April 23, 2021

Time for a more inclusive, world-class civil service

6 min read

“PROMOTIONS will be undertaken based on service performance and experience. All the processes will be made more transparent so that the civil servants enjoy equal opportunity to obtain a promotion and salary increase.” From the Pakatan Harapan Manifesto, May 2018.

Among the many promises made by Pakatan before the May elections last year, the pledge above, under Promise Number 21 of its manifesto, caught the attention of many fairminded Malaysians who were in the mood for a change.

They so badly wanted to see the nation being steered out of what we thought was a situation where Malaysia was on the brink of turning into a quagmire. A change that would ensure only the best would be placed in vital government posts that needed great leadership based on merit as far as possible.

And when Pakatan did win, I believe many right thinking Malaysians held the hope that we were finally moving in the right direction to revamp the civil service, one which many decades ago commanded global respect and praise for its efficiency.

In the last two decades or so, that same civil service faced a credibility crisis, with many heads of key institutions compromising their integrity to please political leaders and other powers.

Those yearning to see a more progressive nation, dubbed Malaysia Baharu, harboured hopes of seeing a civil service that is more representative of the nation that we often trumpet to the world is “truly Asia” with its different racial, ethnic and religious demographics.

I do not think this aspiration held by many citizens was aimed at taking away the rights of any race. On the contrary, the more capable a department or ministry head is, the better it is for the civil service.

If they can bring dynamism into the administration, it’s the people and country as a whole that will benefit. If we ignore talent based on race or religion, it is tantamount to a mortal sin in my opinion.

So it was shocking to see one of the recent Malay dignity congress’s resolution that demanded for all top positions in the government and government-linked companies to be helmed only by Malay-Muslims.

Actually, this particular demand is superfluous, as what they are asking for is something that has been in place for decades. If you take into account government employees in the various states, you’d probably have to call it a Malay administration, not a Malaysian one.

Currently, practically all secretaries-general (SGs) of ministries and directors-general (DGs) of departments are Malay-Muslims and other bumiputras.

For the record, only three out of the 28 SGs are non-Malay, namely two Chinese and the other Indian. As for the 104 DGs, only three are non-Malays with nine vacancies yet to be filled. In fact, the same is true of their deputies and other top civil servants. And it cannot escape notice that nearly all senior officials in our public universities and schools are also from the same community.

The ratio of Malays to non-Malays in the civil service used to be about 60:40 in the 1960s but but ratio has been widening over the last 30 years or so. No official figures are available now but it is estimated that about 87% of the civil is Malay-Muslim now.

The drastic drop in the number of non-Malay civil servants since the 1980s started with the gradual retirement of the post-Merdeka batch of employees, who were not being replaced.

And of course, the implementation of the 20-year New Economic Policy (NEP) beginning in 1971 saw too much emphasis placed on furthering the Malay lot. It was the direct result of the May 13 racial riots in 1969.

The result was the widespread perception, both within the civil service and outside, that preference is given to Malays not only at intake but also in promotions and preferred postings. It was this unwritten practice that saw many capable Malaysians joining the private sector from then on.

However, the call by some Malaysians for absolute meritocracy in the civil service may not be the right thing to do under the circumstances, in the same vein as asking for all top posts to be reserved for Malay-Muslims. It is a recipe for disaster, to say the least.

In the Malaysian context, a robust merit-based society will not be a happy one because of several disparities within the society and historical reasons that so often come into question. But these reasons should not be used to deprive deserving Malaysians of their rightful positions in the civil service.

Although Article 8 (2) of the Federal Constitution states that all citizens are eligible, if suitably qualified by educational standards, to enter any branch of the public service, and there can be no discrimination on grounds of race, religion and the like, in reality, this may not be possible for many more decades. I think most Malaysians are sane enough not to demand for this.

If there is political will, something which I admit is a rare commodity in Malaysia, the government must take serious steps to ensure that the composition of its employees reasonably reflects the ethnic demography of the country. Remember, it is the Malaysian civil service and not that of any particular community.

There are valid arguments why the civil service should be more representative. One that sticks out in my mind is to improve performance, which has taken some hard knocks over the last two decades. With the global challenges that we are facing now, we need nothing but the best in the civil service.

There is an argument that an ethnic group’s representation in the civil service affects the actual benefits given to members of the community. Therefore, adequate racial representation in the civil service strengthens the argument that all ethnic groups have to be fairly represented if they are to be fairly served.

Of course, some will use the argument that the private sector in Malaysia is dominated by the Chinese and therefore the civil service should be for the Malays. Well, it is true but the analogy is flawed. Most of the private sector firms are self-made entities motivated by profits and that are answerable only to owners and shareholders. Naturally, the choice is theirs and they pay huge taxes to the country. It is morally wrong to deny anyone a job if the argument is premised on this.

The civil service is funded by the rakyat and its employees are there to serve the nation and its people. The civil service is not profit-oriented and its employees have to answer to the people. Voters judge the government of the day by their efficiency.

The numbers should, to some extent, reflect the population ratio in Malaysia at all levels, including the top posts, to show that the government itself is practising national unity. It should not be merely symbolic but something substantive.

I have been told that there are some vacancies in the top echelons of the civil service with new appointments expected to be announced this week. The least many of us are expecting is for a better representation of the New Malaysia that we voted for.

The time is now for the situation to change for ethnic minority civil servants. The government, which has absolute control of the civil service, must become better at recognising, nurturing and appealing to talented non-Malays. This must happen quickly as we are not going to have this opportunity again.

If we want to achieve a capable and world-class civil service, we need to recognise pure talent by removing the racially-tinted glasses that we are wearing. We cannot and should not sideline talent in the name of positive discrimination. It will result in extremely negative repercussions, which we have seen in some cases.

I am optimistic that there will be a change in this direction eventually, unlike many naysayers out there. We have the right values and leadership.

However, for a real difference to come about, Malaysian culture has to change too, not just the government. All we want is to be proud of a Malaysia that delivers. Ruling parties must eventually stop the game of playing safe just to keep their vote bank intact by giving in to far-right politicians who use race and religion to regain or stay in power.

K. Parkaran was a deputy editor at The Star and a producer at Aljazeera TV. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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