FOR all the criticism on inefficiency and mismanagement in the public service, government officers of all services, the Malaysian Civil Service officers included, have stood by the government all along.
Records tell us that the civil servants were strongly behind the government in the early years of Independence, throughout the Emergency (1948-60), during the Indonesian Confrontation (1963-64), during the implementation of the New Economic Policy (1971-90), as well as during the economic crises, to quote but a few.
They are involved in policy formulation, programme planning and implementation, budgeting, and day-to-day upkeep of various sectors of the economy, including health, education, and public works. Their detail work includes as micro as drafting ministers’ speeches and parliamentary replies, and accompanying leaders to project visits. Some have to welcome and send off leaders at airports. In the international arena, they represent the country as diplomats, promote trade and investments and participate in negotiations. In fact the list is longer.
As civil servants, they are supposed to be loyal to the government of the day. They are supposed to be behind the scenes and let the government claim all accolades. I remember a senior colleague saying that civil servants should be “nameless and faceless, but never soulless”. This is true.
However, our economy has transformed. Civil servants are no longer serving a government that is dealing with agriculture as well as of maintenance of law and order only, but a government that has to deal with a complex range of issues covering globalisation, international competition, and regional and strategic matters as well as concerns with global warming and biodiversity. Recently, it has to deal with issues related to international aviation, too.
Civil servants have also to deal with domestic issues such as enhancing human capital and labour productivity, managing greater accountability and transparency so that corruption can be wiped out, managing natural resources for sustainable economic growth as well as working for fiscal balance. Not the least is the social concerns to banish drug addiction and promote higher moral values.
Malaysia has responded to these challenges with specialised institutions which help articulate the Malaysian public policy space. To name a few we now have Institute of International and Strategic Studies (ISIS) to help examine regional strategic issues, Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) to articulate independent economic viewpoints, Malaysian Institute of Maritime Affairs (MIMA) to deliberate on maritime concerns, and various commissions to regulate privatised utilities (energy, communications, and water) and to check on cartels and collusion. These specialised entities support the Civil Service with greater understanding of the policy issues and responses.
The Civil Service alone may not be able to deeply focus on all public policy issues in a thorough manner given its nature and inherent structures. They are administrators first. Officers often go on transfer for promotion thus affecting continuity of expertise. In-depth research is also minimal in the government service as many of them are largely involved in developmental work and in maintenance. Any policy advice not backed by good analysis can be less effective.
As expected, the policy challenges confronting us are plenty. The budget deficit is one such challenge with its specific issues of large operating expenses and the embedded subsidies in many public services. The system of price controls has to be unbundled to allow for greater market role in price determination. The nexus of labour and skills shortage, productivity and wage issues is another critical policy concern.
The husbandry of our natural resources, our mountains and forestry, rivers and coastline, and our maritime resources, have to be planned, managed, and coordinated, and supervised so that long-term sustainability is assured. More importantly our future generations are given no lesser quality and quantity of good environment.
An area that is often overlooked is communication. The Civil Service must upgrade the level of communication function in the public service so that gaps in understanding between the government and the rakyat can be narrowed. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad often made this remark of the need for prompt response if a comment is made upon the government, in his many National Economic Action Council committee meetings in the 1997/98 financial crisis.
Hence the challenges to policy making within the above context are many and their responses demand deep understanding. Those senior officers who have left textbooks decades ago may be theoretically less equipped while their frequent transfers do not give them enough exposure to provide policy advice. Using circulars to instruct changes for modernisation alone would not effectively deliver the needed cultural changes.
It is in policy making that civil servants need to beef up their capacity. If they do, they will be more relevant. In order to do this they have to work with the specialised agencies mentioned earlier and the universities so as to give depth and substance in their policy analyses. Otherwise foreign consultants will have a field day. Tan Sri Dr. Sulaiman Mahbob NST Columnist 2 AUGUST 2014