The merits in rightsizing the civil service

Tan-Sri-Mohd-Sheriff-Mohd-KassimBy Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim

Cuepacs and Perkasa have reacted emotionally over my statement regarding the country’s oversized civil service. Perhaps this sensitivity is due to the fact that the civil service is mainly Malay and Malay dependence on the civil service for employment is very high.

Rightsizing through a voluntary separation scheme is much needed. There are ways of doing it in a humane and caring manner. First, the government can start with retraining redundant employees by giving them free courses on skills development – computers, English, basic accounting, corporate law etc.

These are all the skills needed to make them employable in the private sector. I am sure once employees obtain these skills, many would voluntarily leave as soon as they reach the optional retirement age. Government employees will self-separate.

It should be noted that there are thousands of husbands and wives, who both work in government service. In many cases, especially among lower level categories, one of them is engaged in part time business like selling kain (fabric), tudung (headscarfs), kuih (cakes and cookies), religious books etc to supplement their income. They probably have business ambitions but cannot afford to leave the government service because they have no capital.

Imagine if one of them gets a voluntary separation package offer of RM40,000 for their 20 years of service. Chances are one of them will accept the offer, while the other would continue working as a civil servant until retirement to qualify for medical benefits for the whole family. Thus, the government is helping the Malay wife or husband become an entrepreneur, a genuine one because they have a track record.

Voluntary separation schemes like in the private sector, cannot be forced upon an employee because it is illegal to terminate a worker who has not done anything wrong and has been a loyal employee. The scheme should only affect those whose functions are no longer needed because automation has replaced human labour. With 21st century technology being what it is, the need to send letters or deliver face-to-face services i.e. human intensive work, is no longer relevant.

In the banking sector, there is no need to be physically present at a branch to conduct a transaction. That is why banks are closing down their branches and terminating their employees.

I believe the government can also look at closing down either completely or partially, certain offices and branches without affecting the quality of service. The redundant civil servants should then be deployed to other functions or retrained to prepare them for the voluntary separation scheme.

While the government rightsizes redundant civil servants, it will have to continue recruiting those that are needed for specialised expertise in the fields of finance, economics, research, medicine, education, science, environment as well as law. This should be encouraged as the civil service must continually upgrade the quality of its staff.

The government should be focussing more on quality rather than quantity because this is the way to increase productivity and efficiency in the civil service. We should have a much smaller administrative service to support the functioning of government ministries and departments. This can be achieved through the decentralising and empowering of authority to reduce the multi-layer approval process.

A lot of progress has been made in recent years to improve counter delivery services in several departments with the use of technology and the simplification of procedures. Logically, there should be less need for manpower and redundant staff can be offered voluntary retirement with an attractive compensation package.

If it takes some years for the government to recover the heavy expenditure of the separation scheme, it is still worth it. We can hope that with a smaller civil service, the economy as a whole will become more efficient and with dynamism and growth in private sector activities, the government will collect more taxes to recover the cost of separation schemes.

With less spending on wages and pensions as a proportion of the budget, there will be more room in the operating expenditure to spend on upgrading the facilities of schools, universities, hospitals, and research departments which today do not get enough budgetary allocations to keep them in proper working condition.

I believe the government should start planning a rightsizing programme of the civil service now so that it can be done in a proper manner rather than wait until there is a financial crisis, at which time government employees will be retrenched without justice for all their years of loyal service. This has happened in Greece, as I mentioned previously.

Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff bin Mohd Kassim is the former Secretary-General of the Treasury, Ministry of Finance and a member of the civil society group G25.

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