NUCC is the last hope for reform of the civil service

(This post was originally published at The Malaysian Insider)

To say that the newly established National Unity Consultative Council has been greeted with a big yawn by the public is too kind. Feedback so far especially over the uncensored internet has ranged from scepticism – “a political wayang” to the dismissive – “a waste of taxpayers’ money and time” and “expect NUCC to go the way of the 1Malaysia slogan”.

One reader has already predicted that “it will soon be known as the ‘No Use Consultative Council (NUCC)’”.

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Part of the reason for the criticism is that among the group appointed to forge a new direction in national unity are some well-known apple polishers who have risen to where they are because of their prowess in flattering the Barisan Nasional.

On the bright side, those appointed could have been much worse – think of what outcome we will have if the Government had appointed Riduan Tee or Awang Selamat.

Another problem is the restricted terms of reference set up for the Council which can discuss only four subject areas – laws, the federal constitution, values and programmes. Why this limitation if not to prevent discussion of sensitive areas is the obvious conclusion to reach.

Include civil service reform in NUCC agenda

For me, if the Council really wants to be taken seriously, it should include the civil service as one of the areas of examination covering all the four topics. There is no doubt that one of the pivotal players in national unity – perhaps the most pivotal – is the civil service. Unlike the politicians of whom there are only a few tens of thousands, the civil service employs over 1.5 million staff.  We have one of the highest if not the highest number of civil servants per capita in the world!  Their actions and decisions extend into every area of life and affect all Malaysians – from the time when the child is in the womb until after he or she dies.

Let me put a question to the NUCC. Is it not clear that the drastic decline in national unity has coincided with an increasingly Malay dominated civil service with the non-Malay bumiputera component, increasingly marginalised and reduced to single digit numbers in terms of their participation in key national ministries and agencies?

It will be revealing if the Government can reveal the racial composition of the civil service today. According to one estimate the proportion of Malays in the civil service had grown from 60% in 1970 to 77% for the year 2005. Today nearly 10 years later what is the proportion of non-Malays in the civil service?

Is it 20%? Is it 15%; or perhaps even less? I am happy to see that the Malays have made big strides in participation in the private sector since 1969. But what about the participation of the non-Malays in the public sector which was promised to by the New Economic Policy?

If the Government had upheld the provision of the NEP calling for restructuring of the civil service to increase non-Malay participation, I am sure that the thousands of racially and religiously sensitive or controversial incidents happening almost on a daily basis nation-wide will be dramatically reduced.

A multi-racial and multi-religious civil service is the cornerstone of a united and social cohesive Malaysia. It is also the cornerstone of social and economic development as it ensures a representative system based more on merit.

Suggestions for NUCC

I would like to propose the following steps to be taken by the NUCC when it meets.

1. Request for data on the civil service racial composition and for the number to be broken down by government department – police; land and district offices; Ministry of Education; public universities; local councils; etc. This should be a time series for the past 20 years so they can see the actual situation in each major sector of the civil service.

2. Undertake a thorough and full evaluation of the implications of the trend towards a mono-ethnic civil service and examine whether this trend is desirable in the interest of national unity and social cohesion as well as national socio-economic development.

3. Make use of policy studies on the civil service and their proposals as a basis for a strategy of reform and to make the civil service more multi-racial. The most relevant one is the paper, Towards a Representative and World Class Civil Service. This was part of the studies in the Centre for Public Policy Studies report, Proposals for the Ninth Malaysia Plan, ASLI, Kuala Lumpur, February 2006. It provides a methodology for recruitment of non-Malays and rebalancing towards a multi-racial civil service which protects existing Malay rights. Members of the NUCC should review the methodology which provides a compromise for a more racially representative civil service that can be accepted by all communities.

Civil Service as the key cog of development

Malaysia’s poor performance is largely due to the inefficient civil service. For any organization, business or government to do well, they must have good people to manage. The government must employ more non Malays and practice meritocracy in the selection and promotion of the employees.

Malaysians know that we started off in the 1960s well ahead of South Korea, Taiwan and on the same level as Singapore. Today, these countries are in a completely different league of development.  The answer to the riddle of why they have moved ahead so quickly is partially due to their civil service. Focused, efficient, based on merit and most of all, united, they have been the engines of growth accounting for the remarkable progress made in their societies.

In contrast, the Malaysian civil service has followed a different trajectory. Unfocussed, inefficient, with merit a secondary factor in recruitment, not representative and hence a dis-unifying factor – it is no surprise that the civil service is a critical blockage to unity and development.

I am confident that the majority of the NUCC members will agree that the present racial composition of the civil service is adversely affecting national unity, social cohesion and economic competitiveness.

I hope the NUCC can rise to the challenge to push for the reform of the country’s civil service which can enable all communities to be represented in reasonable numbers and help Malaysia to rise above race and religion.

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