Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 2 July 2019

The response to the World Bank report that the performance of Malaysia’s civil service has been declining since 2014 has been remarkable. World Bank lead public sector specialist Rajni Bajpai said that the report decided to compare Malaysia with the OECD countries as we are hoping to move from a middle-income to that of high-income status country:

“If you look at the indicator for government effectiveness, Malaysia is still above in the region but in 2018, the performance is below that of between 1991 and 2014…If you take the average of that period between 1991 and 2014, it was higher than that in 2018, which means the performance is declining,” she said in an interview. There were also some indicators in which Malaysia ranked even below the region, said Rajni, adding that this included accountability, impartiality and the openness of its public sector.

“There is a strong perception … that recruitment of the civil service is not fair and neutral (with) Malaysia scoring very poorly on the indicators for impartiality in the government…It’s the lowest ranked, even below the region and way below the OECD,” she said, adding that the government in its election manifesto had suggested setting up an Equal Opportunities Commission to tackle discriminatory practices in both the public and private sector.

Furthermore, recruitment, which was carried out by the Public Services Department, was overcentralised. Describing Malaysia as one of the “most overcentralised” governments, she pointed out that in many countries, this function had been devolved to other departments and even state governments:

“Over-centralisation does not allow for the people who actually need the public servants to do certain jobs … because they don’t have the right people or the recruitment takes a very long time…Malaysia is not a very open economy in the sense that the government does not share of a lot of data, even within its own departments or with the citizens and citizens’ feedback and voices are not factored by the government into the design of programmes,” she said. Another indicator that Malaysia performed “not very well”, according to Rajni, was in digitisation and technological advances, which the government had not been able to integrate into its system to provide services.

Is it all just perception?

The Cuepacs president Datuk Azih Muda’s response to this World Bank report has been to say it is “unfair and irresponsible” for the World Bank to claim that there is stagnation in Malaysia’s civil service and that Malaysia is ranked lowly in its indicators for accountability, impartiality as well as the transparency and openness of its public service. He insists that “our performance has not been decreasing, it has been on the increase…It is not fair to compare our achievements with the whole world.”

Azih also slammed the World Bank’s concerns over the sustainability of the public sector’s wage bill in the long run. It was reported that salaries and pensions for civil servants previously accounted for 44% of the government’s operating expenditure, making it the fastest growing expenditure item. Azih said Malaysia’s civil sector was not big as claimed given that the 1.7 million public sector employees included members of the armed forces and police, and education and health personnel.

It was ironic that on the same day as the World Bank report, the Public Accounts Committee of the Malaysian Parliament complained that the heads of the civil service had not even bothered to respond to the PAC’s call for them to attend PAC hearings.

So, what is the evidence?

1.       Is our public sector bloated?

Is the notion that our public sector is bloated merely a perception?

Malaysia’s bureaucracy is one of the biggest in the world, with 1.7 million civil servants to a population of 32 million, a ratio of 4.5% compared with Singapore’s ratio of 1.5% civil servants to total population; Hong Kong’s 2.3% and Taiwan’s ratio of 2.3%. We are spending more than RM41 billion a year to upkeep our civil servants.

While it is the growing trend of many countries to reduce their civil service, Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Department in particular, has done the opposite. It has more than doubled its number of civil servants from 21,000 to 43,554. In stark contrast, the White House employs fewer than 2000 staff! To date, there are so many “Ministers in the Prime Minister’s Department” alone, on top of other important agencies or governmental bodies that fall within the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department. The new PH government has even invented a new post, “Special Advisers to the Ministers” for their unemployed politicians!

The oversized bureaucracy has, in turn, created massive leakages in the economy. In 2010, Cuepacs President Omar Osman revealed that a total of 418,200 or 41% of the total number of civil servants in the country were suspected to be involved in corruption. The 2009 Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) report revealed that Malaysians generally consider political parties and civil service to be the most corrupt groups, and the government’s anti-corruption drive to be ineffective.

The armed forces and police were enlarged during the colonial period and were further expanded during the Emergency in the 1950s.

2.       Is the public sector fair, neutral and impartial?

The Malay dominance in the military and police has served as the ultimate deterrent to any challenge to the status quo, and is intended to demonstrate to the Malay community that political power lies firmly in the hands of “the Malays”. The highest stratum of the military-bureaucracy is part of the traditional Malay ruling class.

 Within the armed forces and police, there is a preponderance of recruitment of Malays as well as restricted mobility for non-Malay ranks, especially after 1969. Nevertheless, the figures for 1968 show a considerable proportion of non-Malay representation (55%) in the police force. (Source: D.S. Gibbons and Z.H. Ahmad, ‘Politics and Selection for the Higher Civil Service in the New States: the Malaysian Example’, Journal of Comparative Administration, 1971, 3:341.)

After 1969, the timetable for expansion of the armed forces and police was accelerated. Funds were diverted from development projects into defence. The regular army grew from 52,500 in 1978 to 90,000 in 1980. In addition, there are 50,000 reserves in the Territorial Army as well as 58,000 Police Field Force, which were formed during the Emergency as an anti-guerrilla force. The elite Royal Malay Regiment is exclusively Malay. In 1981, the armed forces senior officers (Division 1) corps was 65 per cent Malay, while in the lower ranks, the proportion of Malays was even higher. Above all, the armed forces and police have served the ruling class as a means of absorbing the dispossessed Malay peasantry and urban unemployed Malays.

After the launch of the New Economic Policy in 1971, the expanding state sector has provided civil servants not only with opportunities for attractive salaries, ‘perks’, but also scope for private accumulation in the many business opportunities open to bumiputras. Thus, the proportion of Malays in the administrative and managerial occupations rose from 24 per cent in 1970 to 32 per cent in 1980. According to the 1980 census, more than 80% of all government executive officers were Malays while 96% of Felda settlers were Malay.

The gross disparity in the ethnic make-up of the civil service up to 31 March 2011 was revealed in a reply to a parliamentary question in August 2011. The second largest ethnic group in the country, namely, the Chinese community made up less than two percent of the Malaysian government service employees. There is thus, a gross under-representation of the non-Malay communities and the East Malaysian indigenous communities in the civil service at all levels that is of concern for national integration and equality, apart from the bloated public sector.

A striking case of racial discrimination is seen in the total absence of any non-Bumiputera Vice Chancellors in any of the public sector universities in the country when this was not the case in the early years of Independence. This surely has consequences not only for justice and civil rights of non-Malays but also for the pursuit of meritocracy in the Malaysian civil service.

The sharp decline in ethnic composition of the non-Malays in the Malaysian civil service perhaps reflects the World Bank report’s conclusion that “… recruitment of the civil service is not fair and neutral (with) Malaysia scoring very poorly on the indicators for impartiality in the government”. This surely has consequences for “accountability, impartiality and the openness of its public sector”.

Thus, in a “New Malaysia” expecting to join the community of high-income nations, one would expect our national leaders, civil servants and union officials to value criticism as a gift – an opportunity to check objectively the validity of the evidence-based analysis of organisations such as the World Bank, and listen to their stakeholders, namely, the tax paying public in whose service they are employed.  

Isn’t it high time if we are serious about achieving the goals of Vision 2020, that we confront and solve these issues pointed out by the World Bank of being (i) hugely oversized and a drain on taxpayers contributions; (ii) that composition and recruitment into the civil service is neither fair nor neutral, and (iii) that our civil servants, including director generals are underperforming?  

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