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Mahathir's take on why the Malays dominate civil service

The former prime minister says the matter was settled before he took the top office.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read
Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently found himself at the centre of a debate on the civil service, after DAP leader P Ramasamy called for an end to the Malay dominance of the public sector, blaming the monopoly on the veteran politician. 

Ramasamy, the Penang deputy chief minister, urged Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to act on the matter, saying the PKR chief was aware of the need to break the Malays' dominance in the civil service. 

Speaking in a recent interview with MalaysiaNow, though, Mahathir laid out how and why the Malays had come to their position of near-complete strength in the government sector. 

During its negotiations for independence, he said, the government realised that the Malays would be unable to compete with the Chinese. 

"We were worried about the future of the Malays because we were aware that they could not compete with the Chinese," he said. 

"That is why it was decided that for the highest positions, four Malays would be given places, and then the non-Malays." 

And while there were policies that gave priority to the Malays, he said, "indirectly, the Chinese gave no places at all to the Malays (in the private sector)". 

Ramasamy said in his statement that the "old argument in favour of a Malay domination of the civil service to counterbalance the Chinese domination of the economy" was "no longer valid". 

But Mahathir said that if the government had not given space to the Malays, they would not have been able to compete. 

"If the Chinese would not give them places and the government wouldn't either, where would the Malays turn to?" he asked.

Mahathir, who turns 98 this year, said the matter was settled before he became prime minister in 1981.


Ramasamy had said that the current government led by Anwar must not pay lip service, but instead undo the policies which he said Mahathir had introduced.

"The reformist agenda under the unity government might be submerged, but with PH as the anchor, there is no running away from what was promised to the rakyat," he said. 

His statement sparked a number of reactions, with Anwar himself saying it was Ramasamy's personal opinion which did not represent the stand of DAP. 

The Penang PKR youth wing meanwhile called for Ramasamy to be sacked, while Umno, PH's fellow government component, also criticised his remarks. 

And Cuepacs, the umbrella body of public sector unions, said that the appointment of government servants was based on merit and competency without taking into account racial quotas, as stipulated by the Public Services Commission. 

The last time that a DAP leader brought up the issue was in 2022, when Seputeh MP Teresa Kok urged the government to address the racial imbalance in the civil service. 

Ramasamy said last week that he would initiate legal action against two news portals which, according to him, had twisted his original statement. 

Mahathir, the former Langkawi MP, said Ramasamy would do better to compare government policies with that of private companies. 

"It's not that the Malays are stopping the non-Malays from entering the civil service," he said. 

"They are also keeping the Malays from joining private companies which are far stricter. That is what they do not say."