July 26, 2010
Chief Secretary, SDO Nik Ali Baba and the Pathetic State of the Malaysian Civil Service
by Dr. M. Bakri Musa
Chief Secretary Sidek Hassan did not acquit himself honorably in so quickly defending federal civil servant Nik Ali Yunus in his very public and ugly squabble with Penang’s Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.
“Mother Hen” (Ibu Ayam) Sidek
Sidek’s swift reaction reflects more of a “mother hen” instinct of protecting its brood rather than the cool considered judgment of the head of an organization of professionals, as our civil servants would like us to believe them to be.
A state development officer (Nik Ali’s designation) is pretty far down in the federal civil service scheme of things, yet Sidek felt compelled to intervene. He did it in a rash and clumsy manner. At the very least he should have sought the views of both sides before rendering judgment. That would have been the mark of a true professional; it would also the decent thing to do.
Sidek’s quick reaction to this personnel crisis stands in sharp contrast to his lack of one to another far-from-exemplary behavior of a very senior civil servant. I refer to the utterance of Solicitor General II Yusof Zainal Abidin to the allegation that one of his lawyers was romantically involved with the key prosecution witness in Anwar Ibrahim’s “Sodomy II” trial.
While not categorically denying the allegation, Yusof simply dismissed it, adding this astounding assertion, “What my team does in their own personal time is not my business. Usually, I don’t check on their personal lives.”
A Solicitor General is high up on the totem pole of the civil service; you have to be very senior and capable to reach that lofty position. Yet we have this character failing to recognize the potential implications of a member of his team being romantically involved with a witness, especially a key one. To think that we have as Solicitor General a lawyer who is unaware of the essence of professional ethics and conflict of interest! This reflects poorly on the caliber of persons we appoint to senior positions in our civil service.
Yusof’s inept attempt at minimizing that lawyer’s role in his prosecuting team was equally unprofessional. Yusof conveniently forgot that he was dealing with a lawyer, a professional, in his department, not the office clerk. It does not matter whether that lawyer “was only brought in to help with taking notes, compiling data, evidence.” A lawyer involved in such unethical activities ought to be disbarred regardless of where she works or what she does.
Lack of Professionalism at the Highest Levels
So we have two disturbing displays of less than exemplary behaviors if not outright lack of professionalism at the highest levels of our civil service. One is the Chief Secretary not hearing both sides to the Lim Eng Guan (right) and Nik Ali squabble before rendering judgment, and the other, the Solicitor General failing to recognize a breach of professional ethics.
Contrary to Solicitor General Yusof’s assertion, what civil servants do in private can and do have a major impact on the effectiveness of their official duties. If our top civil servants do not know this, as clearly demonstrated by Yusof’s remarks, then Sidek has a monumental task ahead of him.
Back to the squabble in Penang; in defending the federal officer, Sidek chided Lim for being extreme in resorting to public criticisms of the officer. Sidek also asserted that there was nothing unprofessional for Nik Ali to retaliate openly by condemning the Chief Minister at an UMNO gathering.
Nik Ali was obviously ignorant of the internal channels available to him to express his dissatisfaction; hence his enlisting the help of a political party. With Sidek’s rousing endorsement of Nik Ali’s action, this could well prove to be the new and accepted way. I shudder to contemplate the consequences to the nation generally and the civil service specifically should that be the norm. Perhaps I am being naïve here for this may already be the set pattern; hence the sorry shape we are in.
For his part, Lim claimed that he had sought a private meeting with Sidek as far back as May to discuss the matter, but Sidek cancelled it at the last minute. Had Sidek acted professionally, he would have realized that the request came not from an opposition politician but the chief executive of a major state. If Lim’s assertion were true, then Sidek owes the public an explanation for spurning Lim. Sidek should have been more respectful of federal-state relationships.
Incredibly, Sidek also did not find anything unusual or a breach of the civil service code for a federal officer to be addressing partisan party gatherings. Sidek’s excuse was that he as Chief Secretary had to be present when Najib gave his speeches.
Sidek obviously failed to grasp the essential difference between Najib the Prime Minister and Najib the party president. Yes, Sidek should be by Prime Minister Najib on official functions, but Sidek should not be seen or be in any way officially or unofficially associated with the President of UMNO. Sidek is a career civil servant, supposedly politically neutral and a professional. If he were a political appointee, that would be a different matter.
Sidek’s incredulous assertion and crudely inappropriate behavior did not end there. As Chief Secretary, he manages matters to be discussed at cabinet meetings. That he saw fit to bring this to the highest level revealed Sidek’s warped sense of priorities. I would have thought that the cabinet had other more pressing matters. It was pathetic to see both the Prime Minister and his deputy putting in their two-sen comments on this lowly personnel matter.
As leader, a major part of Sidek’s responsibility is to solve problems, not create them. He should also be able to anticipate them, and thus try to avoid or at least be ready. With the Penang issue, Sidek not only fails to solve it but he also aggravates it.
More deplorable, Sidek fails to anticipate the potential ugly racial undercurrent to this conflict. This is Malaysia and any conflict quickly acquires a racial hue unless intelligently and sensitively handled. Sidek’s management of this crisis fails on both counts.
The outcome would have been far more favorable, and the nation spared a potentially destructive racial crisis, had Sidek been wise, restrained and professional. In failing to have the earlier scheduled meeting with Lim, and not hearing both sides to the dispute between Lim and Nik Ali, Sidek flunked the most elementary test of leadership – nipping a problem in the bud.
Now that the different parties can be the governing as well as the opposition simultaneously at the federal and state levels, it behooves Sidek to provide guidelines on the proper relationship between civil servants and their political superiors.
Sidek must do this now, well before the next general elections. Failure to do so would risk our nation having to endure again the ugly spectacle that we witnessed at Shah Alam immediately following the last general elections. The next time however, it would be far more revolting. Then Chief Minister Khir Toyo in cahoots with the state’s senior civil servants acted like a bunch of yahoos in destroying state documents and properties, anticipating the change in political leadership. That was criminal. That they were not prosecuted again reflected the lack of professionalism in our civil service.
While he is at it, Sidek should also draw up guidelines on how our diplomats abroad should handle visiting Malaysians, specifically lawmakers from other than the ruling party. These Malaysians should not be ignored, as is the current practice. They are our lawmakers regardless of their party affiliations. Our diplomats should learn from their British and American counterparts in Malaysia and see how they treat visiting Labor MPs and Republican members of Congress
As an aside, there was another unpleasant dimension to the Shah Alam spectacle of 2008. Selangor was not the only state that saw a change in political leadership; there was also Penang. Unlike Selangor, the transition in Penang was smooth and civilized. Again this being Malaysia, one cannot escape from drawing a racial conclusion to this difference. I am embarrassed to state this, but it is obvious though not talked openly in polite social discourse.
Sidek also needs to scrutinize more closely the performance of his top officers. He should not tolerate such inept and unprofessional conduct as displayed by the Solicitor General. That would be more productive than intervening in the personnel problems of junior officers.
Like his political superior Prime Minister Najib, Sidek talks endlessly of “transforming” the government. He would have a much greater chance of success if he were to first transform himself. He can begin by quitting being the “mother hen” and start being more professional.