DOES a public servant have a choice as to which elected government he owes loyalty to? Another question: does a public servant have a right to express his opinion against a public policy? A seasoned public servant would have a ready answer to these questions. That answer will be obvious also to one ingrained in the values of the public service.
Public service ethos, if not the law, dictates that public servants have a bounden duty to serve an elected government, irrespective of their political colouration. This allegiance to an elected government is an enduring strength of and integral to democracy. It aids in discharging the trust reposed by the ministers and the public on public servants.
This Westminster tradition of a politically-neutral public service dates a couple of centuries back. Strictly, it means that public servants serve at the pleasure of the monarch and the elected government that has obtained his royal assent to govern. That is why a senior public servant, other than being a member, cannot hold a position in any political party. Such a restriction further assures his impartiality.
Civil servants have the bounden duty to serve the government of the day.
Sometimes, the long rule by one political party may cause public servants to waver in their allegiance to another that has assumed power, more so, if that party had been in the opposition for as many years. Such was the case in Malaysia some time ago. Then, some public servants were in internal conflict as to who their masters were when the hitherto opposition wrested power from Barisan Nasional (BN) in four states.
This initial trepidation in serving the newly-minted government is understandable. Public servants have known no government other than BN since the time of Independence, with the exception of the government in Kelantan that has alternated between these two dominant coalitions.
However, the values of being loyal to the government of the day triumphed. Public servants continue to serve honourably, and with distinction, the elected government of the day wherever they are posted without partisanship. Such non-partisanship is emblematic of the public service ethos and responsible government.
The second question on whether a public servant can have a private opinion different from that of the government he serves relates to the participation by public servants in a recent anti-GST rally.
The chief secretary to the government had threatened the sack against any public servant found guilty of participation. A constitutional expert had opined that such a sanction was unconstitutional. A political party had asserted that such a threat would take the government, and the public service, down on the slippery road to dictatorship. Who is right?
The loyalty to the government of the day requires a public servant to champion public policies. He, therefore, cannot have a private opinion different from that of the government he serves.
However, that does not mean that a public servant is a zombie. He makes choices every day that invariably have political ramifications. Indeed, it will be a great disservice to society if a public servant does not use his intellect in executing his duties.
As a thinking person, a public servant can well have a private opinion. However, he cannot choose private channels to express his dissent either by word or deed. And that includes actively participating in forums, whatever their merits, which are against an expressed public policy.
But is he deserving of the sack should he do so? The threat of dismissal must be viewed in the context of the broader concern of the government to stem the erosion of its cherished values. Any relaxation of a part of its ethos will eventually result in the unravelling of the whole edifice of the public service.
So, if he cannot publicly express a contrary opinion about a public policy what redress does he then have?
There are two ways to register his opinion. First, a public servant can exercise his constitutional right to choose the government at the ballot box. Second, he can express his dissent through proper channels within the public service.
Healthy dissent within the closed doors of the public service is not detrimental. Rather, it can be vital to innovation and change. Sometimes, it takes a committed dissenter to induce what will be the next great innovative public policy.
Sometimes, dissenters fail to see the big picture. They do not understand the totality of the issues confronting them. They fail to appreciate their role in that big picture. Hence, they champion causes that go against the larger fabric of the system.
Public servants should constantly be reminded of their bounden duty to the government of the day that has obtained the royal consent to govern. Senior members of the public service have a duty to engage with dissenters. Good managers will discuss public service values with them. Good managers will not just hand out a code of conduct for newcomers into the service to sign it; as though the mere act of signing will automatically produce the desired behaviour.
Public service leaders will debate ideas with their troops and learn from opposing voices within the establishment. In the process, public service leaders will not only educate the dissenters to see the bigger picture and the implications of their actions but, in the process, become educated on an alternative viewpoint to a particular government fiat.
When these kinds of discussions take place frequently and with increasing regularity, we may see an end to public expressions of dissent outside the confines of the public service. As Calvin Coolidge, the 30th United States president once said: “Without commonly shared and widely entrenched values and obligations, neither the law nor democratic government will function properly. PROF DATUK DR JOHN ANTONY XAVIER - NST Columnist 21 JUNE 2014 @ 8:04 AM