What happens to the civil service?

It is official. Pakatan Harapan has won the 14th Malaysian General Election. There will be much to do for the new government. Malaysians and the world will be watching closely on how effective this new government will be. With Tun Mahathir finally sworn in as Prime Minister and parts of the new cabinet announced in record time (typically it takes 6-10 days after the Prime Minister is sworn in before a cabinet is announced).

One of the biggest questions is how this affects the civil service. There are 1.6 million civil servants in Malaysia, reportedly the highest number of civil servants in the world. Pakatan Harapan’s win marks the first time Federal departments and agencies experience such a change in government. Several state governments will also face a similar transition. Understandably, there will be much feelings of uncertainty amongst civil servants.

It is unknown if Malaysia’s civil service is prepared for such contingencies of a change in government. Other countries with similar Westminster systems do. Some even go to the extent whereby civil servants would be allowed to brief the opposition of what they should expect if they come to power and attempt to understand their policy goals, though civil servants cannot offer policy advice to the opposition. All this to ensure a smoother transition – just in case a change of government does occur.

For federal-level civil servants, initially they will feel little to no difference. After all, Cabinet Ministers get changed from time to time even amongst Barisan MPs and senators, with each new boss having their own policy ideas. The various departments’ senior secretaries and directors have always had to manage these new relationships and would be quite used to such a routine every few years.

The question, then is who will be the ones getting “house trained” – the new bosses or the old guards in the civil service, who will be muzzled? In terms of established policies and processes, new political masters need not worry that they will be running the office blind. Initially, existing policies will be continued. This implies that a change of government will not result in the government machinery breaking down overnight as it is helmed by civil servants which will carry on the existing operational tasks and routines. Members of the public need not fear – the wheels of government will keep turning.

In the medium term, especially the next 100 days, should Pakatan hope to fulfil their election promises, new policies will need to drafted, studied, discussed, passed, and implemented before any changes can be felt on the ground. Such processes could take time, depending on how quickly a new relationship can be ironed out between new ministers and the civil servants who report to them. The former would benefit from heeding the advice of their more experienced and knowledgeable secretaries.

The various ministries and agencies will then need to have another good look at the Pakatan’s manifesto and determine which are the promises under their purview. For instance, the Ministry of Finance and Inland Revenue Board will need to develop an entire mechanism to abolish the GST and reintroduce the SST, it being among the more popular campaign promises. Some more intricate promises could take more years to be realised.

Should civil servants be worried about job security with a Pakatan take over? No. At least not in the long-term. Staffing mattes have always been an internal process amongst civil servants. A review of each department could be carried on key personnel out to ascertain if the civil service, or at least parts of it, are bloated as the Pakatan claims (such as the Prime Minister’s Department). However, revamping the civil service, though necessary, can be a political death trap for any ruling party especially if the civil service undergoes a trim, particularly the sort that involves layoffs instead of a job freezes or transferring personnel to other departments. The Pakatan government will be aware of this and being politicians with an eye on future elections would not want to jeopardise a large voter bank. Unless there is a major move to disband a ministry or agency, there will likely be no major movements in personnel that is beyond the ordinary.

The many, many needed reforms

What is more likely to happen is that certain heads of departments will be probed for questionable practices. Lower grade officers, if involved, will likely be transferred to positions that do not involve finances or be put in cold storage or another form of disciplinary action. Regardless, a new Pakatan government must treat this matter delicately and fairly, or risk being no different to Barisan which has allegedly politicised the civil service and used their elected position to exploit compliance civil servants. In short, avoid being a kleptocrat.

Appointed positions are another question entirely. How swiftly Pakatan will act to replace appointments they deem to be politically motivated remains to be seen. The new government must ensure that new appointments need to be of individuals who will do their jobs impartially and with competence. At the same time, this must not be seen as a deliberate witch hunt or an act of revenge, but a necessary step for the new Pakatan government to send a strong message that corruption and cronyism will not be tolerated. Any past abuses in power and malpractice by various departments/agencies can finally be held accountable and appropriate actions need to be taken. This will be a crucial test for the new government and one the Rakyat expect to be carried out, as a new government cannot function with a civil service which has existing cracks in its foundation.

A new working relationship

The bigger question is the realignment of loyalties. In theory, civil servants should be politically neutral in carrying out the government duties. But over the years, we have seen much confusion from several federal agencies unable to distinguish party from government, such as the occasional use of Barisan symbols in government functions without consequence. Barisan has been in power for so long, some civil servants even perceive that the government and the party are one and the same. There is also the sensitive matter of alleged corruption, particularly on how civil servants may have collaborated with their former Barisan masters for mutual personal gains. Whether Pakatan would stay on in power or not by the next general election, it is important to revamp a civil service which has been so used to serving the same political masters for over 6 decades, to one that understands that does not serve a single one person or party. Any past traces of politicisation of the civil service needs to be purged and return the rule of non-partisanship, remembering that the working relationship is strictly a professional one, not one that does favours for political masters nor is there any obligation to. Hence, it is important to establish a permanent realignment of allegiance – not to Pakatan or any one party, but to the Agong and Rakyat. A civil service that truly serves the Rakyat.

It is unknown for certain if there will be initial refusal to work with new political masters. If one were to be optimistic and use the case study of changes in the state governments of Penang, Kedah, and Selangor in 2008 as examples, then the risk of civil servants refusing to work with the new government is remote. Instead, other countries that undergo a transition of parties into government have more often than not shown that civil servants are normally very quick and keen to please their new ministers. This is understandable as it is no different to an employee in any organisation, be it private or public, wanting to have good relations with their bosses, especially one which they could be working for at least 5 years.

Pakatan can benefit from establishing a new working relationship with Congress of Unions of Employees in the Public and Civil Services (CEUPACS), which would be pivotal in ensuring stability amongst its members. Of course, this will only work if Pakatan themselves behave with the same level of impartiality, treating known BN-friendly civil servants with the same level of professionalism as they would any individual, holding them accountable to the same standards, KPIs, and expected levels of performance in service to the Malaysian people. Any blatant attempts to purge known BN-friendly civil servants will create much distaste within the service and beyond, unless based on valid grounds of non-performance or malpractice.

The experience gaps

New Pakatan ministers will likely face initial gaps in knowledge and experience in Putrajaya. But overtime, this would be overcome. It is practically no difference to any individual starting a new job with a new firm. Some adjustments are expected and will take time. In fact, making too many hasty decisions without first understanding how things work can backfire. More importantly, the new government must learn to heed the advice from experienced civil servants, not by behaving like they know it all.

Pakatan Ministers must quickly get to know their Secretary Generals and ministerial staff, understand the functions of the various department/agencies and build rapport with the heads. Civil servants may need to get used to a different style of leadership and style of management. Both sides should make it known of each other’s expectations. A routine has to be developed to follow up on each department or agency, fully complying with the standard operating procedures and processes of governance.. But even elected ministers have limits on how much they can interfere with the day-to-day running of office, which should be left to the civil service. Roles need to be split between deputy ministers to ensure functionality, rather than appear ceremonial. Pakatan must also remember not to act like the opposition anymore, which had its role in scrutinising the then ruling government, but instead lead and be accountable for their decisions.

The fulfilment of election promises is also accompanied by the Rakyat’s expectations that the new government can finally shed light to long standing mysteries such as the deaths of Altantuyaa, Teoh Beng Hock, Kevin Morais, just to name a few. The truth to the abductions of Pastor Raymond Koh, Amri Che Mat, Pastor Joshua Hilmi and his wife Ruth Hilmi. Investigations into the alleged corruptions with the likes of 1MDB and countless other allegations made by the then opposition. Previously, documents with such revelations would have been locked away under the Official Secrets Act. This is where some civil servants, who undoubtedly know more than others, will be put in a tight spot and suddenly finding themselves with the very person demanding they were once told to ignore as their new bosses.

This new working relationship will be awkward initially and changes are expected. After all, this is what the Rakyat voted for. Civil servants must remember that whatever they do must be to the benefit of the Rakyat. They can also see this transition as an opportunity to carry out their own internal reforms. Ultimately, this change is an opportunity for all parties to improve their standards for the overall good of the nation.

Surin, J.A. (2013). The Transfer of power: What should happen? The Nut Graph. Accessed 8th May 2018: http://www.thenutgraph.com/the-transfer-of-power-what-should-happen

Riddell, P. & Haddon, C. (2009). Transitions: preparing for changes of government. Institute for Government. Accessed 8th May 2018: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Transitions%20-%20preparing%20for%20changes%20to%20government.pdf

A version of this article was published on Free Malaysia Today.

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