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Will the Malaysian civil service work with the new Pakatan government?

Malaysia's Pakatan Harapan (PH) government alleges that some civil servants campaigned for its Barisan Nasional rival during last month’s general election. Given the traditionally intimate relationship they have had with BN, there has been concern that civil servants will struggle to disassociate their political beliefs with their legally bound duty to serve the PH government. So, will the civil service cooperate with the new government?

The PH government led by Dr Mahathir has taken steps to remove those believed to be loyal to the Najib administration, and thus consolidate authority within various government and government-linked agencies.

The PH government led by Dr Mahathir has taken steps to remove those believed to be loyal to the Najib administration, and thus consolidate authority within various government and government-linked agencies.

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The ease at which a civil service transitions to work with a new government is particularly complicated in countries which have had lengthy periods of one-party rule.

The civil service is legally bound to serve the government of the day. Yet, in one-party states, the lines between the ruling party and government can be blur.

Consequently, the notion of loyalty to government and loyalty to the ruling party, too, tends to be conflated.

Up till its recent general election, this has been a fact of political life in Malaysia. Historically, anywhere between 70 and 90 per cent of civil servants are believed to have voted for Barisan Nasional (BN) candidates.

In some seats, data indicates that over 95 per cent of civil servants previously voted for BN.

Quite tellingly, the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government alleges that some civil servants even campaigned for BN during last month’s election.

Given the traditionally intimate relationship they have had with BN, there has been concern that civil servants will struggle to disassociate their political beliefs with their legally bound duty to serve the PH government.

So, will the civil service cooperate with the new government? There is no straightforward answer, but a few trends are worth discussing.  

While civil servants have traditionally been a vote bank for BN, its share of their vote has shrunk considerably.

Data from some constituencies suggest BN to have received between 55 and 60 per cent of the civil service vote. These are historic lows.

Yet, it is crucial to note that the large minority swing away from BN – most civil servants still voted for BN – does not equate to support for PH.

Indeed, those who did vote against BN were ultimately split between PH and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia.

This is important. A survey of the breakdown of the vote indicates that in seats where civil servants could vote early, Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s 22-year reign as Prime Minister was not sufficient to bring more than 25 to 35 per cent of civil servants to vote for PH.

It would therefore be premature to believe that a significant number of them want the much heralded change PH is promising.

Should political leaders seek to implement new policies that civil servants disagree with, one can expect them to fall back on red tape to slow down policy development and execution, and thus bring reforms to a halt.     

What is more, even if PH desires considerable reforms, it will be confronted by realities which limit its ability to implement them. A case in point are proposals for education reforms.

There have been suggestions for English to be the language of instruction for Mathematics and the Sciences in schools nationwide.

Even if the Cabinet chooses to revamp education policy with this objective in mind, it will first have to ensure that enough teachers are trained to teach these subjects in English.

As was pointed out to me by a former advisor to ousted prime minister Najib Razak, that could in and of itself take close to 10 years, or two election cycles.

If the PH government overpromises reforms that it ultimately cannot deliver because of constraints akin to the aforementioned, it runs the risk of undermining its own credibility.    

Amidst such uncertainties and a regime change, it is necessary to note that there is significant political continuity.

Numerous lawmakers either with or allied to PH earned their governing credentials while they were still part of previous BN administrations.

 

These include Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (formerly a Deputy Prime Minister), PH Chief Secretary Saifuddin Abdullah (formerly a Deputy Education Minister), Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir (formerly a Deputy Trade Minister), and of course, Prime Minister Mahathir himself.

In East Malaysia, the pattern of continuity is even more profound. The parties which formed the state government in Sarawak have quit BN.

 

Short of declaring themselves as part of the new federal government, they have nonetheless promised to cooperate with PH.

In Sabah, Mr Shafie Apdal remains central to the alliance between his Warisan party and PH. He also happens to be a former Vice President of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and a former Minister in both the Najib and Badawi administrations.

Members of the BN Sabah coalition also jumped ship to the Warisan-Pakatan alliance shortly after the May 9 election.

The trend is quite clear. Many leaders remain in power even as their political orientations have shifted.

 

This suggests that at certain state and federal portfolios, regime change will not necessarily manifest as a ‘shock to the system’.

Depending on who is helming a given ministry, commanding the loyalty of civil servants may be less challenging.

 

For state institutions which prove tougher to control, senior civil servants who are deemed to be a threat to the new government’s administrative agenda will likely be axed.

Indeed, PH has already taken steps to remove those believed to be loyal to the Najib administration, and thus consolidate authority within various government and government-linked agencies.

Already, a new Attorney-General has been appointed, while the chiefs of Bank Negara and the Electoral Commission will be replaced.

At the same time, Dr Mahathir announced that 17,000 civil servants appointed by the Najib administration will have their contracts terminated.

This has officially been justified as a cost cutting measure.

 

Yet, when put alongside the removal of senior civil servants, as well as in the context of the fact that the PH government does not yet have a majority of civil servants on its side, one wonders if this was just the beginning of a series of measures to purge the civil service of BN loyalists.               

On a more optimistic note, there are also signs that the civil service will experience rejuvenation.

Both younger Malaysians and those who supported the Reformasi (reform) movement from its early days have indicated greater interest in joining the civil service, now that they believe in the policies, objectives, and ideals of their government.

Though some are expected to watch how the new government unfolds before making a career commitment to the civil service, there is nonetheless a palpable desire among younger Malaysians to help chart the Mahathir administration’s reforms nationwide, root out corruption, and bring forth a new Malaysia.      

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Prashant Waikar is a research analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

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