Malaysia’s civil service is undergoing a changing of the guard.
To understand government, one must understand the civil service. The Malaysian public services comprise around 1.6 million employees across ministries and agencies. The figure includes the military.
The civil service runs the government. It is also the prime developer of policy for the government of the day. If no executive government existed, the running of government affairs would not be affected at all. This is why many ministers are able to spend an enormous amount of time on political engagements.
Depending on the government in power, there could be anywhere from 25 to 40 ministries. They are often merged and broken apart.
There is a hierarchy of rank in the public services, spanning some 25 levels from clerk to director-general and secretary-general. Civil servants are usually on tenured employment; once they are confirmed as permanent staff, they have a lifelong career and a pension at retirement.
The civil service is not representative of the ethnic demographics of Malaysia, being weighted very strongly towards Malays and other Bumiputeras. Consequently, Malay culture, practices and customs are predominant within the public services.
In addition, with most senior civil servants domiciled in Kuala Lumpur, Shah Alam, and Putrajaya, they tend to be urban-centric in their views.
The Merdeka generation
The civil service was built up and run by the post-World War II baby boom generation who, at least among the senior people, studied overseas, used English as their primary language, and had a strong bond with alumni from their respective elite secondary schools. Consequently, there was much lateral communication between ministries and agencies.
They witnessed Merdeka as adolescents, and generally had a strong work ethic, using their knowledge and experience to serve and develop the nation.
This group has all but left the service.
Most senior positions and those in upper middle management are now in the hands of Gen X. Gen Xers also have a strong work ethic and have kept the system intact. They have tended to be more pragmatic and thus more political than their former bosses.
The Malay agenda
Gen Xers also thought strongly about maintaining the so-called ‘Malay agenda’ and protected the civil service from straying away from an unspoken policy or cultural norm of ensuring the service always put Malay issues first.
If any policy ever came down from the executive government that infringed the ‘Malay agenda’, it would not be acted upon or even sabotaged.
Coming into the middle ranks of the civil service are now those of Gen Y, or the Millennials, who are much more IT-literate and at the forefront of bringing systems within the civil service into the internet age.
Millennials see KPIs or key performance indexes as their objectives. As long as issues and objectives are clearly defined, Millennials will work towards those goals. Ambiguity is not liked.
Conformity and compliance
Millennials are also products of the local education system, which slants the way they see issues. The civil service is now much more a bastion of conformity and compliance. Being outspoken is not a positive trait. Together with the strong power-distance between superiors and subordinates, dissenting opinions, creative ideas that might improve processes and outcomes are not welcome.
The most distinct change in the characteristics of the civil service is that the majority of Millennials have experienced a much more intense Islamic education. Thus, the Malay agenda has to some extent transformed into a Malay-Islamic agenda. Millennials are much more aligned to the ideas of an Islam-centric world compared to the generations before them.
The new generation
Moving into the lower positions of the civil service are now those from Gen Z. After graduating from local universities they share the same Islam-centric view of the world as Millennials have but Gen Zers are more flexible than the Millennials.
However, their personal values are much more self-centered than the generations before them. They will tend to calculate whether particular jobs and tasks will lead to promotion. They tend to be more assertive for their best interests. Within the next five years, the civil service will consist of around 30% Gen Z employees.
Generation change is having a major effect upon the civil service
With more employees who are products of the Malaysian education system, we should expect to see changes to the diversity of thinking within the service. Unfortunately, diversity of thinking would be expected to narrow, rather than widen.
Different work ethics
Malaysian institutions of higher learning are not as diverse as universities in the UK, USA, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia.
Work ethics will also be very different, especially when the Gen Xers leave the top echelon of the service, over the coming decade. The next generation of the civil service may be much more rules based, than project based than it had been in the past.
The civil service is losing much of its experience of past history. Basically, history for most civil servants began only in the 1990s. The memories of the Asian financial crisis and the styles of past administrations will be lost on those responsible for making policy for the government.
The newer generations within the civil service have been much more sheltered than those before them. The new generations have been discouraged from contributing to groups in an open environment, especially when other generations are involved. This could inhibit creativity, especially in the rules-based environment that has been created by Gen Xers.
The civil service will be in the hands of a generation who are looking to see what they get out of their careers, rather than seeing what they can put into their careers. This will be a major issue for the future leaders of the service.
Future leaders will also have to deal with a bloated and inefficient civil service, when a future government identifies this as a major issue. The civil service has been used to soak up graduate employment for more than a generation.
There are no prizes for guessing that the majority within the civil service tend to have political sympathies towards the PAS side of politics. The federal seat of Putrajaya is now in the hands of Perikatan Nasional.
This is perhaps the most important aspect of the civil service since Merdeka, and why the concept of Madani was created to appease this leaning. There must be an element of Islam in policy for civil servants to support and get behind it.
The civil service is undergoing these quiet changes that few are aware of.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.