Beware the lumbering elephant that can derail PH’s reforms

As the new Cabinet was sworn in on Monday, I felt a deep sense of hope for Malaysia.

Over the past week, everywhere I went and everyone I spoke to enthused about the new government and how good times are ahead for the nation.

Thirteen leaders of Pakatan Harapan (PH) were sworn in as ministers, forming the core of Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Cabinet. Mahathir, who intends to expand the Cabinet membership to 25, was of course sworn in as prime minister one day after polling day.

People are looking forward to seeing reforms, as promised by PH, so that they can feel proud of the nation again. And like most Malaysians, I look forward to the promised structural changes as they can truly herald the dawn of a new, and vastly better, Malaysia. But I’m also worried. I’m worried that there will be resistance from the civil service.

Yes, this lumbering elephant could derail the reforms that have been planned.

The 1.6 million workers tasked with implementing government policies and programmes are used to the old Barisan Nasional (BN) – or more accurately Umno – style of government.

The question is this: Can they, especially the heads of the various ministries and departments, reset their mode of thinking and ensure the success of these reforms?

More than a few senior officers think they actually work for politicians, not the people. They don’t realise, or are not bothered, that they have been pawning their dignity by fawning over ministers.

And that is why I am happy that Mahathir, in calling on civil servants on Monday to give their full cooperation to the new government, told them not to bow down to pressure and not to do anything illegal.

He said: “I hope that I get your undivided cooperation in what I do as prime minister as long as what I’m doing is not against the principles or the laws of the nation.” Empowering words from a man who was once called a dictator. It’s truly remarkable and a first – for, to my knowledge, no other prime minister has said this.

This message is sorely needed, for the civil service has become too politicised and too many top civil servants have sacrificed their professionalism at the altar of promotions and royal titles and post-retirement directorships.

Of course, it was not always this way. Until the time of the late Hussein Onn, the civil service was very respected and it held its head high. Even during the first few years of the first premiership of Mahathir, they acted with professionalism.

The decline probably began with the introduction of Mahathir’s Malaysia Incorporated policy. Of course, he had good intentions: he wanted a productive partnership between the public and private sectors; the public sector was to help, not hinder, the growth of the private sector so that the economy would grow, and this would bring in more tax revenue which could be used to implement projects to benefit the people.

However, along the way, many businessmen and civil servants discovered the “I scratch your back, you scratch my back” scheme, and things went downhill – especially in the last 10 years or so. Also, politicians, including ministers, began to recommend their relatives and friends and party members to top administrators with authority to approve government contracts. Many cronies became rich, and so did some government officers. I’ve heard that some officers gave contracts or licences to their own relatives, too.

As a result, the civil service lost its shine. Today, many members of the public have little respect for the civil service. That has to change, and Mahathir is just the man to ignite this change.

I suggest that the new government take another look at the General Orders as there are provisions that need to be dropped or amended. Some laws – such as the Public Authorities Protection Act 1948 – need to be amended so that civil servants can be made fully accountable for their decisions and actions. That will force them to perk up when discharging their duties.

One area that needs better definition is when and how a non-performing civil servant can be fired. The bureaucratic hurdles placed in current procedures for firing a civil servant should be removed. Today, those who enter the civil service do so with the assurance that their employment is secure until they reach retirement age. There is no fear of losing their job, unlike in the private sector. It is time to put some fear into civil servants.

Also, I am told there are more than a few civil servants who should have been medically boarded out long ago but who are still employed because the head of department “kesian” (feels sorry) for that person and his family. It is time to relook this.

And yes, recruitment and promotions in the civil service must be based on merit. Surely we need to change its image and put the “Malaysian” back into the civil service. And the authorities should stop saying non-Malays are not interested. They will be if there is an assurance that recruitment and promotions will be merit-based. It is time to remove the race factor from the civil service.

Yet another debilitating practice is that of appointing top civil servants, immediately after they retire, as chairmen or directors of government-linked companies. A top civil servant – and this includes judges and police chiefs – who does not rock the boat can end up in posts that don’t require too much work but which bring in a tidy sum in allowances and perks. Enjoy lah bruder.

This practice, therefore, encourages senior civil servants to bow down shamelessly to the whims of politicians in power. It is time to plug this.

Also, there is a need to go back to the core business of the civil service. Senior civil servants spend too much time entertaining ministers, launching this or that event, and being bogged down by ceremonial stuff. It is time to control this.

For any organisation to progress, staff should be encouraged to share their ideas and offer constructive criticism. I understand that in the civil service, officers who criticise the actions or ideas of their superiors, or who are seen as a threat for offering new ideas, are sidelined, denied promotions and not recommended for honourifics such as “Datuk”. This attitude militates against efficiency and enrichment. It is time to clip this behaviour.

Then again, some officers cosy up to politicians in the hope that the politicians will smoothen their upward mobility or recommend them for titles. This should strictly be done by department heads or the chief secretary, not politicians. It is time to stop this convention.

But while the civil service itself is a lumbering elephant, it has within it many hardworking and capable officers. It is time for these officers to rise to the occasion and take the lead in helping the new government ensure the planned reforms are successful. In so doing, they will be serving the people well – which is the reason for the civil service to exist.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor with FMT.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.