Buck up or leave, ex-civil servants tell successors over threat of downsizing

Civil servants have been urged to commit to some sort of lifelong learning to keep themselves relevant in their fields. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: With inevitable technological advancements threatening most jobs today, including that of civil servants, two retired civil servants have urged them to prepare themselves and hone their job skills.

A Jayanath urged civil servants to go for lifelong learning while Ramon Navaratnam said the government could play a role by preparing the groundwork for the downsizing, including setting up a commission to study and make recommendations on how best to handle this.

They were commenting on Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s recent remark that the civil service was too big and could be reduced, given the current trend in automation and data exchange in Industry Revolution 4.0.

Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin later explained that this did not imply an immediate downsizing of the number of civil servants, adding he personally felt this should not be done within the next five years.

Jayanath, who was an administrative and diplomatic service officer from 1973 to 2005, told FMT that it was silly to expect most jobs from his day still being relevant now, citing clerical jobs as one example.

“This issue is nothing new. For example, the education sector will benefit from technological changes so most routine jobs in that industry will become redundant, affecting a large chunk of the civil service.

“So, they can do one or two things now. Either commit to some sort of lifelong learning to keep themselves relevant in their fields or think of taking up alternative careers. Otherwise, they’ll be stuck,” he said.

The activist with the Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia group said the issue was complex as not every job would be replaced by technology.

“Even in the medical profession, technology can help to diagnose better and faster. They definitely can’t replace human skills entirely but the trend is also moving that way where this won’t be necessary.”

He added that this should be a concern as most of the time civil servants simply “clock in and out” without doing much at work.

“If we take things like processing licences or passports, a lot of it is already automated as is the case with most countries. So, if AI (artificial intelligence) can help things in the job go faster, why not?”

In any case, former transport ministry secretary-general Ramon Navaratnam said, Putrajaya must carefully plan any downsizing efforts in the civil service or risk getting a serious backlash.

The economist told FMT the government should go for the “unproductive and lousy” workers first. If they do not change their ways after being reached out to, they should be warned, then let go.

“At that point, the government can offer them a voluntary retirement scheme. That’s the easiest way to go about this. Of course, if they are delinquents and corrupt, taking action is the best way forward.”

Ramon, who was in the civil service from 1959 to 1989, said the government must also come up with a plan to get civil servants ready for the new “alternative jobs” once they were out of the civil service.

“This is very difficult because not many people around the world know what to expect. So, perhaps the government can commission a study or consult more advanced countries to see what they are doing on this.”

He also proposed a revamp of the existing education system to ensure students who left schools were able to adjust to the new digital economy and Industry 4.0. Information Technology, he said, was the answer but it must start in schools.

“The easiest way to go about this is to just go next door to Singapore or Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea or China which are facing the same challenge and are responding to it better because they know how,” he said.

But he cautioned against delaying this without good reason. “The government has been talking about this for too long. Even removing 0.1% of the civil service will send a signal that it means business.”

Meanwhile, Harry Tan, secretary-general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession, disagreed that tech would ever be able to replace the role of teachers in schools, saying this was a job which humans must do.

Tan, a unionist who has been teaching since 1984 and is due to retire in 2021, said that he would never agree to any downsizing of teachers.

He told FMT there was no time like the present for more care and attention to be given to students, urging for class sizes to be reduced by the government so that teachers could do their jobs better.