A FEW days after he returned to Putrajaya as Prime Minister, one of the first groups Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad called to meet was the secretaries-general of the ministries.
Dr Mahathir did not waste time and one of the first things he spoke about was his disappointment at how public funds were siphoned off purportedly for some projects.
The Prime Minister did not mention any names but most of those in the meeting room must have cowed and cringed, wondering which one of them Dr Mahathir was referring to.
Just a few days before that May meeting with the high-ranking government officers, Dr Mahathir made clear in a press conference that “heads must fall” as some people aided and abetted Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, the world described as kleptocrat.
As he entered the room to face them, the Prime Minister must have felt that he was looking at a bunch of senior government officers who collaborated to gratify the previous government.
“From the tone of his voice he meant business. If you are wrong, you are wrong.
“I think if anyone got his message, then the honourable thing to do is to step aside.
“For most who attended the meeting, it must have been ‘it’s not me, it’s not me’ kind of quiet reaction as the Prime Minister spoke,” recalled an officer of the meeting.
The meeting was held for more than an hour. Only a few dared to speak.
Six months later after Pakatan Harapan won the general election, the Prime Minister decided to meet more than 200 senior government servants in Langkawi last Saturday.
Chief Secretary to the Government Datuk Seri Ismail Bakar called for a session with these officers before their dialogue with the Prime Minister.
“He told us what we need to do as officers and help the government of the day. We broke into groups and came out with a resolution which was handed over to Dr Mahathir that evening.”
It is understood the resolution, among others, contains their pledge on integrity, good governance, human capital development and what they plan to do to help Dr Mahathir’s vision to turn Malaysia into an Asian Tiger.
An officer said the resolution is necessary because Dr Mahathir still thinks civil servants are sabotaging the Pakatan government.
“We have been under attack from the new government, not only by the Prime Minister, but also other government politicians too.
“Often times we are accused of corruption. Like Dr Mahathir said there are few bad hats but most us want to commit ourselves to do the best for the country and make a difference.
“The Langkawi dialogue is a golden opportunity to show our allegiance to the new government,” he said.
If Dr Mahathir’s tone was one of disappointment during the Putrajaya meeting, in Langkawi it was more reconciliatory.
Dr Mahathir knows it very well and admitted that the Pakatan government needs civil servants to ensure the government machinery is working.
“He has a bunch of new ministers and they cannot be running to him all the time asking him how to do their jobs.
“Since appointing his Cabinet, Dr Mahathir has to spend a lot of time meeting them and giving advice to his ministers,” said an aide.
During the previous government, the problem was ministers brought in outsiders, mostly to reward them for their support. With no experience, they often clashed with civil servants, insisting in doing things their way and providing wrong advice to their political masters.
“Some of the ideas are totally alien to the core business of the ministry and these were the people who came in and rammed through the agenda,” admitted one civil servant.
Dr Mahathir realised this and this is why he is asking the civil service to be patient and tolerant in dealing with the new ministers and deputy ministers.
Their lack of experience is very telling.
Some will give speeches at official events and speak as if they are still in the opposition, while there have been cases of officers of these new ministers confronting civil servants demanding why things cannot be done their way.
A senior officer said if in the previous administration, many civil servants were forced to yield but they will not be doing the same again under the new government.
“Don’t expect us to follow blindly. We have to advise what is against the principles and stand firm. If we don’t that would mean going back to the old system.”
For the civil service, it is good that the Prime Minister no longer sees the government machinery as totally destroyed,
Perhaps his tone is softer now because the “cleansing” exercise of the civil service is almost done.
“I think he wanted to meet us in Langkawi as he has completed his cleansing exercise of top echelon of government officers. I think he wants to move on. He has to trust us.”
The last six months has been demoralising and troubling for the 1.6 million civil servants as they are being looked at and treated suspiciously by the Pakatan government.
It is good that Dr Mahathir is asking the civil service to work with the government but both sides need to reconcile and stop distrusting each other.
The lack of experience of ministers and deputy ministers is the most pressing issue for the secretaries-general. The politicians must have confidence in the civil service.
Both the politicians and civil servants must bear in mind their agenda is for the country and the people.
This new government must learn to work better with the civil service for Malaysia to roar once again.