What the Selangor State Secretary issue teaches us

Public administration and federal-state relations is an important subject when examining Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Nasional power relations. This incident was one that taught us the importance of vigilance, first published in Penang Monthly in February 2011. 

What the Selangor State Secretary issue teaches us

The struggle between the Barisan Nasional’s federal government and the state governments not run by its component parties tends to overshadow the fact that the goal of government at any level is to provide good public service. This is most obvious at the state level, where the virtues of federalism are most easily appreciated.

This column is entitled “States of reform” as a play on the phrase; on one hand, the articles are meant to depict the efforts of the Pakatan Rakyat state governments in their attempts to reform policy matters on a range of fronts. On the other hand, the current unfolding of circumstances since March 8, 2008 has led both sides – Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat – to spew populist slogans on the theme of transformation and reform, reflecting the fact that Malaysia is truly in a state of reform.

So far, I have focused on numerous specific policy issues such as solid waste management, the environment and water supply services, amongst others. This month I shall consider public administration but in the context of federal-state relations, both also being themes that I have written about in earlier columns. Since the beginning of 2011, there has been no way anyone interested in Malaysia could have avoided the issue of the State Secretary appointment in Selangor. It has filled all national newspapers for several weeks now.

State Secretary in Selangor 

A brief background is that the former State Secretary was retiring, and there was a dispute over the appointment of his replacement. To spare you the details, suffice it to say that the Selangor government submitted a list of recommended names to the Public Service Commission (PSC), but before any real or meaningful discussion had taken place between the two parties, the PSC announced the name of the new State Secretary. The real issue therefore, was the lack of consultation with the state’s chief executive officer, the Menteri Besar, before his top civil servant was selected. It is equivalent to a company’s managing director not being told about the appointment of his new chief operating officer.

The political dimension was the individual himself, Khusrin Munawi, who had been embroiled in several controversies during his tenure at the Selangor Islamic Department. Controversial or not, it would have been common sense for his name to be consulted with the government of the day prior to the abrupt announcement.

Palace negotiations added to the intrigue, with the Sultan of Selangor having given his endorsement of Khusrin’s appointment. The matter is currently being addressed, where at the time of writing the Selangor State Assembly is to convene an early sitting on January 24, 2011 to debate the proposal to amend the Selangor Constitution. The outcome of this State Sitting will determine what happens to Khusrin’s position.

State constitutions

What exactly will the Assembly sitting achieve? It is interesting in this regard to explore the contents not just of the Selangor Constitution but that of other states as well. Prior to 1993, most state constitutions were similar in that the Sultan (where applicable) and Menteri Besar had a role to play in the appointment of ex-officio members. Ex-officio members consist of the State Secretary, State Finance Officer and State Legal Adviser.

However, in 1993, the Federal Constitution of Malaysia was amended with the aim of removing legal immunity of the royalty. Articles 32, 38, 42, 63, 72 and 181 were amended as a result. This was precipitated by a series of incidents that reflected a deteriorating relationship between the Malaysian government and the monarchies. Simultaneously, the state constitutions were amended to achieve the same result, i.e. to leave the rulers with reduced authority over the appointment of ex-officio members.

For example, Section 52(1) of the constitution of Selangor prior to 1993 included the role of the Sultan in appointing the ex-officio members “provided… (he) consider(s) the advice of the Menteri Besar”. Post-amendment, the Article merely states that the “appropriate Service Commission from any of the relevant public services” is to be the appointing body. This is similar in the states of Perak, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan. No such amendment was made in the cases of Johor, Kedah and Kelantan however, presumably because they have their own state service. Sabah and Sarawak have a different clause in their constitutions altogether, where the appointments in question are made by the Yang di-Pertuan Negeri with the advice of the Chief Minister, submitted by “the Commission” in consultation with the federal government.

The State Assembly sitting is therefore meant to debate the proposal to restore the powers of the Sultan and Menteri Besar in the appointment of ex-officio members by amending Section 52(1) of the Selangor Constitution. One other way of looking at it is that this is about restoring the rights of the state in selecting its own public servants.

Public services

In practice, the federal government’s PSC appoints ex-officio members in what were once the Federated Malay States. As mentioned in a previous column, the Federated Malay States of Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang did not originally have their own state civil services. This is contrasted with the Unfederated Malay States of Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu which have their own state service until the present day. Quoting from my previous article, “In the late 1800s, the Federated Malay States’ 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). This allowed for a centralised administration with a common recruitment procedure.”

As mentioned then, Selangor does have its own State Service Commission which by practice has appointed low to middle-level employees (both full-time and contract). Penang has a similar state-based service that was merged with the federal civil services in the 1970s.

Hence, it has been customary for the PSC to appoint the top three civil servants in the former Federated Malay States of Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, whilst former Unfederated Malay States Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu draw from their own state service. The PSC also appoints ex-officio members in the former Straits Settlement states of Penang and Malacca.

The principle of federalism

The issue is complex as it involves multiple stakeholders. The known characters in this play are: the federal government, the state government, the monarchy and the public administration bodies. Some raging debates as to the logic behind the restoration of some power to the Sultan and the Menteri Besar are bound to crop up.

Ultimately, it should be remembered that Malaysia is a federation in which state governments ought to have their separate and distinctive powers. This is a system that would allow for the preservation of the individual and regional identities of each state. Just because the states have inherited a legacy in which the federal government’s PSC has by practice appointed the top civil servants in the former Federated Malay States, this does not mean it should continue. In fact, some lawyers have argued that there is nothing legally binding about this practice, which means the present state-based service can actually be empowered to appoint ex-officio members.

Legal or not, one has to address the practical realities of daily governing. Surely it makes best sense for one’s own government to determine for itself its chiefs. The positions of State Secretary, State Finance Officer and State Legal Adviser are crucial to the smooth operations of public administration. They deal with the bulk of administrative matters such as land issues, management of accounts, revenue and expenditure, legal suits against the state, and so on. It is imperative that these “head honchos” work well with the government, especially the Menteri Besar/Chief Minister, in protecting the rights of the state. States should therefore be able to appoint their own top public servants, in living up to the principle of federalism.

All public servants are meant to be apolitical, neutral and professional in their duties, and this they are well aware of. In order for this to be carried out, their responsibility must be first and foremost to the government of the day. The federal government and Pakatan Rakyat-led state governments need to strive even harder to co-operate with each other. The goal of all parties is to serve the people through efficient services. And this is all the rakyat want to see at the end of the day.

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