A cost too high

  • Along The Watchtower
  • Wednesday, 29 Apr 2020

Malaysia needs to address the size of its civil service and the burden of maintaining the increasing number of pensioners.

THE response to the bold but fair suggestion was not surprising, given the protected status of the country’s 1.71 million strong public servants.

When interviewed by a news portal, Datuk Wira Ameer Ali Mydin wondered whether the country could afford to maintain current civil service salaries and pensions, given the collapsed oil prices, diminishing palm oil exports and dwindling revenue from a wide range of ailing industries affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The head of the home-grown Mydin chain of hypermarkets pointed out that while most businesses were suffering and had been forced to take drastic steps, including laying off workers, it is status quo for the country’s civil service.

The Prime Minister, 32 federal ministers and their 37 deputies, and some mentris besar, chief ministers and state exco members have agreed to a two-month pay cut.

However, MPs, state assembly representatives and high-ranking government officials are still getting their full salaries.

(If it is any consolation, officers in the top management of the Public Service Department (PSD) agreed to deduct between 5% and 10% of their fixed entertainment allowances as contributions to the Covid-19 fund.)

Ameer’s proposal that any civil servant earning more than RM3,000 should take a reduction in pay with the savings channelled to the poor resulted in a storm of protests from public sector workers and even calls to boycott Mydin’s retail outlets.

Congress of Unions of Employees in the Public and Civil Services (Cuepacs) president Adnan Mat expressed “regret and total opposition” to the suggestion. He said it was untimely because public servants had been leading the country’s response to the ongoing virus outbreak.

Well, not really. Much of the brunt of the contagion is being borne by the Health Ministry’s frontliners – doctors and nurses – in addition to the police and the armed forces who are enforcing the movement control order (MCO).

How many senior civil servants have been working to effectively coordinate government administration since March 18?

A significant number of them have been staying at home, like the rest of us.

(The sentence above has been amended to remove the inaccurate representation of senior civil servants' salaries)

So why do they and the 850,000 government pensioners deserve the one-off RM500 cash payments under the RM250bil stimulus package announced last month?

In addition to the RM10bil monthly wage bill for the public sector, this one-off payment will cost the government another RM1.7bil this month.

Shouldn’t this reward be rightly be given to our real heroes – the frontliners from the Health Ministry and the support staff who are risking their lives daily by working long hours daily to save the lives of those infected by the deadly virus?The policemen and soldiers who also face the same risks in addition to braving the sun and the rain deserve the extra cash too.

Malaysia’s bureaucracy is said to be among the biggest, with 1.71 million government employees for a population of 32 million. That is a civil service-to-population ratio of 1:20.

In comparison with the ratio of 1:28 for Japan, 1:50 for Korea, 1:71 for Singapore, 1:108 for China and 1:110 for Indonesia, ours seems to be one of the highest in the world.

But Cuepacs has repeatedly argued that it is not fair to compare the sizes of the public service across countries as there are no standard definitions.

Malaysia’s classification of civil service is in accordance with Article 132 of the Federal Constitution, which means it comprises the Federal Public Service, state governments, including local authorities, the education and health sectors, the judiciary, police and the armed forces.

In many other countries, the definition is narrower.

For instance, in Britain, the public service only covers those working in government departments reporting to a minister and excludes those in the country’s National Health Service or staff of local authorities.

So, the number of British civil servants is officially only about half a million, making the ratio 1:130 when it should be as high as ours, if not higher.

In Malaysia, the core service sectors – the armed forces, police, education and health – comprise 67.5% of public servants.

And the payment of salaries, allowances and other remuneration for civil servants make up the largest component of the government’s operating expenditure.

The emoluments would amount to RM82bil this year, while retirement charges and pensions would cost another RM27.1bil, based on the rising number of pensioners and beneficiaries.

This comes to a whopping RM109.1bil.

Like the proverbial elephant in the room, the size of our civil service is both massive and costly.

Our politicians are aware of this but prefer not to discuss this issue out of fear of alienating the most secure vote bank in the country.

At around this time last year, the Federal Government under Pakatan Harapan announced that 100,000 civil service posts could be removed permanently without affecting the overall quality of the civil service, saving RM2.1bil annually.

It also proposed to replace pensions with a “flexible and varied” contractual scheme to ease the burden of paying the ever-rising emoluments.

Then PSD director-general Tan Sri Borhan Dolah said the government could save up to RM5bil a year if the new intake of civil servants was no longer made under the pensionable scheme but was instead replaced with improved contract agreements,.

The Pakatan government, however, backed off from both plans after stiff resistance from the public sector and fear of backlash from Malay voters.

No one expects the current Perikatan Nasional government to discuss the matter, but the issue of the bloated civil service and the ballooning cost of pensions have to be addressed, sooner rather than later.

Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this gem from Confucius: There is good government when those who are near are made happy, and when those who are afar are attracted.

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