AFTER GE14, there has been a lot of attention on political appointments in the public sector. The new government has made it a priority to reduce expenditure and wastage. One of its major moves in these early days is to terminate the contracts of 17,000 officers who are said to be political appointees.
In a May 16 press conference, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said there were too many contract officers in government service.
He added that some of these officers had been hired to meet administrative requirements, but the ones who must go are those who had been given contracts “because of politics”.
A week later, regarding the 17,000 contract officers, he said the government would re-engage those who are essential and also those of lower pay.
Transport Minister Anthony Loke has also asked for the resignation of political appointees who hold posts in organisations under the ministry’s purview.
There have been similar calls for political appointees in other government agencies, statutory bodies and institutions to step down.
Measures to slash government spending and rationalise the workforce are fully understandable, but is it wise to insist on the departure of every political appointee because there is a new ruling coalition in town? In the first place, who exactly is a political appointee?
According to the United States Office of Government Ethics, a political appointee is any employee who is appointed by the president, the vice-president or agency head.
If we apply that definition to Malaysia, political appointees here are those appointed by the prime minister, deputy prime minister, ministers and heads of state governments.
The assumption here is that these appointees are politically aligned to the government leaders and their parties, or if they are non-politicians, these appointees have the leaders’ trust and confidence.
It has been a longstanding complaint that in the past, ability and character had little to do with how some political appointees landed their positions in the government bodies.
This is why the Pakatan Harapan election manifesto makes several references to appointments to key positions that should be based on merit instead of political links.
However, pushing for the wholesale exit of Barisan Nasional political appointees flies in the face of meritocracy.
Sure, some of them are out of their depth or are just unfit, and some others may not feel comfortable carrying on anyway because they do not have the endorsement of the current government.
But what if some political appointees have done a good job and are willing to continue doing so? Also, continuity and familiarity do count for something.
Nobody should keep his job if he is not doing it well, but to say he cannot stay simply because a different coalition is now in power is wrong-headed.
This is the time to look at the big picture. The interests of the government bodies come first; if there are already capable and passionate people in charge, why replace them?
In addition, here is an opportunity to strike a blow against cronyism and to heal rifts.
Retaining political appointees who are effective and professional can help quell the toxic brand of partisanship, the kind that rejects any association with the other side.
The position of political appointees should be reviewed individually. If need be, serve notice that action will be taken against abuse of power and poor performance, and make sure that indeed happens.
If Malaysia is to prosper under the Pakatan government, everybody has to be given the chance to contribute in the best way he can, even if he is a Barisan appointee.
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