A Neutral Public Service

A Neutral Public Service 

(From theSun, 11th January 2013)

As a public policy researcher, filmmaking was the last thing I thought I would venture into. But having received a grant and opportunity from a local NGO, Pusat KOMAS, last year to write and direct a documentary, this exciting experience has convinced me that the visual medium is sometimes more powerful than what any amount of writing can achieve. The short film, “The Rights of The Dead”, analyses the case of the late Teoh Beng Hock, who died at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission premises in July 2009 whilst being interrogated for an alleged corruption case involving a member of the Selangor Exco.

Although the documentary encapsulates the case and shockingly cut-short life of Teoh, it was meant to provoke thinking and discussion of the bigger picture. First, that this was not the first death in custody to occur, where in fact 156 people have died in custody between 2000 and 2011. Is this perhaps symptomatic of a more pressing problem, that of the structure and system that govern us as Malaysians?

Most recently, yet another body was found where Nagarajan, arrested for a drug-related offence reportedly died from a fall, although “wounds on his body raised suspicions” (theSun, 2nd January 2013). In response to this incident, the Malaysian Bar called for the establishment of a coroner’s court so that there is structural reform of inquests. Presently, although the Criminal Procedure Code deems it mandatory to conduct inquests for deaths in custody, this is not always done. A coroner’s court would bring some system into what seems to be a rather haphazard way of deciding whether or not an inquest should be formed.

At the various screenings both public and private that have taken place over the last few months, one of the points most often stressed was that it is only when the various institutions of government are independent and strong that we can have faith that the system would look out for us in time of need. Thus, for example, the Judiciary, Police, the forensic doctors in public service, government agencies (in this instance, the MACC), and so on, must behave with the utmost integrity and independence without being subservient to the demands of political interference.

The corruption investigation for which Teoh was questioned took place at a time of heightened political tension between the Barisan federal government and Pakatan state government of Selangor. This then begs the question of how neutral the civil service is. Over the past five years, states led by the Pakatan Rakyat have been regularly affected when federally-appointed servants working in their states have conflicted allegiances. A recent example would be the 24-hour notice of the Petaling Jaya Mayor’s transfer, which came as a surprise to the Selangor government.

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.

Increasingly, people no longer have patience for what they perceive to be an overdose of politics eating into their daily lives. When politics interferes into the ability of public service delivery agencies and mechanisms, this results in an overall net negative: poor quality of amenities, bad traffic, less time, and a lower disposable income (due to the lack of competitiveness in an over-monopolised market). But worse, politics entered the very doorstep of the Teoh family on the day they received the news of Beng Hock’s demise.

This year heralds what is certain to be an election year, with many pondering the results ahead of time. Whichever way the wind blows at both state and federal government levels, it must be stressed that the political coalition(s) in power should promote a neutral public service. There ought to be assurance given that the federal government would not discriminate against any state government that happens to be of a different political affiliation. It is also essential that in whichever post-election outcome, civil servants in all agencies behave professionally in ensuring a smooth transition or continuation of power.

Interestingly, several discussants at the screenings to date have themselves been public servants. Without mentioning any departments, it is worth noting that given the appropriate leadership, and confidence to assume the right stand in practising principles of integrity, the Malaysian public service can certainly be honed and restored to its “first-class civil service” goal.

However, finally and most importantly, providing for these institutions’ independence would be the priority of government. In the long run, it is hoped that these important steps would improve things systemically, and more crucially, in order that yet another tragic incident would not have to take place again.

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