Malaysia 2.0: Give civil servants more say


  • All the pieces matter
  • Wednesday, 27 May 2020

In Malaysia 2.0, we should move from top-down policy making to bottom-up policy making, with civil servants being made stakeholders in the process.

LAST week, there was a show-cause letter circulating, issued against a government healthcare worker who had criticised the government mildly on social media.

This called to mind the relationship between the civil service and the government of the day.

Saya yang menurut perintah” is a common way for civil servants to sign official government documents, and those four words in some ways sum up the relationship many politicians expect to have between civil servants and the government of the day.

In truth, it is a tricky relationship. In the past, there have been excesses both ways – politicians exerting more control than they should over civil servants, and civil servants occasionally exerting more power than they should to block or alter policy made by politicians.

The “classic” formula is that elected politicians make policy, and civil servants are supposed to only execute that policy.

This system obviously must have worked on some levels, as it is still in practice in many places around the world.

The idea of Malaysia 2.0 however, is that just because something has worked before in the past, doesn’t mean that it is working now, and/ or doesn’t mean that it is the best possible formula.

This article will attempt to explore some approaches to finding a better balance between the civil service and the government of the day, in the hopes of finding a healthier, more balanced dynamic between the two.

The government/ civil service divide mirrors that of many institutions, such as those that have a board of directors, and a secretariat or executive branch.

The general idea is that one group of people makes decisions, and another group implements them.

Perhaps it is time to progress beyond this model. A civil society movement I am part of, Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR), is experimenting with a slightly different approach, which emphasises giving implementers more decision-making powers, and elevating their status as stakeholders.

The general idea is: if you do the work, you should be part of the decision-making process.

Obviously, this works a little better in a situation where there is less of an employer/ employee dynamic. In corporations, it makes more sense that the business owners hire people to implement decisions that are made at the top of the corporate ladder, and expect a fair level of compliance.

Even in the corporate world, however, successful companies are now starting to realise the value of making employees feel like stakeholders, instead of mindless drones that should just shut up and do what they are paid to do.

Similarly, old-fashioned companies are extremely intolerant of any criticism from employees. While progressive successful companies obviously also don’t encourage anything rude or unproductive, they are definitely now much more open to constructive criticism and input from employees.

Smart employers know that taking input from below with an open heart can provide valuable data to guide decision-making, and that making employees feel heard pays off greatly in the long run.

All this isn’t to say that there is a clear parallel between corporations and the government.

The key difference we must note is that politicians are not the employers of civil servants. Quite simply put, they do not pay their salaries.

In fact, both politicians and civil servants are paid from the same source: taxpayer money. I daresay civil servants as a whole pay a vastly larger amount of taxes than politicians do.

It is thus really not logical to punish civil servants who are working in healthcare, for example, for making their views about current politics known. Those views have nothing to do whatsoever with their ability to do their job well, and in such cases, they do not work directly for the people they are criticising.

Case-by-case policies may make more sense than blanket ones here. If a civil servant in the Home Ministry is extremely opposed to policies on immigration that he or she is supposed to implement, for example, then it is fair to say that public criticism of those policies should perhaps mean a transfer to another department.

If a government teacher is publicly critical about international trade policies instituted by the government, however, what reason could there possibly be to punish that teacher?

To suggest that absolutely none of the millions of Malaysians in various sectors of the civil service have any right whatsoever to comment unflatteringly about politicians currently in government is deeply illogical and marks the beginnings of fascism. As tax-paying voters, they have the same right as everyone else to make their views heard.

Coming back to the big picture: in some periods, politicians overstepped their bounds by forcing civil servants to do political work. In other periods, civil servants blocked or hindered the initiatives of the politicians.

What then is the right balance?

My view on this question involves a deeper reimagination of the entire way government policy is formulated.

Malaysia’s system of government is extremely top heavy. In essence, the Prime Minister controls everything – almost literally.

He handpicks his Cabinet, and all the ministers therein serve at his pleasure. The PM is empowered to instruct the ministers to institute whatever policy the PM sees fit, and should the minister fail to comply, the PM is fully empowered to simply remove said minister.

My radical suggestion is this: perhaps we should move from top-down policy making to bottom-up policy making.

Properly mapping out exactly how this might be done might not fit into a book, much less an article, but for now, perhaps some broad strokes, especially as concerns the civil service.

Perhaps the most useful examples to use would be, say, the education or health ministries.

Sometimes, a politician who knows practically nothing about these ministries is appointed to be minister. Why should such a person, or the PM above him or her, be granted total and complete policy-making control?

Oftentimes, the best people to make policies are those who know most about what they are making policies about. These are the people that should be brought to the policy-making table at all levels.

In education, this would mean making stakeholders like teachers, headmasters, administrators, and parents or even students, part of the decision-making process.

In health, doctors, nurses, administrators and so on, should be similarly brought into the process.

Elected representatives should of course always be a key part of the decision-making process as well – because these are the people who theoretically represent the general public, and whom voters can hold accountable for their decisions.

All these different types of stakeholders should sit together and be the ones to spearhead policy making from the bottom up, rather than made to be mere implementers of policies.

This is especially the case when those policies are instituted by individuals who may not have relevant skill sets or experience – or worse yet, may be instituting policies for the sake of narrow political self -interest, rather than national interest.

Malaysia 2.0 should be about bringing as many Malaysians as possible together – to try and make every voice heard, and to work hard at finding the best solutions that work for the most number of people.

This means giving civil servants the voice at the table they deserve, and making the entire decision-making process more transparent – preferably from bottom to top, rather than top to bottom.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant who can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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