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Correcting the civil service racial imbalance

 | June 10, 2012

The steps to ensure higher non-Malay (and East Malaysian bumiputera) participation in the civil service are simple.

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Once more the government appears to be clueless and befuddled as to why the non-Malay young do not want to take up civil service jobs.

Once more, there will be a taskforce and a high-level committee at work to produce yet another report on how to attract non-Malays to join the service.

Once more the almost obligatory letters are appearing in the mainstream papers applauding the government (in this case) the Public Service Commission’s new chairman for his bold initiative in proposing a study “to nail down…the reasons for the poor number of applications from non-Bumiputeras for public and civil service jobs”.

Do we need more studies?

Come on, we already have a plethora of research and studies on the subject. We have more than enough figures and data showing that the severely racially imbalanced civil service is not a recent problem but one going back more than 30 years. Do we need some more studies?

Everyone – well – just about, everyone knows the reason why non-Malays are avoiding joining what one of the top Barisan Nasional leaders has described as the best civil service in the world. As one cynic in the blog world recently remarked,

“Even the … office boys in those departments can see the unfairness [in promotions], and we have top civil servants wondering why. Please, just practice fairness and they (non-Malays) will come.”

Rampant racial discrimination

The most important reason why disparity in civil service participation amongst the races exists is the discrimination against non-Malays in recruitment and promotion exercises.

This explains why the numbers applying have dropped dramatically. If there is going to be an uneven playing field and if others less qualified or less capable than you are promoted ahead of you – and this is perceived to be a standard practice – why stay in the job, even if it may be a well paying or secure one.

Factors of pride, dignity and self-respect also come into play which explains why non-Malays refuse to remain in the service even when they have a good position.

After a few years of frustration and alienation with racially structured obstacles when they apply for promotion or other career opportunities, many see the writing on the wall and opt to strike out for the private sector or self employment even though they may have to make sacrifices.

This game of pretending not to know why non-Malay recruitment and enrolment is so low in the civil service has been going on for so long that many of its practitioners appear to believe their own fairy tales and prejudices about non-Malays being less patriotic (explaining their low enrolment in the military and police); or more grasping and calculating (hence, less attracted to teaching or other service occupations); etc.

Solution

Let’s do away with the pretense and acting dumb on this long-standing blot in our societal make up.

The steps to ensure higher non-Malay (and East Malaysian bumiputera) participation in the civil service are simple.

Firstly, there must be a solemn declaration and promise by the prime minister and government that racial intake as well as all treatment after recruitment in the civil service will be fair and transparent and that racial or regional discrimination will not be tolerated.

Secondly, the Public Services Commission and Public Services Department must be a party to this declaration and should mainstream this declaration into all service manuals and directives. It is a fact that some of the major obstacles to making the civil service more racially representative comes from within the civil service itself.

Thirdly, all recruitment, appointment, promotion and other service related committees and boards should have full multi-racial representation. Inclusion of token non-Malays as we have seen in the past does not work.

Fourthly, a new civil service quota system – in this case specifically used as a temporary affirmative action tool to increase non-Malay numbers and reduce marginalization – should be formulated. This can be done in a way as to meet with the constitutional provisions providing for the special position of the Malays and bumiputera groups of Sabah and Sarawak.

A 60-40 recruitment system would be relatively easy and painless to implement. It would guarantee Malay dominance but not over-dominance and help to bring about a gradual increase in the number and proportion of non-Malay civil servants in the country.

Finally, we need a civil service ombudsman to act on cases of racial discrimination within the service as well as to respond to allegations of racially biased policies and programmes.

Make or break the nation

It is a truism that the civil service can make or break a nation, more especially in the case of multiracial societies such as ours where neutral stake players are necessary to play a critical role in balancing complex and contentious racial demands.

Democratic norms call for a representative, impartial and neutral bureaucracy to ensure that public policies are responsive to the needs of all citizens in a fair and equitable fashion.

A genuinely multi-racial civil service is also necessary to ensure that there is an absence of racial bias in the individual or collective manner in which civil servants formulate policies and conduct their work.

Unfortunately, we have moved away from these democratic norms for so long that nothing but a radical change in the mindsets and actions of our politicians and civil service elites can stop the rot.

A mono-ethnic civil service – which is what we are fast moving towards – is the single biggest obstacle to the goal of 1Malaysia.

The writer is the director of the Centre for Policy Initiatives. This article first appeared in the CPI website.


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