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Dealing with public service: striking the right balance

  • Muhyiddin recently admitted the civil service “has not yet fully warmed up to the Pakatan Harapan government” and has become accustomed to “a certain way of doing things”.

By Mohsin Abdullah

The Pakatan Harapan government is allegedly facing problems in getting support and cooperation from a civil service that had only known life under the Barisan Nasional up until May last year.

According to Singapore The Straits Times report a few weeks ago, since winning GE14 last year, PH government leaders have made various complaints about the civil service ranging from a lack of cooperation to outright sabotage.

Home minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin recently admitted that the civil service “has not yet fully warmed up to the Pakatan Harapan government”.

He said after 61 years of BN rule, civil servants have become accustomed to “a certain way of doing things”.

Muhyiddin is being polite, but if you ask me I read that to mean civil servants do not want to come out of their comfort zone. And I think I am right to say what I have said.

Anyway, if the “certain way of doing things” as pointed out by Muhyiddin is the right way of doing things, then I would say it is alright to continue with it. Business as usual. It can’t be denied there is much in the civil service that is working well.

But if it is not, meaning the “certain way of doing things” is not right, then it is time to change the work culture and the way things are run.

The question is how? How does the new administration make civil servants change for the better? That is not something easy to do.

I have seen ministers full of zest and enthusiasm wanting to do the right things and make changes to practices they see as not right, eager to right the wrongs so to speak. If not for anything else, it is to get an effective machinery going.

But they found the going not that easy. In fact it is easier said than done. There are regulations and procedures in place for ages which must be followed and this in turn makes the system tedious and slow moving. In the process the zestful ministers gets frustrated and irritated.

There’s no denying racial element often comes into play. Non-Malay ministers, the Chinese especially, have to tread carefully lest be accused of being anti-Malay and anti-Islam in an overwhelmingly Malay Muslim civil service. To be gung ho is out of the question.

So we have non-Malay ministers who are bending over backwards to accommodate the people under them. They “play” along with the prevailing culture which is slowing down the change they set out to make.

Come to think of it: even Malay minsters are forced to do this or they too are accused of being traitor to their own race and are being led by their noses by the non-Malays in the PH administration.

To many of us outside the government and outside the civil service the solution is simple. I have friends, non-Malays as well as Malays, who say the government ought to be strict, firm and hard. Just kick the non-performers out. Kick out also those who are not being cooperative. So they say.

Again this is not that easy and not that simple. Bear in mind civil servants constitute a big number of voters. And don’t forget their next of kin and saudara mara.

A former senior minister in the BN administration told me a long time ago he personally heard civil servants even back then saying “ministers come ministers go but we stay”.

Currently we are hearing remarks by the head of the disbanded Council of Eminent Persons Tun Daim Zainuddin that “minsters who could not or would not work with the civil servants are doomed”.

Hence Daim told ministers “to get over” their suspicion of the civil service and learn to trust the officers under them.

But as I see it, that is exactly what ministers and deputy ministers are or have been doing, or at least trying to do. Whether they are successful is another matter.

So just what should ministers do to get the best out of the civil servants? Honestly I do not know. Perhaps a combination of diplomatic charm and sternness. Go down too hard and you will get a revolt. Be too soft and you will be trampled. Therefore striking the right balance is the way to go. But we all know that is never going to be easy.

However there is no denying that there are also many Malay civil servants who are hardworking, smart and ever willing to perform well. Not only for the government and to ensure PH is not a one-term government but for the nation and its citizens.

Ministers ought to identify these people and work with them. But then, many a time these “good’ people are overshadowed by non-performing apple polishers and ministers do make the mistake of trusting and rewarding the wrong people. Leaving the good ones dejected and disillusioned.

Having said all that I have to say this. I read a comment on social media recently that there are ministers who are to blame too because they are running their ministries like it belongs to them, their family and party. I am told at least one menteri besar is doing such a thing in running his state government.

There are always two sides to a story. And that I supposed is the other side.

(Mohsin Abdullah is a veteran journalist and now a freelancer who writes about this, that and everything else.)


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