The Way Forward for the Malaysian Civil Service

April 29, 2016

COMMENT: Meritocracy and diversity are sources of strength for an efficient and dynamic civil service. In addition, civil servants should not be promoted on the basis of politics as it is today. I have nothing more to add to Zaid’s views on the matter.

The Famous Mamaks–Ali Hamsa, Nor Mohamed Yakop, Apandi Ali and Azeez Abdul Rahim and Mahathir Mohamad

I, however, wish to make a observation. In recent years, the mamaks have taken over the top spots in the Malaysian civil service and GLCs (Government-linked corporations. We have Hamsa Ali as Chief Secretary, Irwan Serigar who is Secretary-General to Ministry of Finance (who could have been Governor, Bank Negara Malaysia if the WSJ had not bell the cat),  Appandi Ali as Attorney-General, and Nor Mohamed Yakop,  the man who speculated on  sterling and  lost Bank Negara reserves) as Deputy Chairperson in Khazanah Nasional Berhad. Under Mahathir, we had a mamak Bank Negara Governor. Is that good for the civil service? I should think so since I am  also of mamak descent myself. –Din Merican

The Way Forward for the Malaysian Civil Service

by Zaid Ibrahim

The way to improve the service is to let it be more open and to allow for more scrutiny.

NO government can function well without an efficient and capable civil service. It is an integral part of national public administration which supports the government of the day in implementing public policies. Japan’s army and cities were destroyed in the Second World War but their civil service remained intact, hence the phenomenal recovery of the economy despite the ravages of war.

Malaysia’s success over the years has been due in part to the right policies. But I dare say the main contributor to this success has been the capable civil servants tasked with implementing the policies of the government over the years.

najib duit

Najib–The Bugis Man

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to having a first-class civil service is the tendency to politicise the service. When politicians want civil servants to do the politicking for them, or want those who are more inclined to follow their instructions without questioning, then only the mediocre ones will survive in such an environment.

 The good ones will not be attracted to such practices as they would rather work in a more professional environment. Sooner or later, the good ones will stagnate and not get the promotion, and they will leave, but the country will be the loser.

The quality of politicians leading the government is hard to control because there is no minimum standard for those who wish to enter this profession. So the country has no choice but to have top quality civil servants to counter any negative inputs from the politicians. That at least is theory the theory and the rationale.

Only such capable people can implement policies that the leaders want, by thinking through proper implementation measures that optimise the benefit to the public. Japan started way back in the 1850s a policy of only taking the crème de la crème from Japanese universities into the public service. It is about time we do the same because only then can we dispense with the use of foreign experts even in preparing basic proposals.

The way to improve the service is to let it be more open, that allows for more scrutiny. The secrecy of government business, while useful in some cases, can be detrimental to the government’s own well-being. Carried to extremes, secrecy has led to abuse not just by civil servants but also their political masters. On the other side of the coin, opacity also leads to under-appreciation; civil servants get brickbats when things do not work well but they are rarely praised for the good work they have done.

Once a year, we have the Auditor-General’s Report to Parliament about the shortcomings and excesses of certain departments or officers, with details of financial losses suffered through negligence or wrongdoing.

The problem is that the same story repeats itself from one year to the next and there seems to be no steps taken to rectify the errors and excesses pointed out by the Auditor-General and no systematic follow-up or documentation of changes to the system.

The public’s perception is that the civil service does not care about managing public funds properly, and so it goes on to make the same mistakes year after year. Very recently, Auditor-General Tan Sri Ambrin Buang called on civil servants to give serious attention to the principle of value of money in government spending. Negative developments in this regard will give a bad impression to the public about how civil servants manage public funds.

I suppose the same advice should be given to politicians as well but then who advises our politicians?

Perhaps a parliamentary debate on the Auditor-General’s Report will be useful as it can show who is really responsible for the losses and mismanagement. Sometimes politicians go well beyond the scope of their duties and responsibilities and wilfully interfere in the implementation of government policies, which can cause or contribute to the wastage of public funds. In such events, it would not be fair to blame the civil servants (heads of department and so forth).

I believe that setting aside two days for a comprehensive debate will do a lot of good for our politicians and also help improve public accountability in our civil service.

Also, civil servants themselves need to hold firm to the code of conduct they are expected to abide by because it is the best assurance of their own well-being in the long term. The Peraturan-Peraturan Pegawai Awam 1993 must be taken seriously and they need to understand Sections 4(2) and 5(4) of these rules fully. Basically, these sections require that civil servants have excellent integrity and put the public interest ahead of their own interests.

Civil servants must be truthful and open – which is to say they must be honest – and they must be “objective” by providing the government advice that is based on facts.

In addition to these rules, there are standards of behaviour expected of civil servants all over the world; they need to fulfil their obligations, especially their fiduciary responsibilities, and must always act in a way that is professional.

Equally important is the observance of the laws of the country. While it is true that some civil servants would rather follow the instructions of their political masters even when they know that doing so would be wrong, my advice to them is to follow the law and the relevant rules. You never know when the laws will come calling!

If civil servants know of an illegal action or that some wrongdoing is being committed, they must make the necessary report to the police because even the Official Secrets Act does not protect the perpetrators of illegal or criminal acts.

Information about the commission of a crime cannot be an official secret because it is in the public interest to disclose it. It is the duty of every citizen, including civil servants, not to suppress information about an offence that has been committed by any person.

The civil service is our backbone and we must do everything possible to keep it healthy and strong.


6 thoughts on “The Way Forward for the Malaysian Civil Service

  1. There is no way forward in the civil service as long as Umno Baru leaders or the power-that-be cannot see and extract from it the true values and benefits of the clear separations of power enshrined in a constitutional democratic system of government– on top of it, conveniently imposed , race and religion based politics/policies.

    Sigh, ………

  2. After all said and done, it is the top man in any government, the PM or President, that really counts.

    If he is clean, he could get the top civil servant to hire and fire without any political repercussions because then no one, not even the opposition, could point any finger back to him. If he is not clean, then he actually prefers corrupt people around him so that he could control them while he do some looting himself.

    Here in Malaysia, we have extra problems, even if the PM want to be clean. There is the entrenched money politics culture. To get elected to positions in your own political party, so that you get a shot at state or parliamentary seats, you need to buy your way up, with money or favors. Once you are elected, favors will be asked of and granted by you, if not, out you go in the next election.

    The second problem is NEP or any if its incarnation of late. You just can’t limit yourself to the best and the brightest regardless of ethnic color. One color must be the overwhelming majority. If that one color has that much talent to offer, the NEP would not have been necessary in the first place.

    Mahathir tried for 22 years, and in his own admission failed, to uplift the Bumiputras to a general level satisfactory in his eyes. He did, unwittingly or by design, created “cronyism” of various ethnic hues.

    But, credit must be given to some Bumiputras who made it on their own steam, but somehow remained unrecognized by a jealous government who probably sees these people as miscreants who, by their very successes, suggest that the NEP is really not necessary or could be cut back, which of course sends shivers down the rubbery spines of all UMNO members.

  3. It all boils down to the integrity of the KSN. In the earlier days the KSN or Chief Secretary were men of integrity and high standards, men like Nik Kamil and Abdullah Ayub. All this changed when Ahmad Sarji became KSN and the Civil Service became subservient to the political masters and the administration started to rot.
    I agree. He introduced TQM in the civil service, which is a joke, and appeared with Mahathir on election night to celebrate election victory. He is the original carma and ampu type civil servant, earning a Tunship for his services. Sure, he is no Abdullah Ayub. –Din Merican

  4. Ahmad Sarji? Oh.., that flur who took attendance for all the senior gomen servants invited to ‘official’ functions? Boy, that chap was the epitome of totalitarianism and paranoia inducing junkie. “Stail mesti ada, menang tak perlu” Jaguh Kampung-nism.

    Yes, TQM – with the proviso that officers beyond the rank of the peon, had to have meetings after useless meetings, so that the quality of service became secondary to looking ‘Right’.

    Mamaks rule, okay? The ability to please the Main Man, is second to None. Live with it. It’s called Tribalism, Teh Tarek and Roti Canai.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.