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On DAP, the civil service and reforms

In a 'Malaysia Madani' expecting to join the community of high-income nations, national leaders, civil servants, and union officials should value criticism as a gift.

Kua Kia Soong
5 minute read

DAP seems to have lost the plot regarding reforms in Malaysia. Its deputy chief minister in Penang, P Ramasamy, said our civil service needs reforms, especially in terms of its ethnic composition. After an outcry from DAP's partners in the coalition overnment, the DAP secretary-general did not back him but tried to placate his partners in the government by saying he would deal with Ramasamy the "DAP way".

This is all reminiscent of the bad old days when the role of trying to justify the racial discrimination in the administration was played by MCA and Gerakan, and DAP, especially its secretary-general, would flay them relentlessly. The refrain at the time was that MCA and Gerakan had lost their gall just because they had been rewarded with ministerships.

So the roles have changed, but what is the country left with? Is DAP no longer committed to reforming the Malaysian civil service? Is Ramasamy’s statement any different from all of the statements by DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang during the bad old days when Barisan Nasional had complete power?

Even Noor Farida Ariffin, a spokesman for the G25 group of former senior civil servants, has come out to say that low salaries are not the only factor discouraging the Chinese community in Sabah, Sarawak, and the peninsula from joining the civil service: "The main reason other races are not keen to join the civil service is the lack of opportunities for advancement and the discrimination most of them face."

She said this was evident from the many instances where capable non-Bumiputeras were passed over for promotion by "less capable and non-performing Bumiputeras". 

World Bank Report on Malaysia’s civil service, 2019

A World Bank report in 2019 highlighted the fact that the performance of Malaysia’s civil service had been declining since 2014:

"If you look at the indicator for government effectiveness, Malaysia is still above in the region but in 2018, the performance is below that of between 1991 and 2014… If you take the average of that period between 1991 and 2014, it was higher than that in 2018, which means the performance is declining."

There were also some indicators in which Malaysia ranked even below regionally, including accountability, impartiality, and the openness of its public sector.

"There is a strong perception... that recruitment of the civil service is not fair and neutral (with) Malaysia scoring very poorly on the indicators for impartiality in the government… It’s the lowest ranked, even below the region and way below the OECD," the report said.

We have a bloated civil service

Malaysia’s bureaucracy is one of the biggest in the world, with 1.7 million civil servants to a population of 32 million, a ratio of 4.5% compared with Singapore’s ratio of 1.5% civil servants to total population, Hong Kong’s 2.3% and Taiwan’s ratio of 2.3%. We are spending more than RM41 billion a year to upkeep our civil servants.

While it is the growing trend of many countries to reduce their civil service, Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Department, in particular, has done the opposite. It more than doubled its number of civil servants from 21,000 to 43,554 in 2019. In stark contrast, the White House employs fewer than 2,000 staff. 

To date, there are so many "ministers in the Prime Minister’s Department" alone, on top of other important agencies or governmental bodies that fall within the purview of the Prime Minister's Department. The Pakatan Harapan government in 2018 even invented a new post, "special advisers to ministers", for their unemployed politicians.

The oversized bureaucracy has, in turn, created massive leakage in the economy. In 2010, Cuepacs president Omar Osman revealed that a total of 418,200 or 41% of the total number of civil servants in the country were suspected of being involved in corruption. The 2009 Global Corruption Barometer report revealed that Malaysians generally consider political parties and the civil service to be the most corrupt groups, and the government’s anti-corruption drive to be ineffective.

The public sector is not fair, neutral or impartial.

The Malay dominance in the military and police has served as the ultimate deterrent to any challenge to the status quo, and is intended to demonstrate to the Malay community that political power lies firmly in the hands of "the Malays". The highest stratum of the military-bureaucracy is part of the traditional Malay ruling class.

Within the armed forces and police, there is a preponderance of recruitment of Malays as well as restricted mobility for the non-Malay ranks, especially after 1969. In contrast, the figures for 1968 show a considerable proportion of non-Malay representation (55%) in the police force. 
After the launch of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971, the expanding state sector provided civil servants not only with opportunities for attractive salaries and "perks", but also scope for private accumulation in the many business opportunities open to Bumiputeras. Thus, the proportion of Malays in administrative and managerial occupations rose from 24% in 1970 to 32% in 1980. According to the 1980 census, more than 80% of all government executive officers were Malays while 96% of Felda settlers were Malay.

The gross disparity in the ethnic make-up of the civil service up to March 31, 2011 was revealed in a reply to a parliamentary question in August 2011. The second largest ethnic group in the country, namely the Chinese community, made up less than 2% of Malaysian government service employees. There is thus a gross under-representation of the non-Malay communities and the East Malaysian indigenous communities in the civil service at all levels, which is of concern for national integration and equality, apart from the bloated public sector.

A striking case of racial discrimination is seen in the total absence of any non-Bumiputera vice-chancellors at any of the public sector universities in the country, when this was not the case in the early years of independence. This surely has consequences not only for justice and the civil rights of non-Malays, but also for the pursuit of meritocracy in the Malaysian civil service.

The sharp decline in the ethnic composition of non-Malays in the Malaysian civil service perhaps reflects the World Bank report’s conclusion that "... recruitment of the civil service is not fair and neutral (with) Malaysia scoring very poorly on the indicators for impartiality in the government". This surely has consequences for "accountability, impartiality and the openness of its public sector".

In a "Malaysia Madani" expecting to join the community of high-income nations, one would expect our national leaders, civil servants, and union officials to value criticism as a gift – an opportunity to objectively check the validity of the evidence-based analysis of organisations such as the World Bank, and listen to their stakeholders, namely, the tax paying public in whose service they are employed. 

Our civil service should represent all the people.

The Malaysian civil service should represent all of the ethnic communities in the country because civil servants affect both public policy and its implementation. The NEP expired long ago and it is high time that a fuller merit system is introduced to attract more non-Malays and to enhance the capacity and performance of our civil service. There must be equal opportunities in recruitment and career advancement.

Since the NEP was introduced in 1971 to abolish the identification of sector with race, isn’t it time that the predominantly Malay civil service be restructured to reflect such egalitarian aims? 

Kua Kia Soong is a human rights activist.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.