Is the Malaysian civil service getting in the way of reform?

Photo Credit: Tasnim News Agency/Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia’s civil service has long come under fire for being bloated, inefficient and self-serving. Now it stands accused of preventing attempts at reform.

By John Pennington

When Mohammad Mahathir came to power almost a year ago, he pledged to do something about Malaysia’s bloated civil service. During the 1980s, he successfully privatised parts of the organisation and was disappointed that his successors did not follow his example.

Now, there is discord between his government’s ministers and the civil service. He claims that the civil service opposes his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government because of its anti-corruption stance.

Since his return to power, he has spoken about a desire to privatise further to reduce the size of the civil service. However, change has not materialised. Is he to blame, or is the civil service protecting its own interests rather than serving the government of the day?

Malaysia’s civil service employs hundreds of thousands of people

Malaysia’s civil service is problematic. Under Mahathir’s predecessor, Najib Razak, it employed 11% of the country’s labour force. Critics argued 1.6 million people in the civil service was far too many.

However, that figure includes teachers, the police, health officials and armed personnel. Excluding those, the number is closer to 500,000. Nevertheless, that still leaves Malaysia with one of the largest civil services in Southeast Asia.

The size of Malaysia’s civil service puts pressure on the economy. Some 40% of the government budget goes on public sector wages, pensions, allowances and benefits. There are fears that in the future, the country may not be able to afford to pay its retired civil servants.

Furthermore, even though expenditure on the civil service is high, civil servants are not especially well paid. This means it cannot attract outstanding talent and reward good work. In this way, the civil service stagnates.

Ethnic Malays comprise 67% of the general population but account for 90% of civil servants. This has resulted in an organisation prone to favouring Malay interests. It was also increasingly politicised under Najib. In 2011, a leaked cable quoted former Economic Planning Unit deputy director-general K Govindan as saying that it was “completely loyal to UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) but increasingly incompetent.”

Reform of the civil service is a test for any government

Civil service reform is a difficult undertaking for any government. Civil servants are a considerable source of support and votes. Recent by-elections have shown PH is already losing support among Malays. Alienating civil service workers will put PH’s claim to represent the Malay vote in jeopardy.

A civil service employing thousands of people can provide strong governmental support. However, it demands significant resources, particularly when civil servants benefit from salary increases and bonuses.

Although Mahathir has spoken about reform, he has yet to put a firm plan in place. He has lots of ideas, including clamping down on corruption within the civil service. Yet, his enthusiasm to increase efficiency, cut numbers and boost production is not shared by his colleagues.

For example, ministers believe that hasty action could backfire. “I will not agree if Dr Mahathir wants to reduce the number of civil servants straightaway because I believe that civil servants are still important,” said Home Minister Muhyiddin Yasan. “It will have to be done in phases, but not in a year or two.”

Is the civil service deliberately sabotaging PH’s programme?

Some analysts believe civil servants will do anything to protect the Malay agenda. The government faces opposition from civil servants who are unwilling to change and grew comfortable with the status quo. There are even claims some civil servants are involved in sabotage. Mahathir believes his anti-graft stance makes him unpopular among the swollen ranks of public servants.

Mahathir’s struggle is symptomatic of UMNO’s dominance of the Malaysian political landscape for so long. Political change came as an unwelcome shock to the civil service. UMNO deliberately politicised the system and introduced Islamist values. It comes as no surprise that many remain loyal to their former masters.

Not everybody believes the civil service is deliberately working against PH. “Some say it is sabotage; it is not a matter of sabotage but a lack of understanding and appreciation by civil servants of PH’s vision,” argued Federal Territories Minister Khalid Samad.

Others claim that Mahathir’s ministers do not trust their civil servants and are as much to blame for the problem. “The civil servants have been coming to see me. They say ‘oh, minister don’t trust me, OK…and they [political appointees] run the ministry,’” said Daim Zainuddin, who served as Finance Minister under Mahathir in previous governments. “You have to work with [the civil servants]. Without them…you are dead,” he added.

A long-term plan is needed to reform the civil service

Reforming the civil service in Malaysia is long overdue. It is bloated. It is wasteful. It is inefficient. It does not reflect the country’s interests at large, and allegations of sabotage suggest that it is failing in its primary duty – to serve Mahathir’s government. Once an example for others in the region, the Malaysian civil service has now become little more than a “job bank” for Malays.

The civil service is very different from when Mahathir was last in power. It could take decades to make meaningful changes. “Now we have to proceed with the process of reforms to civil servants whereby we need to convince them to follow the new leadership and make them appreciate the new vision set by the new administration,” Samad added. “We cannot force it, as it takes time.”

Time is the one thing that PH may not have if it continues to lose support among the electorate.

Mahathir and PH are in an unenviable position. Pushing forward with reforms will leave them vulnerable at the polls. Leaving things as they are will see the civil service continue to absorb resources that could be better spent delivering change elsewhere.

Sabotage or not, one thing is clear. The Malaysian civil service is serving neither its government nor its country well. Whether actively through resistance and non-cooperation or passively through its sheer size and inefficiency, the Malaysian civil service is a significant barrier to reform.