How to arrest sabotage and cure civil service ills

In an earlier column, soon after the May 9 general election, I said the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government would meet resistance from the civil service, a lumbering elephant of 1.6 million workers, in carrying out its reforms.

This was because, I had said, civil servants were used to the Umno style of governance and that more than a few officers felt they worked for politicians in Umno and Barisan Nasional, not the people.

In recent months, we have heard laments by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and other PH leaders about how civil servants are not in sync with the new government.

PPBM strategist Wan Saiful Wan Jan, for instance, said the lack of cooperation from the civil service was one of the major reasons the PH government was unable to fulfil many of its election promises within 100 days. Saying PH had been wrong to assume the civil service would support the new government, he added: “They did not facilitate changes.”

Dr Mahathir has, on several occasions, noted the antagonistic attitude, and questioned the loyalty, of civil servants, even going to the extent of talking of sabotage.

A retired senior civil servant told me senior civil servants were among those resisting changes introduced by the new government and one reason for this was their long association with Umno, which had resulted in strong bonds of friendship with top Umno politicians and their families.

Another reason is that these officials were promoted by the previous administration and they feel obliged to stay loyal to it. Some senior and very senior officials had leap-frogged over others in appointments, thanks to former Umno ministers, he said.

He gave as the clearest example of this the elevation of former chief secretary Ali Hamsa. Ali had not served as a secretary-general or even a deputy secretary-general, the normal pathway for securing the all-important post of chief secretary. Ali was the director-general of the Public-Private Partnership Unit in the Prime Minister’s Department before being made chief secretary by former prime minister Najib Razak.

Another reason for the resistance, he enumerated, was fear. “I believe some of them fear if they cooperate with the PH government, someone aligned to the previous administration may send anonymous complaints to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) about them, detailing stuff they’d rather not come out in the open.”

This is a very real fear, given the fact that the MACC is actively ferreting out acts of corruption and has even taken the former prime minister to court.

But, he noted, there were many good civil servants who wanted to help the nation progress, regardless of who was in charge of the government. He stressed that the majority of civil servants were apolitical when it came to work performance.

Another ex-officer told me some civil servants were placing obstacles in the path of, or delaying, the new government’s directives because many of them had bought into the narrative that without Umno the Malays would lose their privileges. This includes the so-called better educated officers in senior positions.

These officers, he felt, were ready to scuttle any reform they perceived to be against the dominance or interests of the Malays or Islam, even if these were not so and even if, in the long run, it would hurt the nation.

“This is exactly what happened when (former prime ministers) Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib tried to introduce reforms,” he said.

Worse, some of them cannot accept that the DAP – which has been vilified over decades by Umno – is now part of the government.

In my years as a journalist, I have met and spoken to many civil servants at all levels and I can say that there are some excellent civil servants who act professionally.

At the same time, I have noticed that almost all civil servants have had an overly strong sense of deference for Umno leaders, especially ministers, and even for the very top civil servants. Whittle down this deference, this culture of complaisance, and civil servants will likely act more professionally.

The constant refrain of “Tan Sri” and “Datuk Seri” and “Datuk” that civil servants use when addressing ministers and top civil servants has served to make them servile. Many of these ministers and top officials are not accessible, or easily accessible, to many civil servants, not to speak of the layman, and there are layers that one has to go through to get to the top.

Too much deference can lead to blind loyalty. The PH leadership has to remove this culture of deference and make top civil servants more accessible.

I have noticed, too, that anyone who becomes a secretary-general or director-general is given an honorific, almost as if the title comes with the post. That could make him or her feel bloated and expect obeisance. The PH government should go slow and be very selective in recommending awards to civil servants. The same principle should apply to politicians.

There is a difference in the reaction of civil servants when an ordinary person wants to meet them and a “Tan Sri” or “Datuk” wants to meet them. I understand that businessmen with honorifics can easily get things done in matters related to government. So, perhaps there is a need to be sparing when it comes to recommending businessmen for awards too.

I have also noted, over the years, the incompetence of more than a few civil servants, the result of a hiring policy in the past that was neither based on merit nor natural justice. We know that in any administration or office, the incompetent always fear a new management which comes with a new work ethos.

Don’t forget that many Malaysians think some civil servants are lazy and the lazy will certainly resist tough task masters like Dr Mahathir.

A look at the auditor-general’s annual reports will tell us how much the incompetence and indolence of civil servants has been costing the nation.

One way to check on the civil service is to quickly enact a freedom of information act, so that NGOs and the public can help keep an eye on them. Another is to ensure appointments and promotions are based strictly on merit. Yet another is to convince the largely Malay civil service that Malays will not lose out if PH’s policies are implemented and how this is good for the nation in the long run.

Certainly we can expect some civil servants to continue to resist the new government’s plans, but I hope this will not be used as an excuse to promote civil servants who are close to PH politicians, or appoint junior officers over the heads of senior ones, unless the senior officers are incorrigibly incompetent or corrupt or lazy.

People expect PH to be different from Umno and the Barisan Nasional, even though many ex-Umno people populate PPBM and PKR.

I think it may be beneficial to have some civil servants who are critical of the new government, as long as they don’t sabotage plans and programmes aimed at public welfare.

But I have to reiterate that the majority of civil servants are acting in good faith, otherwise there would have been chaos in the governance of the country after May 9. A recent example should illustrate the professionalism and apolitical stance of most civil servants: there has been no major problem in the transition back to the sales and services tax from the goods and services tax. The civil servants involved, especially those in the Customs Department, deserve credit for carrying out their tasks well.

And don’t forget, our diplomats continue to keep Malaysia’s image flying even though a new government is in place; those in local authorities continue to clean and clear rubbish; and many other civil servants keep the wheels of government turning. I, for one, am grateful to them.

A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT.

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