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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Our Crumbling Civil Service

Our Crumbling Civil Service

M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican

MalaysiaToday May 30, 2007

Prime Minister Abdullah’s announcement of a pay raise for civil servants, in the midst of the furor over water leaks and collapsed ceilings at spanking new government buildings, brings to the fore once again the angst on the state of the Malaysian civil service.

The civil service specifically and our public institutions generally are fast losing their effectiveness through the twin blights of corruption and incompetence. This is the critical challenge facing the nation. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister refuses to acknowledge or is unable to comprehend this reality. He is content with mouthing endless exhortations: “Be more efficient!” “Do not be corrupt!” “Be global in outlook!”

This is vintage Abdullah, as his contemporaries in the civil service would attest, accustomed to his countless hours in such sembang (empty talks) back at the old Federal House building in the 1960s.

Abdullah’s leadership, like our institutions, is blighted by incompetence and corruption. Only a few months ago Abdullah was bemoaning the Little Napoleons in the civil service. Then the service was a convenient scapegoat for the inadequacies of his policies. Today he claims these civil servants deserve a pay hike. Talk about mixed signals!

Bloat Is Not The Only Problem

By whatever measure (relative to the economy, population, state of development, or compared to similar nations), our civil service is definitely bloated. That presents its own problems, quite apart from the substantial burden it imposes on the country. The only thing worse than a bloated civil service is one that is also corrupt and incompetent. And that unfortunately is what Malaysia has.

The optimal size of government varies with different countries, dependent upon among others, the culture and state of development. Thus simplistically comparing the civil servant-to-population ratios or size of government relative to the economy would be meaningless. Even more problematic is that the very definition of public service varies. Physicians do the same work everywhere; in America they are mostly in the private sector, in Malaysia, civil service.

When there is no government (or an ineffective one), there would be chaos and no meaningful development, economic and others. That is the curse of many African countries. Likewise when the government is huge and all-powerful, it smothers the citizens, reducing them to wards of the state. The result would be also economic stagnation, as exemplified by the old Soviet system. The American Presidential candidate of the 1960s, Barry Goldwater, rightly observed that a government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away.

This negative consequence of too little or too much government is encapsulated in the wisdom of the Armey curve, first articulated by the American economist turned politician, Richard Armey.

It is not the size of the government however, that is important, rather what it does with that size and power. Governments in Canada and Scandinavia consume a much larger share of the economy, yet their citizens are very happy. Those governments use their power and resources to provide preschool for every child, protect the environment, and guarantee universal healthcare for their citizens. The Malaysian government uses its considerable power and size to monitoring what citizens are reading, intimidating its critics, and competing against citizens in the marketplace.

Visit a Canadian National Park and compare it to our Taman Negara; that would be a concrete and readily comprehensible example of an effective government. If our civil servants were consumed less with moral cleansing by snooping around catching people in khalwat and instead pick up the rubbish in our parks and rivers, then there would be fewer complaints and more sympathy for the salary hikes.

If ministers responsible for education were to focus only on improving our schools and universities instead of busy trying to appear as champions of our race, language, and other extraneous issues, then we would need only one instead of three ministers. We could then double his or her salary, and it would still be cheaper on the nation. It would also be more efficient.

Insidious Problem

To be fair, the deterioration of the civil service predated Abdullah. The shift away from an independent, apolitical and impartial institution began under Mahathir. He appointed the less-than-capable Ahmad Sarji as Chief Secretary to do his (Mahathir’s) bidding. That however is now history. The consequence is that today the civil service is reduced to nothing more than an instrument of UMNO.

Abdullah perpetuated and aggravated the trend by bringing in his own cabal of wet-behind-the-ears outside advisers, most notably his son-in-law and Kallimullah Hassan. Abdullah squandered his massive electoral mandate in not improving the civil service.

With time and lack of remedial actions, the problems in the civil service compounded and gained momentum. Now the rot is obvious and has reached the very core; solving it would be much more complicated.

Consider corruption. We do not need Transparency International to tell us that the problem is entrenched. The leaking roof is only the most visible manifestation of corruption’s toll. An encounter with the traffic police or customs officer will bring that reality to a very personal level.

It reflects Abdullah’s naivety that he believes raising salaries would solve the problem of corruption. On the contrary, that would only make it worse. Whereas before a RM 50 note would satisfy the traffic cop, today he or she would sniff at it, demanding a bigger loot to match his or her now higher expectations.

There can only be two reasons for increasing salaries: to reward increased productivity and to attract talent. The civil service fails on both counts. There is no shortage of applicants for government jobs. As for productivity, visit any government department.

One would think that with the glut of applicants, the government would get the best talent. Far from it! The qualification for entry into the administrative service remains the same, any university degree. One would have thought that the government would tighten the standards and insist that candidates demonstrate competency in English and mathematics. Today our diplomats can hardly express themselves or understand the quantitative aspects of high finance, yet we trust them to negotiate complicated trade treaties and international agreements!

Impact on the Malay Labor Market

Either by design or through default, the civil service is primarily a Malay institution. As the largest employer of Malays, it has a disproportionate and unhealthy impact on the dynamics of the Malay labor market. Young Malays respond not to market forces but to the demands of the civil service. The world may demand skills in science, technology, and English, but as long as the civil service does not emphasize or need those skills, young Malays would have little incentive to acquire them.

As Malays have a fascination for the civil service, it could potentially play a pivotal role in influencing the development of Malay talent. If the government were to mandate that all civil servants be fluent in English (as well as Malay, of course), science literate, and have mathematical skills, it would automatically encourage young Malays to pursue those subjects.

We recommend going further and require that all applicants for government jobs have at least three years of private sector experience. That would ensure the government gets the best applicants. Those Malays who aspire for the civil service would have to first prepare themselves for the private sector, meaning they would have to learn English and be mathematically competent.

Imagine the improved quality of our civil servants if they have had some private sector experience and marketplace exposure. For one, they would be more responsive to the needs of their customers, the public. For another, they would not be insulated from everyday realities.

The public disgust against the recent salary hikes for civil servants reflects a general dissatisfaction on the quality of our government. The public is not getting the quality of services for all the money expended. Improve the quality, and the public would not begrudge the raises.


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