Civil servants at an Impasse

As we approach the 13th General Election, it is relevant to note that should Pakatan Rakyat take over the federal government, one of the most contentious issues is that of dealing with the civil service. Let’s take a look at the past experiences of Selangor and Penang, in how these state governments dealt with the matter from 2008 onwards. An old piece but good to reflect, first published in the Penang Monthly in 2010.

Civil servants at an impasse

The tension between federal and state governments is oft en played out in the civil service. This makes it necessary for Malaysians – and especially civil servants themselves – to contemplate the ideals surrounding civil services in general. To do that seriously, some knowledge about how civil service structures differ from state to state and why they differ is required.

Since taking over several state governments, one of the areas the Pakatan Rakyat has had to contend most with is the civil service. A majority of the bureaucrats working within the state governments are federally appointed, especially higher-ranked officials from the prestigious Administrative and Diplomatic Service (Pegawai Tadbir dan Diplomatik).

This situation has been problematic for all involved, especially when these public servants have to serve the state government of the day on the one hand and report to the federal government on the other. The confusion is worse when policy directives from the two levels of government are in clear conflict with one another.

This tense relationship came to a head in July this year when Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s dissatisfaction with State Development Officer Nik Ali Mat Yunos became a widely reported tiff in the media. Lim had publicly criticised Nik Ali on several matters, including the construction of arches at the Penang Botanical Gardens costing RM15,000 which the state government had no control over, and reportedly called him incompetent and unprofessional. Nik Ali retaliated by calling the Chief Minister rude at a press conference. He was later defended by the Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Sidek Hassan.

This incident encapsulates hostilities between the Barisan Nasional federal government and Pakatan Rakyat state governments. But to what extent can the civil service be expected to separate their duty from what is expected of them politically?

This particular incident can be considered unique because the State Development Office (SDO) is a separate unit set up directly under the purview of the Implementation and Coordination Unit (ICU) that falls under the Prime Minister’s Office. When the Pakatan Rakyat took over in Penang and Selangor, the SDO were physically removed from their premises at the respective state secretariat buildings and now exist completely isolated from the state governments’ plans, policies and programmes. They do not report to the state governments.

Selangor has not been spared similar controversies. During the Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (SELCAT) public inquiry into assemblymen’s allocation of funds in 2009, federally-appointed civil servants within local authorities were visibly unhappy. They had been questioned on their approval of former politicians’ development projects, many of which involved large sums of money. They protested against SELCAT’s questioning, saying it was humiliating in nature. Their defence was they were merely acting on instructions from their then political masters.

In order to understand the nature of the relationship between the state government and its employees, it is important that we first examine the public service’s existing structure.

Malaysia’s civil service

The Malaysian Civil Service emerged from the British Public Service which began in the late 1700s after the British East India Company acquired Penang. In the late 1800s, the Federated Malay States’ separate civil services (Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang) were combined with that of the Straits Settlements (Penang and Malacca) into a unified Federated Malay States Civil Service (FMS). The FMS later introduced the Malay Administrative Service and together they refined new standards for public service. The Unfederated Malay States (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu) on the other hand formed and today still maintain their own State Public Services under the authority of their respective Menteri Besar and Sultan, where most of their state civil servants are employed by the state.

Other colonial services like that of the Police, Medical, Education and Legal were brought together over the years, forming the Colonial Administrative Service that the Malaysian Civil Service (MCS) was part of, the latter of which is known today as the Administrative and Diplomatic Service mentioned above. This is seen as a prestigious level of service which fills almost all senior positions at the federal and state levels.

The Malaysian public service today has a total of 1.2 million employees covering 28 schemes of service. Public service policies are crafted by the Public Service Commission (Suruhanjaya

Perkhidmatan Awam) and thereafter executed by the Public Service Department (Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam), although neither of these have jurisdiction over the public services of former members of the Unfederated Malay States. This federal-level Public Service Department is responsible for the appointment and promotion of officers higher than Grade 17, which is the entry point for those with high school certificates.

Selangor is unique among the Federated Malay States in having its own public service, albeit on a smaller scale, having the power to fill junior positions and only within state government departments. The Selangor Public Service Commission was formed in 1960 to aid the existing Federal Public Service. The Commission is governed by policies such as the Public

Officers Regulations of Selangor State Government (Appointment, Promotion and Termination of Service) from 2005 and other circulars from the State Administration. Based on their 2008 annual report, the Commission spent RM560,000, the bulk of which was on salaries for some 1,778 employees. This state-based civil service only allows appointments up to a certain level, after which posts are filled by federal officers seconded to the state government.

Penang had a similar limited state-based civil service in the past that went up only to the Assistant District Officer level. However, in the 1970s, in response to a petition from civil servants from those states itself, the civil service was merged with the federal civil services so that Penang officers could be promoted to the highest rank possible.

In both Selangor and Penang, most public servants are federally appointed and seconded to the individual state governments. Selangor employs a total of 7,984 people, while Penang employs

4,196, excluding those employed in local authorities and statutory bodies. Selangor pays its employees a total of RM271.8mil a year in emoluments, which makes up 38.31% of its annual budget, whilst Penang pays out RM115.9mil a year, making up 36.4% of its annual budget.

Independence of the civil service

In 1845, the Northcote-Trevelyan Report, which prescribed public service ethos, emphasised that a politically neutral civil service “means complete loyalty to the government of the day regardless of its political complexion” (taken from the Chief Secretary’s website). It also stipulated that the public service should provide continuous services which are impartial and appropriate for public interest.

A change in government should not precipitate instability or chaos. In both the state governments of Penang and Selangor, there have been varying reactions to the change in government in 2008. In some instances, civil servants were naturally wary. However, after more than two years of working with their state governments, many have understood the principles of Pakatan Rakyat of competency, accountability and transparency, and some have been enthusiastic in delivering upon these.

Nevertheless, there is still room for improving the working relationship between the civil servants and the state governments they serve, especially given that other instructions will continue to come from Putrajaya. One still recalls the directives from the Ministry of Education not to allow Pakatan Rakyat elected representatives into public schools, and the Minister of Agriculture instructing all its officers including those seconded to state governments not to attend any official state function.

The state’s delivery of public services depends largely on the efficiency and professionalism of its civil service. In a recent Selangor 2011 Budget Dialogue, a federally-appointed civil servant asked what they should do in situations where there were conflicts of policy between the federal and state governments. The panel replied that public servants should ultimately do what is in the best interest of the people. For the betterment of Malaysia, civil servants must conduct their work with wisdom, independence, professionalism and political neutrality.

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