Trusting our frontliners

TAN Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah never intended to be a celebrity. The Health director-general is the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. He is the person Malaysians trust most at the moment. Which is interesting.

Civil servants have never been known to take credit for anything. The success of their work is attributed to the supposedly reasonably brilliant, hard-working and visionary politicians. They are there to take the beatings when policies fail.

They have been unfairly blamed for all the woes bedevilling the nation. In some cases even portrayed as a disloyal lot, up to sabotaging a particular government when in power. They are merely the “yang berkhidmat” (the serving ones).

It reminds us of the hugely popular British TV sitcom Yes Minister back in the 80s.

Of course the image of the sly and manipulative Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Secretary comes to our mind. Poor Bernard Woolley, caught between his loyalty to the minister Jim Hacker and his boss Appleby. The political satire rings true even to this day when we talk about the relationship between politicians and public servants.

There has been a huge debate on the quality of our public servants over the years.

There are issues pertaining to corruption and misuse of power. And worse, their unfailing loyalty to the bosses they serve. There have been cases of senior government officials getting into trouble for “following orders.” Politicians got away with murder, so to speak, while they end up facing the consequences, thanks to their signatures on the dotted line.

Say what we want, but I believe we have a fairly competent civil service. We would not be where we are today without them.

We have come a long way from a fledgling nation to one that aspires to be an advanced one. We inherited a good administrative eco-system. The truth is, our public servants are the unsung heroes of the nation.

Even the most visionary of politicians need them to translate their ideas into action. After all, politicians come and go, the civil servants will be there through changes of governments and policies.

We must not take a few rotten apples as a symptom of the entire system. Yes, there are always the ever blindly loyal Hang Tuah (the legendary Malay hero who will submit to the will and fancies of his ruler) among them.

Mostly we take them for granted. We blame them for everything. But we seldom credit them for the work well done.

Working within a pressurised political atmosphere like ours demands a different work culture. We have always insisted that the civil servants to be left on their own. Give them a breather. They are not perfect, but within that imperfections, they should be able to perform their tasks as true professionals.

There has always been a gap between the aspirations of the private and the public sector. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad initiated Malaysia Incorporated back in the 90s to close that gap. The aspirations and demands of the people for a better civil service have been addressed over the years. There are still flaws and loopholes but there are avenues for improvement.

I believe there has never been a Veracity Index done to show the trust gap between civil servants and government ministers in Malaysia.

But in many advanced countries, the findings have been interesting. In a UK survey in 2018,62% of respondents said they trusted civil servants more to tell the truth compared with hardly 22% who said they trust the government to do so.

Less than 19% trusted politicians.

Trust in civil servants has risen in the last two years of the survey, which was also a record high. In the UK survey, civil servants have had the highest rise in trustworthiness than any other profession since the annual survey started in 1983.

The pandemic has proven something else too, the belief that our health officials are fully trusted to handle the scourge. We follow their orders and advice. We are living in a new normal, adjusting ourselves and how we live, going about our lives and interacting with others. We are trusting the frontliners for we believe our lives depend on them.

It is a golden opportunity for the Chief Secretary to the Government to relook at the service in totality. It must take advantage of the “brand” in terms of public trust.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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