IT’S often said that ministers come and go, but civil servants stay forever. And the good old government machinery runs as before, a fact some of our new ministers will probably be clued into by now.
Ministers who have no experience at state government level may have pre-conceived notions of the privileges they enjoy, like unlimited authority and knowing what they decree would suffice to overrule the bureaucrats.
And that is the biggest mistake they could make as newcomers to Putrajaya, because nothing exemplifies shooting oneself in the foot more than putting down civil servants – they run the ministries, after all.
Making its rounds on the grapevine these days is how some ministers put down their secretaries-general at meetings, believing they know better, or quite possibly, that they can do a better job at improving the performance of their charges.
Some of our ministers were probably not born when British sitcom Yes, Minister (which later became Yes, Prime Minister) aired on BBC Two, and on RTM, from 1980 to 1984.
Set principally in the private office of a British Cabinet Minister in the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs in Whitehall, it follows the ministerial career of the Right Honourable Jim Hacker.
In it, he attempts, or rather, struggles to formulate and enact laws or effect departmental changes and meets with resistance from the civil service, in particularly his Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby.
The obstructions (sabotages, some would say) were often carried out so deftly that the minister would often rarely know what hit him or possess a trail of evidence to prove insubordination.
In fact, the delays (such as total rejection of policy) were cited to impress upon the minster that the shenanigans were for the benefit of his political mileage.
But of course, the sitcom was totally fictional and in real life, not all civil servants could get away like that.
Respected banker and commentator Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid wrote that Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had put together a Cabinet with a mix of races and genders, and a range of ages, which is unprecedented in the political governance of our country. However, except for a handful of ministers, the Cabinet falls short on experience.
Dr Munir urged Pakatan ministers to get out of “Opposition mode” so they can function and deliver with all the advice and support available.
“They would need to get the government machinery – the civil service – to implement their decisions effectively.
“Here, there is another problem. The largely Malay civil service is not used to having political masters committed to a multi-racial Malaysia and a no-nonsense regime,” he wrote.
That simply means our ministers, who have been used to merely delivering fiery speeches, now need to roll up their sleeves and get down to work and show the fruits of their labour. They can only blame the ills and corruption of the previous government to an extent.
A few ministers, and even the Attorney-General Tommy Thomas, must now grapple with all the documents being in Bahasa Malaysia, unlike in the private sector where the medium of communication is English.
Their staff would most likely be entirely Malay, except for their aides, who are political appointees. Directives would be issued in an entirely different way, obviously reflected by the work culture and style of communication.
That is just how the civil service works, so, they simply need get used to it. Of course, stories of all this being a culture shock for some have surfaced recently.
Dr Munir reminded that “there is still some way to go to arrive at a New Malaysia in terms of multi-racialism. After two generations of ‘Malay First’ and subsequently ‘Malay and Muslim First’ political ethic, there is a mountain to climb to make it New Malaysia.”
The reality is that about 75% of the Malay electorate in GE14 voted for Umno or PAS, in comparison to 95% of the Chinese voters who voted for Pakatan Harapan (an increase from the 85% who supported the now-defunct Pakatan Rakyat coalition in 2013). About 70% – 75% of Indians voted for PH, the figures show.
It has been reported that only 25% – 30% of Malays voted for PH, according to figures from Merdeka Centre. Apparently, 35% – 40% of Malays voted for Barisan Nasional while 30% – 33% supported PAS.
The findings displayed that although a higher percentage of Malays voted for Pakatan Harapan in Johor and in west coast states such as Melaka and Negri Sembilan, the coalition’s overall Malay support was diminished by its weak performance in Kelantan and Terengganu.
It’s no secret that as the new government reaches its 100-day mark, some ministers are still struggling to assemble their offices.
It’s just as well that some have yet to meet the press or make statements, because they are still learning to juggle the workload as others continue their scramble to find the ideal personnel.
The job has been so overwhelming that they have been unable to meet their key officers to solidify plans and directions.
With no appointments in sight, some staff are wondering if they are being snubbed, or simply that the ministers are too busy with other engagements. It doesn’t help that they don’t even reply messages.
But the civil service needs to accept that this is New Malaysia. There is no turning back. The culture of openness, accountability, engagement and success must take centre stage, with any form of prejudice left by the wayside.
The strategy of using race and religion to stir emotions seems hollow now.
Millions of ringgit were stolen from the people by those in power, and as the facts have revealed, they weren’t Chinese, Indians or Christians, contrary to what these politicians still want the Malays to believe.
And certainly, the civil servants who sniffed out the moral decay under their very noses knew exactly what was happening.
Clean, trustworthy and competent ministers, and a loyal, non-corrupt and efficient civil service will make Malaysia great.
After all, as the saying goes, it doesn’t matter what colour the cat is, as long it catches the mice.
In this context, what’s important is surely them being good Malaysians.