By Lim Teck Ghee
COMMENT In his first public interview since assuming the position of chief secretary, Ali Hamsa, said all the politically correct and bland things that one expects from someone eager to show Malaysians that he is up to the challenge of a big job.
From being a cheerleader attempting to rouse the morale of his troops (according to him, the performance of the civil service has been “excellent”) to sounding patriotic and humble (“We need to continuously raise the bar to be among the best…”; “we can’t treat what we do as a job as what we do must benefit all Malaysians”), the orchestrated and carefully calibrated interview with the New Straits Times was clearly meant to impress and get Malaysians on his side.
Unfortunately, it failed to address the two most important failings of the civil service.
Lying in bed with the corrupt
The endemic and systemic corruption that Malaysia is suffering could not have taken place without the collusion of the country’s civil servants. Closing one eye or acting as facilitators to businessmen and political leaders is standard operating procedure for more than a few in the upper reaches of the bureaucracy.
Everyone knows that doing business in the country has to pass through a thicket of civil servants. This includes big ticket multi-million dollar projects often given out under the pretext of so-called ‘national interest’ where the opportunities for massive corruption and kickbacks are especially prevalent.
Besides grand corruption, there is also low level and petty corruption by enforcement and other officers preying on ordinary citizens including the poor or marginalised.
Whether it is getting a licence to operate a restaurant or securing a multi-million dollar contact for the ongoing ‘Cowgate’ scandal, the public is fully aware that knowing the right jalan can hasten the path to approval or delay or doom a business proposition. It appears that the businessmen and political leaders engaged in activities that have brought windfall and undeserved gains know who the ‘right’ civil servants are.
The fact is that few high-level corruption cases ever see the light of day. Government officials living beyond their means and official income are not hauled up to answer for their unexplained wealth. This inertia has encouraged a culture of corruption to be deeply embedded within the bureaucracy.
Ethical and clean civil servants have suffered in silence fearing that their opposition to hanky-panky would result in setback to their career advancement prospects. It must be disappointing to them that the chief secretary did not say a single word in his interview about reforms to clean the civil service of corrupt and unethical practices, especially at the highest levels of the civil service.
Lying in bed with Barisan
Another major failing of the civil service is that it has been successfully co-opted by Barisan Nasional to act as the tool of the ruling party. Far from being a politically neutral actor, the civil service has failed to observe strict administrative impartiality.
Especially in developments related to the political life of the country, key bodies such as the judiciary, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the police, the Election Commission (EC), and the official media have helped to strengthen BN’s political grip. They have also been instruments used to undermine democratic rights and freedoms.
Instead of untying the umbilical cord between the BN and the civil service, the chief secretary gave a pointed hint that he is likely to reinforce it.
In response to a leading question whether “some civil servants are being influenced by promises made by the opposition”, his reply was that “They should know better. Don’t be taken in by empty promises.”
Although he qualified this reply by stating that “[a]s civil servants we must be loyal to the king and serve the government of the day”, the intent of his reply was clear.
A string of lacklustre chief secretaries
Ali Hamsa may prove to be the latest in a series of lacklustre and mediocre chief secretaries in the country.
Mediocrity breeds mediocrity. Because of their poor leadership, the civil service has seen few reforms. Today we have a fat and bloated 1.4 million-strong body that has been victim as well as accessory and beneficiary to the abuses and misrule of the country.
The new chief secretary has the opportunity to begin the difficult process of cleansing the civil service and making it efficient and trustworthy. For this to happen, he must focus on removing the two principal obstacles which stand in the way of a rejuvenated and clean civil service.
Can he do it or is he like many others before him having his eye on his post-retirement benefits?