Urgent reform needed


  • Opinion
  • Friday, 22 Nov 2013

Any civil service, anywhere in the world, that keeps growing with no corresponding rise in productivity, efficiency and quality of service places a terrible burden on the country.

IN the current parliamentary sitting, MPs from both sides have put forward many interesting questions to government ministers.

Kelana Jaya MP Wong Chen for instance asked why, with Malaysia’s 1.4 million-strong civil service, we still need to spend more than a billion ringgit on “consultants” every year.The minister who responded was Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Shahidan merely said the civil service provides jobs for Malaysians and that civil servants are responsible for making Malaysia a competitive and fast-developing country.

I wish Shahidan had given us a more accurate, comprehensive and responsible answer. He did not tell us why Malaysians are especially attracted to working in the civil service when, on daily basis, thousands of new jobs open up elsewhere.

Shahidan also did not tell us about any of the Government’s efforts to encourage job-seekers to seek employment in the private sector.

As it is, we are ranked among Asia-Pacific countries as having the largest number of civil servants in proportion to population. There are good reasons why countries try to keep this ratio below 2%. Ours is 4.7%.

We spend a third of our national expenditure – almost RM60bil – on civil service wages every year. The least Shahidan could have done was to recognise that this trend could not continue without the country courting fiscal ruin.

More money for civil service wages means less money for public services. It’s ironic, but also simple common sense.

I had hoped for some acknowledgement that this was a problem because I had hoped there were at least some prudent and sensible people left in the Government. One can keep hoping.

In cutting civil service headcounts there are social and political repercussions that must be accounted for, and, rather than dismissing staff from service, we might for example stop replacing staff who retire or leave of their own accord.

There are many arguments to be made and suggestions that we can consider, but to gloss over the issue the way that Shahidan did is grossly irresponsible.

The Government must do more to stimulate the creation of private sector employment and retrain civil servants for that purpose. This is an example of an appropriate response to creating jobs for Malaysians while reducing the Government’s salary burden.

What is clear to me is that if the civil service becomes a “master employer”, it ceases to provide effective support to the Government.

Hiring as many people as possible only because we want to give them jobs does not mean that the Government is better served or that the quality of public services will improve.

Skills and abilities will become secondary, or even be sidelined altogether, in the name of increasing staff numbers.

Already, the outsourcing of policy blueprints and project studies to private consultants, as well as the recruitment of Malaysians under the Talent Corp programme, suggests that existing civil servants are not entirely fit for the task at hand.

What the people want to hear are balanced answers to real problems, and had Shahidan been candid, he might even have told us that there are those in the civil service who cannot do the jobs assigned to them.

But the policy of engaging external consultants cannot be faulted in every case. Particular problems may require specialist knowledge and, under these circumstances, a responsible Government should seek the best available advice for the good of the rakyat.

The country’s economic and social progress should not be delayed just because there is a shortage of the necessary expertise or skill sets within the civil service.

For example, in Britain, ministers are allowed to create “extended ministerial offices” to employ people (including members of their own party) from outside the civil service to improve efficiency.

In America, more and more specialised jobs are created outside the general framework of the public service. The need to fast-track decision-making processes means that political leaders sometimes need to create new teams. By most accounts, the process seems to be working well.

In this light, I don’t think Putrajaya should be too concerned about engaging external consultants, but it must show that any failure to do so will be detrimental to the rakyat. What is abundantly clear is that the Malaysian civil service needs urgent reforms if it is to keep up with the modern world. The lack of impartiality and transparency, as well as our habit of appointing political supporters to Government positions, will in fact threaten the sitting Government because such things deny our leaders the best possible advice.

Any civil service, anywhere in the world, that keeps growing with no corresponding rise in productivity, efficiency and quality of service places a terrible burden on the country.

It has often been said that public servants must serve the public, not the other way around. We must recognise that parts of our civil service are already a public burden and that any attempt to reform the service can only begin if ministers recognise this problem.

Shahidan’s answers do not suggest that he did.

he views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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Opinion , zaid ibrahim

   

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