The Civil Service: Malaysia’s engine in need of a major overhaul

The four key areas to transform Malaysia’s civil service.



To date, the Malaysian public service has a staff strength of 1.2 million employees, covering 28 schemes of service. Despite the growth in quantity after 53 years, unfortunately the system still struggles with not only technological usage but also in efficiency, quality of service, and mind-setting spirit at work. We stress on improving the civil service because the Malaysian civil service plays a huge role in the growth of the country, domestically and internationally, and we therefore cannot afford these short-comings.

As recently as 9 October 2010, our Prime Minister addressed the civil sector in Malaysia to be more receptive to change. He mentioned in his speech that we should equip our public service with quality human capital and quality of service to meet the demands of our society. He said the following four areas would be the benchmark in order to improve the civil service:

  1. Transparency and accountability.
  2. Competitiveness.
  3. Merit-based, and striving for a culture of excellence.
  4. Knowledge and high awareness.

Transparency and accountability

The Prime Minister mentioned the adoption of best policies and implementation of services.

There has been much promotion of the policy of 1Malaysia and “people first, performance now.” However this is not reflected in practice.

For me, the true meaning of transparency and accountability – one that will benefit Malaysia – is to aim for zero corruption. Remember the RM12.5 billion corruption in the Port Klang Free Zone scandal? The RM12.5 billion could be channelled to fund scholarships or improve the road system, something that would be more beneficial to the growth of Malaysia.


The Prime Minister said we have to listen to stakeholders.

Having to listen is indeed correct, but not to stakeholders – not yet anyway. The government has to listen to the people and find out what would attract the best people for the job. To be competitive in business, we have to make the civil service a competitive field for jobs. When the best brains are recruited, they will drive the civil service forward and increase competitiveness amongst stakeholders.

The sectors responsible for driving the civil service forward are the Federal Public Service, the State Public Services, the Joint Public Services, the education service, the judiciary, the legal service, the police and armed forces.

To increase competitiveness for these jobs, the government should channel funds to increase the pay of civil servants. This would make the jobs more prestigious and attractive, and would appeal to the best brains in Malaysia.

Jayanath Appudurai, who writes extensively on poverty for the Centre for Policy Initiatives, suggests that Malaysia calculates the PLI based on two-thirds of the median income of its households. The median income is a country’s total income divided by half – which is RM2,830 for Malaysia. Therefore, Malaysia’s PLI for 2010 based on two-thirds of the median income should be RM1,886, rather than the government’s PLI average of RM800 per household.

The basic salary of a special assistant to a politician is RM1,500, and for a local councillor, RM750. As stated above, the benchmark of one living in poverty is an income of RM1,886. We cannot expect a degree holder to want to take up a job that pays below the poverty line.

Recently, in light of the 2011 Budget, Second Finance Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah said bonus payments to civil servants would depend on the country’s economic situation. And yet the government can afford a RM 65 million facelift of the PM’s official residence, and an additional RM147 million for the construction of the new national palace at Jalan Duta, Kuala Lumpur.

Merit-based, and striving for a culture of excellence

The Prime Minister spoke of an outcome-based performance and delivery.

Yes, we should aim for a high performance culture, but this would only be possible when we achieve a cultured civil service. There should be more non-bumiputeras recruited. The reason is simple. Our country is multi-racial. Hence, the different races have different needs the government should cater to. Let me give you an example. Take the issue of merely fulfilling a basic need of having a crematorium for non-Muslims in a district. If the people up in the board are populated of more than 90% of bumiputeras, more often than not, we cannot expect them to provide for needs that would be almost impossible without proposal and deliberation from the non-bumiputeras. It would then be a challenge to strive for excellence and a high performance culture. We can’t really blame this on the people in the civil service, really. We blame it on the system.

AB Sulaiman wrote in his blog Anak Bangsa Malaysia on 4 February 2010 on the civil service being very “Malay-sian”. He mentioned his experience of working in the civil service, particularly in recruitment exercises: “Each time, my interview committee members and superiors goaded me to select and appoint people of my own type. The reason given was: ‘Malays are not yet ready for the highly competitive private sector employment. They won’t be able to survive out there’.”

There should be a place for all Malaysians in the civil service, so that each race is well represented. Lim Kit Siang, on his blog, stated that as at 31 December 2009, the racial breakdown of the Malaysian civil service comprising 1,247,894 employees is as follows: Malay (78.2%); Other Bumiputras (7.7%); Chinese (5.8%), Indian (4.0%); and Others (4.2%)

This the worst multi-racial composition of the government service, with the lowest Chinese and Indian representation in the public service in Malaysia’s 53-year history. This is clearly seen from the three sets of comparative figures of the racial breakdown of the civil service before the NEP 1971 and as at December 2009 – Malays (60.80% and 78.2%); Chinese (20.2% and 5.8%); Indians (17.4% and 4.0%); and Others (1.6% and 4.2%).

It is clear that the Government is setting the worst example of a 1Malaysia Government.

Yes, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Senator Datuk T. Murugiah told a press conference in Parliament on 13 October 2010 that the number of Chinese employed to date had seen an increase of 9% compared to 2008. With all due respect, an increase of 9% of the 5.8% of the Chinese in the government is quite pathetic.

Knowledge and high awareness

Our Prime Minister mentioned that there is need to implant knowledge into our thinking and reacting.

I beg to differ. I believe the more accurate statement would be that we have to implant thinking into the knowledge we’ve learnt. Often in the Malaysian syllabus of education, students are required to merely memorise facts and formulas to regurgitate out at the exam halls. There is minimal requirement for any form of thinking to be shown.

The education system is extremely important to empower the people with knowledge and high awareness. Not only does the current system not facilitate the need for thought and reaction, it also needs improvement in the area of cultivating civil awareness. For example, the syllabus should include basic general knowledge of the roles of different ministers, about the legislation, executive and judiciary, the difference between a Member of Parliament and an assemblyman. It’s tragic that SPM graduates do not know about basic things like that. These are all basic requirements in cultivating high awareness in our society.

The Prime Minister gave his views on improving the government system. Here are some of my views.

Malaysia has always been talking about improving infrastructure, growth in development, etc. Yes, Putrajaya is indeed a beautiful city. The government has spent billions beautifying that particular area. However, this would not attract the best brains to work there. More often than not, it is the pay that attracts. As mentioned earlier, money should not be allowed to leak into corruptions like the PKFZ scandal. These billions should be used to up the attractiveness of the pay of government servants.

To the dismay of government servants, the bonus to be paid to civil servants totalling RM 3.1 billion had not been included in the 2011 budget, due to financial constraints. Now there is a recent proposal of building another skyscraper with an allocation of RM 5 billion. I personally think that this RM 5 billion could be channelled to improving the government service by increasing the pay of civil servants.

It is evident that there is an increasing growth of infrastructure in our country but you’d be surprised that when it comes to simple necessities like street lamps, water pumps, the town council does not have sufficient funds. There must be something really wrong in our allocation of money.

Back in the day, the civil service used to be a very highly looked up to profession. How did that change over the years? How did the quality drop so immensely? Is it because the people running the system have become so complacent with things that they feel there is no need to maintain the quality, let alone improve it? After all, it’s been 53 years – and 53 years is a very long time.

Wanting to change things from grassroots level will not be as impactful. Given the analogy of the best lawyer in town, being able to lay down brilliant points of arguments and accurate cases in court, but we don’t change the way judges are appointed, justice still will not be served. Change must come from the top.

The Prime Minister said Malaysia’s Talent Corporation will start its operations in January 2011, marking the start of a concerted effort to woo the return of Malaysian professionals abroad. Charles Polidano once said, “Most reforms in government fail. They do not fail because, once implemented, they yield unsatisfactory outcomes. They fail because they never get past the implementation stage at all. They are blocked outright or put into effect only in tokenistic, half-hearted fashion.”

So, Mr. Prime Minister, the rakyat will hold you to all your speeches. Prove to us that it all isn’t just words someone else had prepared for you to read out, and that this will move past the implementation stage. After all, they always say, actions speak louder than words.

Vivian Kuan is a person that never lets anyone tell her she can’t do something. She channels her time and energy only to what she loves in life. Thus, she chose to read law and is currently in her second year. Other than burying her head in law books, she loves to dance, play the piano and write songs. And she never says no to food. She has a heart for people; hence she finds joy in making a difference in the lives of others. She always believes she can do anything, which sometimes gets her into crazy situations, but that belief gets her through. She’s always wanted to be a part of something bigger in life.

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Posted on 8 November 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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