Wake Up Malaysian Civil Servants: Duty Beckons

August 16, 2018

Wake Up Malaysian Civil Servants: Duty Beckons

by Dr Amar-Singh HSS


Image result for Dr Mahathir and the Malaysian Civil Service

These Civil Servants pledge to feather their own nest

We need to get rid of the culture of censuring those in the civil service who speak up when they see wrong being done.

I found the courage to write this after the recent strong words from Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad to the civil service. He encouraged those in the civil service not to blindly follow instructions, and to speak up if there are wrongdoings, saying he will support those who have been “tortured”.

There has been a long-standing culture of victimisation in the civil service. Many of us join the civil service to serve the public. Some of us have better financial prospects elsewhere but choose the civil service because it offers us an unparalleled opportunity to serve the people of our nation.

Image result for Dr Mahathir and the Malaysian Civil Service

Top Goons of the Malaysian Civil Service with the Prime Minister of Malaysia

Unfortunately, as Mahathir points out, the civil service is now populated with those who are self-serving, to put it mildly. Over the years, I have seen people take advantage of their position to enrich themselves or abuse their power, so much so that the prevalent culture becomes “keep your head down and follow instructions”, even if things are wrong.

Those of us who attempt to speak up when we see wrong, or make the necessary corrections in the system, are often censured, at times with measures detrimental to our career. We are constantly reminded that we belong to “the government service”.

Allow me to share an example from my own life. I recently retired after being in the civil service for more than 35 years. In April last year, I received a show-cause letter saying I had brought shame or detriment (memalukan dan memburukkan) to my ministry and the civil service. I was also informed verbally that action was being considered at the highest echelons of the organisation to sack me without pension.

You may ask what I did to bring such wrath upon myself. What prompted this response was a tweet I had made, stating that we are “civil servants, not government servants”. I went on to say that it is “the taxes of the people that pay our wages”.

You may say that what I tweeted was factual and “mild”, but remember that this was in April 2017, before the election, when fear was prevalent and many were being censured. My tweet was forwarded by “cybertroopers” to the highest level of the organisation, and I was issued a show-cause letter.

It was a traumatic learning experience for me. I found that despite many years of work and bringing change/pride to health services (I received a number of international awards), no one was prepared to openly stand up for me. I tried meeting the senior civil service management, but was unsuccessful.

In the end, the previous health minister Dr S Subramaniam was kind enough to act on my behalf when I approached him. Even then, I still received a warning letter saying I had been found to have brought shame/detriment to the organisation, and was warned about future action.

Why do I bring this up? If the civil service is to have any hope, we need to get rid of the petty victimisation of staff and offer safe opportunities for them to speak up when they see wrong being done. The Regulations for Public Officers (Conduct and Discipline) [Peraturan-Peraturan Pegawai Awam (Kelakuan dan Tatatertib) 1993] have an overreaching “Peraturan 19 (1)” about civil servants speaking up. It was put in place to protect government policy, but is also used to silence those who speak up. It can be and is used arbitrarily, as was the case with me.

I hope the institutional reforms committee can look at this section and consider with the government an amendment to focus on government policy, not on personal statements. If there is no safe platform to express the wrongs that are conducted in the civil service, a mechanism outside the system, then many will not dare to support the necessary change for reform in our civil service. Even now as I speak up about the way I was treated (and it is frightening when you go through it), I have some fear that action can be taken against me after retirement.

If you wonder why sometimes there is low morale in the civil service, remember how I was treated for making a simple, true statement. Remember the lack of support within the system for staff who speak up.

It is time to bring back a civil service that we can be proud of. This requires a radical change in how we appoint leaders in the service and how much we encourage constructive dissent (voiced disagreement and discussion on policies and decisions). There is a lot of dead wood and many self-serving individuals that need to be removed, but there are still many who want to serve our beloved nation.

I hope the civil service can be found committed to ensuring the best services for our public and nation and not that of individuals.

Dr Amar-Singh HSS is a senior consultant paediatrician.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

3 thoughts on “Wake Up Malaysian Civil Servants: Duty Beckons

  1. Great piece Dr. Amar. As a former senior Adm. & Diplomatic Service officer, with 30 yrs of experience (served in 5 Ministry’s from 1969-1999), there has been a sea-change & it started when Dr. Mahathir became PM in 1981. From Tenku Abdul Rahman to Hussein Onn yrs, KSU,s & Dept. heads spoke their mind & even some Minister’s were afraid of them. Dr. M reads widely & is knowledgeable in many subjects. Civil servants who are not proficient on subject matter at hand, were frequently chewed up by him. Civil servants became scared of him. I had a few dealings with Dr. M & found him to be reasonable. Tan Sri Rafidah had similar traits too. Some Ministers & KSU’s who were not professional, began to fear Dr. M & the Ministers. Public servants frequently took the easy way out by not speaking up. Junior officers followed suit & not ‘ speaking up culture’ became widespread. Lower rung public officers who were professional & spoke up, were transferred out or not promoted. As merit is not the main criteria for promotions in public service, yes man culture has become embedded.
    Over time public service has become less efficient. Public service has some highly qualified officers with PhD’s & Master degrees etc, the public service should be becoming more efficient. The ‘yes sir culture’ must be rid off & efficiency can return. Hopefully, the PH govt. makes public service more representative (multi-racial) & employment be based on merit & get rid of the yes man culture.

    Thanks for your insight. I was fortunate to be in Wisma Putra in the 1960s. My seniors and contemporaries were outstanding individuals (stress on the word); they were voracious readers and intellectual types. We were led by the formidable Ghazali Shafie aka King Ghaz. I was also privileged to work for Tun Ismail Ali at Bank Negara, Dr. Agoes Salim in Bank Pertanian, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in FIMA and Tan Siew Sin and Tunku Ahmad Yahaya at Sime Darby Group. These individuals did not suffer fools easily.They shaped me and gave me a rough time for which I am eternally grateful. –Din Merican

  2. “..highly qualified officers with PhD’s & Master degrees etc”

    My better half retired at JUSA A, a few years back and didn’t want extension even though offered. That rank is equivalent of a vice-chancellor’s or armed forces lieutenant general or a fully fledged police commissioner. No need to dwell into the merits and demerits of how the Service devolved into a CARMA edifice – which it still is.

    We ail fully recognize and agree with what Dr Singh had posited. Although we empathize with with him, his experience is relatively mild compared to even more horrific happenstances that occurred during this reign of terror during KleptoMo1’s time. No one was beyond reproach and were expected to behave like cockroaches under the withering gaze of PSC/PSD watch mongrels.

    Many of the PhD’s and M.A’s wren’t actually suited for the job description – like human resources or some social science post-grad heading a technocratic ministry, like trade, economics, STEM and education.

    Meritocracy does not depend on paper qualifications – but yes, we have the requisite suitable post nominal letters which were not forged or bought.

  3. Dr Amar’ s letter is surely the tip of the iceberg. He waited to retire before he could voice his dissatifactions. I am truly saddened on his experience working in the civil service. I worked with the Department of Statistics for 30 years before going on optional retirement. I too faced similar predicaments sometimes under my previous KP but was very fortunate he retired ( he actually expected an extension ) but thank god he didn’ t succeed.
    The next KP was such a gentleman as he had no time to think about sidelining officers who spoke up. It was like a breath of fresh air in the Department. This KP, Dato’ Shaari b Abd Rahman, was gem of a man, earning the nickname as father of unity in the department & even into his retirement many officers look up to him. His gentle approach to many issues made him the best KP we had.
    Then came Tan Sri Ismail Adam, the new KPP. Tan Sri Shared similar values & approach & worked well with Dato Shaari. During this time, I had the opportunity to travel abroad widely to attend courses, seminars and present papers.
    The reason I am sharing this is to highlight that there were deparments in the civil service where we could speak up & be rewarded at the same time. I truly feel sorry for Dr Amar.
    I am confident the PH govt under Tun will be led & driven in a similar manner.
    Thank you.

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