Change in Malaysia–Fix the Civil Service Culture

June 1, 2018

Change in Malaysia–Fix the Civil Service Culture

by Firoz Abdul Hamid

Reform – Separation of Executive – Legislative and Judiciary. These are some of the current buzz words in our political discourse in Malaysia these days. In the last three weeks since my country installed a new government with a new political party, after 61 years of the same, we have seen many revelations, many changes. We have witnessed heartbreaks, sighs of relief, and breaths of hope all in one. Yet there is only an undercurrent of cautious optimism for many with the new government – who are trying to get the country back on an even keel.  Optimism, I would conclude.

Image result for Peter Drucker Quotes on Strategy and Culture

The cautionary tale – in cautiously optimistic sentiment – will hinge on how it implements long term structural reforms. Whilst there are councils of many, magnitude ideas for change anew – there is yet a clear roadmap on HOW the change will be implemented; or at least one that the man on the streets can simplistically understand. We just know change of some form is on its way.

No one knows the how yet. Early days, some may argue.

Image result for Hamsa Ali and Mahathir Mohamad

If we want civil service culture change, why is this KSN (Ketua Setiausaha Negara) hanging around, Dr.Mahathir?

Whilst ideas flow from gilded vases, note to self – the people who will be implementing these ideas and plans are the same – the 1.6 million civil servants. They were there in the reigns of the 4th, the 5th, the 6th and now the 7th Prime Minister bar those who left for natural reasons. The civil service culture that was censured during the recent election campaigns by the then opposition (now government) remains the same, because the people are simply the same. Yes, they have moved a few people here and there, but that does not culminate in cultural change. It does not change the belief system and it most definitely has not remolded the existing and prevailing value system. What has happened thus far is the riders have changed.

On a text book level culture is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviours shared by a group of people. These behaviours on an institutional level is usually moulded through how one is measured. People behave the way they are measured. The way they are rewarded. Hence a quote that says – “Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave”.

Image result for aung san suu kyi


Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi– Words are cheap by the dozen.

Why was Aung San Suu Kyi so inspiring to many as was Barack Obama? Why did South Africa see a President Jacob Zuma after the reign of a great leader like the late Nelson Mandela? Why?  Because we built a pedestal of expectation for these people. We thought Suu Kyi would do wonders for the less privileged and persecuted, for she was persecuted herself. But her silence in the face of thousands of persecuted Roghinyas left the world aghast and she was severely criticised. We could not understand her failure to act. Why?

When Barack Obama started his Egypt speech with “Assalamualaikum” – (peace be upon you in Arabic) – in Cairo in 2009, promising a new beginning  between the USA – Muslim world relations, the world and especially the Middle East was thawed and mesmerized by him. Simply put – in awe. The world could not get enough of him and yet, eight years later when he left office, US military forces have been at war for all eight years of Obama’s tenure. He launched air strikes or military raids in at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan (see here). He was said to have recorded most numbers of wars with Muslim countries compared to other US presidents and, yes, even compared to George Bush junior. It was during Obama’s reign that we had the 1% Movement, large bailouts of American Too-Big-to-Fail companies and the African American issues with law enforcement officers.

Image result for Donald J Trump a Toxic Leader

The 45th President of the United States–Donald J. Trump

All of this somewhat culminated to a succession of a President like Donald Trump today. The same could be said about Mandela who was subsequently succeeded by the likes of Jacob Zuma, who was mired in corruption. How can such leaders who inspire awe in us be succeeded by leaders who many despise? Perhaps this is a rhetorical question. They inspired just that awe! And we were so awestruck by them that we did not closely scrutinize their on the ground action until it was perhaps too late.

Change is a mind boggling phenomenon. We want change, we call for change and then we list the kinds of laws and regulations that need to be implemented and/or repealed to ensure that change – yet the one thing we do not change are the people who are key to that change. We do not transform their skill sets, their thinking, their attitude and really their abilities to execute the lasting change. The current leaders in Malaysia have ordered civil servants to buck up. But how can they buck up when the skills are the same, the tools are the same and the means are the same? How can they buck up to compete with international players when all parameters remain the same?

Image result for malaysia's council of elders

We need civil servants who can implement change. Great ideas, policies and programs will go to waste unless we have competent, honest, dedicated, and dynamic implementors, not clock watchers and yes men .

Today, we have high-level panels formed to review policies, laws and regulations that require changing. I am certain and know without a doubt the end product of all these councils and meetings will result in a gold gilded documents of great plans and strategies. But there is a real chance of these invaluable work being decimated if the mindsets of the people who will ultimately be implementing them are not concurrently changed, not synchronously upskilled.

I liken my argument to a beast rider. Without the beast we will not be going anywhere, without the rider we don’t know where we are going, and without the saddle the rider will fall off the beast and there is no journey. We have a new rider today and a healthier beast. But we need to fix the saddle. The civil service is the saddle in this analogy. In these stack of separation of powers – i.e. executive, legislative and judiciary – where exactly does the 1.6 million civil servants sit and exactly what are the separation of powers between them and the executive (politicians and law makers). That remains unclear and it is different to each democracy around the world. The General Orders for Public Service need to be reviewed. The structures of talent building and up skiling needs work. The whole agenda of integrity and work culture needs to be reawakened. Tracking of governance needs to have a place in this new environment.

Malaysia needs a strong and independent civil service that will function regardless of who takes the government tomorrow. The UK has successfully operated in the face of many changes in governments and referendums. The same can be said about many Western democracies. No matter the government, the civil service remained solid enabling the country to run smoothly. When President Trump took on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, they had officers there who stood up to him and were undaunted by his challenges – the most powerful man in the world. They stood for what was right by their job. In 2011 during the tenure of Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary at Downing Street (Chief Secretary–Ketua Setiausaha Negara) in the context of Malaysia), decided that Whitehall’s most senior civil servants will be given rights to inform the Cabinet secretary and the Prime Minister if a minister ignores their advice on procedures in their department The tightening of the rules was accepted by Downing Street after O’Donnell found a series of breaches of the ministerial code (see here).

During the campaigning of the 14th general elections in Malaysia, some civil servants and members of government-linked companies were clearly on the campaign trail. This was a clear breach of the General Orders for Public Service and yet they went ahead. It is acts like these that erode the trust deficit in our government. When trust is eroded, no matter what programmes and actions the government takes, there will always be an element of doubt on the part of general public.

When we have a culture that is driven by fear and favour, and not by honour, integrity, and pride, trust naturally erodes and the trust deficit in our civil service today is at its highest. It needs repairing. It needs fixing. The civil service and all the government-linked companies need repairing – in its culture. There is clearly two ways of doing this – one by order and the other organically. The former can be done fast but will only last to the next elections and eventually destroy the service altogether whilst the latter will build a robust service, even if it takes a bit longer to implement.

No amount of strategy to fix the country will work unless you fix the saddle – the Civil Service – failing which you risk failing and falling. As writer Peter Drucker famously said – Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch,  this will most certainly come to fruition for us here in Malaysia if we do not conclusively fix the culture and value system in our civil service at all levels. The strongest legacy this new Mahathir 2.0 government can leave behind is giving Malaysia its strong and apolitical civil service again failing which we will be left as awestruck towards as many leaders who have come and gone, with not much to show on the ground and our perennial problems continuing to haunt our next generation.

(Firoz Abdul Hamid is an Investvine contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)

See her full channel Ethics in Business.

14 thoughts on “Change in Malaysia–Fix the Civil Service Culture

  1. Alhamdulillah. Well said. Truly one of the best written, sincere heartfelt comments that I’ve read after GE 14….Thanks Firoz Abdul Hamid…..Thanks Dato Din for adding this in your column….

  2. “The civil service and all the government-linked companies need repairing – in its culture.”

    The question before us is not when, why and what. The question is How?
    That the Civil Service is morally, ethically and corruptly decrepit is a given.
    That the KSN has yet to be called out to account for his incompetency and fawning attributes (ampu-bodekism) is ‘interesting’.
    The Rot is in all the Heads.
    Strict adherence to the G.Os’ and processes/procedures/algorithms, service with a smile and only one bloke needed to change the light bulb, okay?

  3. The Civil service had been used as a tool by BN and there are politically oriented people in place. Can we start the reformation programme to instill morality?

  4. Just like the people of New Zealand who proudly declare that their country could experience all the Four Seasons in a 24 hour period, we here in a single-season country, after the Malay Tsunami, would probably experience all manner of good and foul weather in the presently charged political climate.

    First, it appears that something is not quite quiet on the HARAPAN front.

    Once again I think the age of the PM has something to do with it. Regardless of how popular Tun is at the moment, he is not expected to last long, whichever way you look at it. So if you are jockeying for power, post-Tun, then you better ride, select or bet on the right horse NOW. A clear lesson from those who rode and bet on Najib, including a foreign country.

    So no matter what you do with the civil service now or later, the government of any day will always consider the civil servants “government servants”

    So what better for Tun to do than to first get the government servants on his side, starting with the fellow who is “still hanging around”

    For all those in HARAPAN, do not forget what Tun said when he resigned as PM, to the effect, that he would go on his own time, not forced upon him.

    I hope that Anwar’s memory has not been affected for the years spent in a 9×9 ft room.

  5. 1.6 million civil servants of possibly at most 15million adult Malays of working age! honour, integrity, and pride, trust for 1.6 million servants? What are we talking about? Nietzsche’s Superman against the entity that gives itself meaning? That 300 Spartans is honour, pride and integrity. The multitude the 300 defend against could only be driven by fear and mutual suspicion. That is a realist organic outcome. I am not suggesting drastic downsizing. I am merely suggesting that these last man of Nietzsche’s are plague by too much security. Jack Welch fires x% every year. Weather in Silicon Valley may be nice. But, ability to keep ones job is never sure even for the very best. That is culture. Creative disruption. We are not talking about that, isn’t it? So.. what are we left with? A Norwegian model runs with mediocrity in that so that all can do a well defined job. There is no honour at job. But, find meaning outside of job is the source of meaning. The article is well written, but I don’t get what Firoz is talking about.

  6. Firoz Abdul Hamid, what would you have PH do – sack all 1.6 million civil servant, leave all departments unmanned & start a recruitment drive?

    Would it not be better to inform present civil servants what is expected of them, set realistic targets & time-scale to achieve them?

    My boss once said to me…. “Do not come to with a problem without a proposed solution. Only then do I know you have analysed & thought about the problem thoroughly.” May that is what is required.

    HT Low,

    I am sure Firoz will answer you directly. In my view, not all the civil servants are corrupt, incompetent or lazy. Many of them are working hard to keep the government functioning, but are suffering in silence as victims of toxic leadership in their respective departments and ministries. All we need to do is to remove these leaders to enable new talent to rise to the top.

    The Head of the Public Services Department should be instructed to come up with a list of top performers for consideration. Laggards, the corrupt and the incompetent should be subject to investigation and then removed or charged. That list should be vetted by MACC first and submitted to the Prime Minister. Identify change champions, and empower them. They should be given a 5 year contract with clear terms of reference.

    Cleaning the civil service should be given top priority. For a start, I think the new government should begin at top. Get rid of the Chief Secretary to Government and Secretary Generals who have been serving under the Badawi and Najib Governments.

    We are not asking Prime Minister Mahathir to fire all civil servants. That is a stupid thing to do. We are, however, are saying that he should downsize the civil service to increase productivity, and reduce the operating expenditure to free up resources for development. –Din Merican

    • Low,

      This is the reply from Firoz. For some strange reason, she could not post it herself on the blog:
      “HT Low

      Thank you for the comments. No, I most definitely did not infer in any way to sack 1.6 million people. I said we need to strengthen civil service and make it independent, and there are many ways of doing this . The space here will not permit me to write but I will offer the following teasers:

      1. The KSN should be selected by a bi-partisan team. Currently he/she is selected by the PM and the appointment is then recommended to the King. This has been the practice for the longest time. The role of a KSN is so important and we saw a glimpse of this on the 9th of June when the EC was reluctant to issue results. The KSN is the head of state reporting to the King when the parliament is dissolved. They technically should not be taking instructions from even the care taker govt. I have dealt with the civil service from various countries and in the UK for instance Ministers tread cautiously with the Cabinet Sec and for that matter with civil servants. They by and large take directions from the civil service and not the other way around.

      2. No one on both sides of the aisle of politics have or did offer a reformation of the civil service in their manifestos. During the campaign we heard civil service being rebuked by the then opposition for being puppets of the govt, but we must offer an alternative in reformation and this was not covered in anyone’s manifesto – at least not the ones I have read.

      3. One of the first things that should ideally happen post an election/referendum is the expectations of the Govt of the Day must be shared with the civil service and the service (i.e. the KSN and KSUs) must then come back to the Cabinet on how it will deliver and what it needs ( i.e. skills resources et all) to deliver. This is separation of duties. Currently I believe they are being directed.

      3. There must be clear KPIs for civil service to assist the govt of the day to deliver the manifesto. I am not sure if this is being done.

      4. Similarly at State levels – all Menteri Besars must be held accountable and responsible in reforming their councils. They must articulate what those reforms are and present KPIs and tracking mechanisms and reporting to public.

      I could go on — suffice to say there are a lot of areas that need strengthening in the service — but most importantly start with politicians, GLCs and public service understanding the General Orders which I doubt many have read. Where we need to review and upgrade the Orders — it has to be done to suit current scenarios. I am not certain if the many Councils are looking at this.

      Thank you again for reading my piece. I am certain Dr.Merican could offer further insights on my comments having had years of experience in the service.–Firoz Abdul Hamid

    • Thanks, Firoz. I wanted to apologize for my ‘blunt’ response also. Managing 1.6 million is going to be tedious. I think we are all glad to read about such detail plan. I am almost sick of talking about China. But, the story of ‘Sun Tzu’ training the King’s concubine definitely came to my mind. As for having too much bureaucracy, we are all glad that there is a deep state FBI facing a Great Again Trump administration. I guess the driving force behind deep state is indeed honour. Hopefully, Malaysians could be proud of themselves one day also.

  7. Once again I can’t help but bring Singapore into the discussion.

    Anyone who has dealt with the Singapore civil service in the last 25 years would marvel at the overall, I said overall, competency and efficiency. The people of Singapore and indeed the rest of the World has taken this for granted.

    How was it achieved and for how long it took to achieve it?

    People, I think, have done PhD theses on this. So you expect HARAPAN & Mahathir to do it in 5 years? Come on, be realistic.

    In any case where do the civil servants come from as far as getting competent civil servants is concerned? (because corruption has nothing to do with competency) 90% of them come from our school system. So where do you think we should start? Just suggesting teaching them maths & science in English is not on.

    When you have 1.6 million people working for an organization, any organization, sacking even 10% means not just affecting the livelihood of 160,000 individuals, but 480,000 people, (assuming each of the 160,000 has on average 2 dependents)

    Najib is just waiting for this human time-bomb to explode, if HARAPAN dares to strike a match.

    • First, have the right people to fill the top posts and set an example. Even in the wild we can see the leaders of the herd.
      Next wait for the natural 5% per annum and we reshuffle instead of filling the vacancies with new recruits, by the end of 5 years, we are left with about 77% of 160,000 or 1.238 million.
      If the economy is stimulated or we manage to downsize the foreign workforce, more civil service employees will go for the greener pastures

  8. Oh, BTW, I also would have kept Ali Hamsa around for a while for the simple reason that who knows better all of Najib’s secrets than he?

    • Nope, KleptoMo1’s SUSK (Setiausaha Kanan, personal sec.) would be a better bet for such secrets.

      Octo is keeping this mamak gang flur to do the culling..
      Who better knows the salaries paid and KPIs’ of those ‘extremely brilliant’ DGs’ and CEOs’ of Agencies and Statutory Bodies? That MAVCOM chairman, is just one of those CARMA types who earns ridiculous and unconscionable salary. There are stat bodies whose CEOs earn about the same and are just as wonderfully useless..!

  9. I would rather suggest keep the leaders and everyone except for the worst. Call it a win if the headcount does not increase by the next GE. Instead of learning from Singapore, learn from China. China came from even bigger inefficiencies, but they grow the fastest the past few decades. Learn from their rural development. Hire their consultants also. Their model is not so magical if the land of Welayu is willing to turn the W back to Melayu. It is a collective effort. A lot are willing and ready to work also. Sabah is here. Work for Johor is always there with an insatiable need from a mega efficient Singapore. I want to be back for this transformation of a generation also, if God is willing.

  10. The Civil Service became bloated because the previous government decided to have 35 Ministers and thus 35 Ministries with full staffing all the way up to KSU and KPs. Often times their duties and responsibilities overlap leading to confusion. e.g. Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education. Then theres the various agencies under the PMO which leads to more confusion. Pemandu, JASA and other alphabetical combination. Then theres PERMATA that stand on its own.
    The top dog in JPA is the KPPA but he’s frustrated in his effort at streamlining the service as each Ministry wants to establish their own fiefdom and staff are traded and stolen from other Ministries or agencies. Instead of planning the organization and handling HR issues, training, Scholarship, Pension and other establishment issues the KPPA is kicked around like a football and is often forced to accommodate requests by Ministers.
    The number of civil servants in Malaysia includes the Armed Forces which should be separate as they are uniform personnel and not civilian. The number also include RELA members.
    The KPPA should be the most powerful civil servant after the KSN but alas they are doomed to failure from the beginning because of directives from KSN who willingly accommodate the political masters.
    Gone were the days when the PSD and PSC are independent. Even a lowly clerk are interviewed by the PSC.

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