Saturday, May 13, 2006

Malaysia's Lopsided Civil Service.

Is a homogenous civil service a liability? This is a very difficult question and as it requires either a yes or no answer everything depends on which side of the divide the one being questioned is. In Malaysia this situation exists, where according to the blog of a prominent opposition MP, "in the recent parliamentary meeting, MPs were told that as of June 2005, there were 899,250 public servants, of whom 77.04 per cent or 692,736 were Malays. The rest were: 84,295 Chinese (9.37 per cent), 46,054 Indians (5.12 per cent), 69,828 other Bumiputeras (7.77 per cent) and 6,337 of other races (0.70 per cent)." Therefore bumiputras comprise 85% of the civil service leaving a paltry 15% for the non-bumiputras.

When a non-Malay walks into a government office where almost every officer is a Malay it can be quite intimidating especially for those not conversant in Bahasa Malaysia. Why there should be a lack of fluency in Malay even until today especially among the younger age group mystifies me. I've always put it down to sheer indifference and a 'cocooned' living with their own kind in some housing settlement or new village. Be that as it may, even for those who have been 'exposed' to and have interacted with Malays it is still a trying experience that many avoid. This is probably the reason for the last minute rush for the My Kad and for anything else that requires going to or dealing with the 'Malay' government office. For the Malay client (we are now 'clients' under the Client Charter), it is assumed that he or she will feel right at home. Whether this is generally true or not is anybody's guess.

Why did the government in the early eighties decide to make the public service so lopsided in terms of racial representation? Was it a conscious political decision with some strategy in mind or for short term political gain? Or perhaps a bit of both. The end result however is a disproportionately 'Malay' civil service.

The problem now is when there are complaints of inefficieny, rude behaviour or any shortcoming in the service provided, automatically the Malays as a whole are blamed as inefficient and discourteous. "Oh if only we had an X or Y race officer this problem won't arise." . Or, "yeah lah put more Malays and this is what will happen" are the usual comments. That is the price you have to pay for maintaining a monopoly. If curses could come true, most of the civil service officers would either be dead or suffering some serious ailment.

While generally paying lip service to the imbalance in the civil service, the government has not made any serious attempt to correct it. What political compulsions or equations has stayed it's hands I don't know. It must be remembered that too much of uniformity leads to comfort and too much comfort breeds inefficiency. A little competition and even rivalry is good as it keeps them on their toes. 'Try putting in about 20% Chinese in any government department and you will see things really moving', a friend once told me. I tend to believe him because I can't disprove him.

Having said all the above I must place my own experience in the civil service on record. Perhaps I have been lucky both as a senior government officer (now resigned) and later as a 'client'. As recently as a few months ago I was pleasantly surprised at the excellent service provided in registering my child's birth and subsequently in obtaining the 'My Kid'.

It is a common misconception that the civil service is rotting - it isn't. There are a lot of dedicated public servants, most of them Malays and most of them 'unsung' and villified. I have had the privilege of working with many of these fine officers. If public perception is to change I feel that the racial composition of our public service has to reflect that change. A lopsided civil service does not do anyone any good.


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