Reforming the Civil Service


Reforming the civil service constitutes an integral part of Prime Minister Najib’s transformation programme. After decades of pursuing a state-oriented development strategy, the government has repositioned itself as an enabler of growth – fostering close public-private partnership (PPP) to increasing productivity and investment. But, it remains a concern if the country’s 1.4 million civil servants could themselves be transformed from mere administrators to motivated, high-performing agents of change.

The Global Competitiveness Report has reported “inefficient government bureaucracy” as the most problematic factor for doing business in Malaysia for the fourth consecutive year. Burdensome administrative procedures and arbitrary decision making by public officials push up costs of doing business, while discouraging future private investment. Poor implementation of government initiatives compounded with wasteful public spending distorts the original intention of public policies, thus creating barriers to socio-economic development.

Reform of the bureaucracy is political taboo as civil servants are widely believed to be strong supporters of the ruling government. Drastic retrenchment plans are no panacea for filling the gap between expectation and actual performance – ordinary civil servants will be victimised for the ills in the public sector. Instead, the government should build the capacity of the bureaucracy to facilitate the national transformation programme. This restructuring of the civil service entails institutionalising mechanisms to promote greater accountability and transparency, as well as enhancing the skills of the people in the public administration.


Recommendation 1: Reducing the size of civil service to its core function

The civil service should prioritise well-researched policy-making, effective monitoring and regulating of public programmes, while also fulfilling its social functions at providing employment where the private sector will not. Non-core functions or routine-based delivery should be contracted out to private non-profit organisations or semi-autonomous executive agencies. These bodies must be given clear mandate to provide services in a timely and efficient manner while having the flexibility in human management decisions and sources of funding. Localised problems in certain communities can be better dealt with by having independent task force that monitors the progress of a programme more closely from the ground.

Recommendation 2: Restructure recruitment process to attract talents

Young talents. The civil service should construct a plan for creating a sustainable talent pipeline so that young talent today will assume leadership positions at the later stage of their career in public service. A “Management Associate Programme” graduate employment scheme with clear career track progression should entail job rotation, exclusive training and skills-building, effective mentoring, and more importantly, pay scale that is competitive. Decisions to work in private or public sector can be a matter of economic science.
Mid-career talents. An open and competitive recruitment system should be put in place to attract candidates from the private sector, especially mid-career talents who can bring corporate perspectives into public policy-making.

Recommendation 3: Institutionalise a merit-based reward system

Civil servants’ pay should reflect the quality of performance and the existing reward system should reinforce the link between pay and performance. The civil service should consider implementing a two-tier pay structure: a Basic-wage that requires individualised review periodically, and a Variable-wage that differs according to the extent of individual or department’s performance as well as the general health of the public finance. Blanket rise in pay does not provide the right incentives to perform.

Recommendation 4: Curb leakages and overspending

The Outcome-Based Budgeting (OBB) system should incorporate mechanisms to control leakages and enforce discipline in expenditure. A budget cap must be enforced on all levels of government and punishment in the form of budget cuts or poor variable-wage should be imposed to encourage prudent spending. Training must be provided to line managers to educate them in designing good public policies that better address issues under the OBB system.

Recommendation 5: Fighting graft through “name-and-shame” and technology

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) should make available cases of public officials, regardless of position, convicted of corruption on their official website. Dismissals of corrupt public officers must be carried out to send a strong signal to the civil service of the government’s determination in fighting graft. Competitive tender of public projects should be institutionalised through an e-tender system where bidders’ information is made public and the selection process is well-recorded in the system to promote transparency and accountability.

Recommendation 6: Changing mindset of the civil servants

Establish a national council to study and suggest the best practices in the public sector in order to better meet the demands of the 21st century. Focal groups should be placed in all ministries and agencies responsible for educating civil servants and monitoring their progress in best practices. Cross-ministerial focal groups should be encouraged to address issues from a more holistic perspective.

Recommendation 7: Creating a people-oriented civil service

By shedding the more routine functions of government, civil servants are empowered to engage the people in understanding the issues and collecting feedback to improve public service delivery. Public participation can be enabled through town-hall meetings in local communities or a state-level taskforce that constantly supervises the implementation of national public policies. A customer-oriented civil service can be strengthened through the use of a citizen’s report card where qualitative indicators such as “friendliness” and “responsiveness” are assessed and fed into consideration for annual evaluation.


Weaknesses in the Malaysian civil service are multi-faceted. They cut through many dimensions – from structural design to skills enhancement, pay and motivation, to the psychological needs of being empowered. Both institutional and attitudinal change is needed as part of a comprehensive civil service reform agenda. Underpinning a successful reform is the political determination to see through politically sensitive actions and being consistent in the drive to create a high-performing civil service.

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