Politicians go but civil servants remain

EARLY yesterday Chief Secretary to the Government (KSN) Datuk Seri Mohd Zuki Ali tweeted “Minggu yang penuh dengan peristiwa. Namun, penjawat awam terus melaksanakan tanggungjawab seperti biasa (An eventful week. But civil servants continue to carry out their responsibilities as usual)”.

That tweet was uploaded after he visited the Road Transport and Immigration departments in Putrajaya.

Just the day before, Mohd Zuki and Treasury Secretary-General Tan Sri Ahmad Badri Mohd Zahir flanked interim Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as he announced the stimulus package at the Prime Minister’s Office.

On Monday, Mohd Zuki was summoned to Istana Negara as events were unfolding following the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government. On the same day, he issued two statements – one to announce that the King consented to Dr Mahathir as interim Prime Minister and two – the Cabinet was dissolved.Istana Negara almost became his temporary office as his presence was required when Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah “interviewed” lawmakers individually in the Istana’s Sri Bendahara room to gauge their response as to who should be the Prime Minister or should Parliament be dissolved.

Indeed, this week has been eventful for the 58-year-old top civil servant who has almost 30 years of service in various ministries and capacities.

This week, he is one of the most important men in the country. He needs to keep the government machinery going.

On Tuesday, as the country plunged further into a political crisis, Mohd Zuki called for a meeting with all secretaries-general. These are his lieutenants in times of crisis.

His message to them was simple – continue delivering service to the people.

“The civil service does not want the stakeholders, in particular the rakyat, to suffer from the current situation. So the KSN said continue in a way that it is business as usual.

“What he meant was we must continue to deliver, we continue to implement because we are essentially the implementators. Although the policymakers (ministers) are gone for the time being, we the civil servants continue.

“We are not supposed to make any policy change because you would need Cabinet approval for that. So the KSN reminded us to pay more attention to deliver service to the people such as over the counter services, ” one secretary-general said.

Several secretaries-general contacted said that Mohd Zuki stayed composed although the burden he carried was huge without a government in place.

“The chief secretary is the go-between between the ministries and the Prime Minister.

“But some ministries can refer directly to the Prime Minister, preferably in consultation with the KSN. We need to keep him in the know as he is the focal point, ” said a senior government servant.

This week proved one thing –Malaysia has very strong institutions. Whatever happens at the political level, things are still moving in terms of the government machinery.

Take the example of the Covid-19 outbreak, it is a crisis. Gone are the daily briefings by the then-Health Minister. But the various agencies involved in managing the crisis went about doing their tasks quietly and successfully conducted the second evacuation of Malaysians from Wuhan. It goes to show that civil servants were just carrying out their tasks.For some ministries, events still went on and in the case of International Trade and Industry Ministry, it went one step further by issuing a media statement basically to reassure the business community that Malaysia’s economic agenda is still intact.

As the lead agency for Malaysia hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit in November, preparations must continue and in fact the first round of Apec senior officials’ meeting just concluded last week.

In the absence of a government, no new policies can be implemented except the ones that require approval from the interim Prime Minister.It is interesting to note that some quarters have questions on the introduction of the stimulus package, arguing that it is a new policy.

As explained by the Treasury, the package is not under a new budget which requires Parliament’s approval but instead it contains new measures.

“Eventually, it will be the civil servants who will implement those measures and that is our role.

“Whatever existing policies that we have now will be implemented and if there are new ones required, the civil service will refer to the prime minister. Although he is an interim one, the scope is quite clear, ” said one secretary-general.

It is ironic that less than two years ago when Dr Mahathir came back to power, he did not mince his words in criticising civil servants and was upset with how public funds were siphoned off purportedly for some public projects.

This time, he must have come to realise that the government machinery works fine despite not having Cabinet ministers helping him.

As one secretary-general pointed out, the work ethics then and now have undergone changes, especially with the National Anti-Corruption Plan 2019-2023, which was developed by the National Centre for Governance, Integrity and Anti Corruption.

The five-year plan has outlined six priority areas and 115 initiatives to achieve zero-tolerance to corruption and bolster good governance.

“Like now, everything is tendered for government projects. It takes away the prerogative of government officers and the process is more transparent and fair, ” said the secretary-general.

Perhaps, he said, Dr Mahathir had changed his perception of civil servants now.

In the mean time, while the country is left in intrigue with the ongoing political saga, work has to go on for the 1.6 million civil servants, including security forces, around the country.

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