. That is "you scratch my back and I scratch you back"

    If the politicians or the government thinks about the need of employment to reduce the burden of civil services, why don't just increase across the board the retirement age limit. The lower ranks are more in need that the top ranks. Furthermore, allow the person decide and make it easy to opt for early retirement.

    So, what do we call this if not CORRUPTION.

  3. Pak HH,

    This is an excellent article. You have comprehensively explained and unmasked the most inappropriate SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) of an organizational structure in a civilize world. If what you said is right, that the politicians are the ones making decision as to whom wins the bid or gets the tender (although at times there is no tender actually issued), no wonder corruption is so rampant/endemic and going out of control in Malaysia. This is ridiculous man!
    I really hope this article of yours is fully understood by many in Malaysia and together we can enforce change for sake of our children and the future generation.
    Time to change, don't you think so?

    I salute you my friend, you have my first vote if and when you decide to enter politics.

  4. What Civil Service?
    It more like at Your UMNO[Majesty] Service.
    Glad to be of Service, Sir/Madam/Tuan/Puan UMNOPutras & UMNOPuteris

  5. Our Constitution provides a comprehensive framework for the Public Service in order to make it free from political inteference.( See Part X, Art.132 to Art. 148).
    In some Commonwealth countries who were once colonised by the British, their Civil Service had become a "Servile Service" with the removal of the safeguards in recruitment and dismissal as well as their terms and conditions of their service. If all the public servants in Malaysia act in a single voice and serve without fear or favour and owe their complete loyalty only to King and Country, we still have hope that our future can still be assured. Politicians come and go, but the public service still remain and keep the Government going. But only the enlightened few believe this and still carry on being apolitical. The challenge is to make all of them to unite and do the right thing right.

  6. I am reading a book by an English surveyor who worked in Malaya between 1838 and 1853, more than 150 years ago, and this is what (paraphrased) he had to say about the civil service.

    …civil servants in the British Empire including Malaya were recruited at India House in London. They were drawn from a very limited circle and the absence of competition spoilt them as they lorded over their constituents. They were placed above the public, they were made secure in their fortunes and pensions, and had no spur to urge them to exertion or emulation or to thorough attention to duties. The real duties generally devolved on free and badly-paid “uncovenanted” Englishmen.

    And it was fortunate for the public that this was the case, otherwise the duties and responsibilities were handed over to the cringing natives, who enriched themselves at their countrymen’s expense…

    I guess, as they say, the more things change, the more they remain the same.