I remember a friend of the family coming over to our house to wish Dad when the latter was appointed headmaster of a new primary school, a sekolah kebangsaan, in Kelantan.
Dad explained that this was a fallacy: "There is no such thing. The problem is we have overzealous heads of department who read too much into the New Economic Policy (NEP) and discard merit for skin colour."
Dad’s words have merit. There have never been circulars issued that appointments should be made based on ethnicity. Have we even once heard our leaders say that only a particular race can head national schools or be appointed to certain positions in government?
I have never heard them say it. Our leaders have always stressed that the person holding a position must be the best man or woman for the job. In fact of late, they have been arguing that the civil service should be more ethnically diverse.
They also remind us every now and then that the NEP, which is a means to improve the lot of the majority, is also meant to elevate the economic conditions of ALL Malaysians.
Even Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad when he was prime minister had told the MCA General Assembly a decade ago that ANYONE could become premier – a point he repeated at the Umno congress.
This scenario although unlikely, in a way became reality when Umno was declared illegal in 1987 and for a brief period, Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Ling Liong Sik found himself heading the Barisan Nasional by virtue of his position as president of the MCA – the second largest party in the coalition.
But alas, this message of merit over ethnicity gets diluted when it trickles down to the civil service. In making appointments or recommendations, over-eager decision-makers read too much into the NEP, depriving some deserving civil servants of promotions or appointments to key positions.
By doing so, they are also doing an injustice to the majority as it would be perceived that whoever is appointed to a certain position was not chosen on merit.
Not to say that those preferred are incapable or undeserving, but by misconstruing the NEP, administrators give the impression that minority groups may not even have been considered for choice posts. This may somewhat explain the lack of participation from minority races in the civil service.
It is not enough and even unfair for some critics to dismiss this with the comment that "minorities are uninterested in serving in the public sector". One has to delve further into the reasons as to why our public service is not representative of the country’s multi-cultural base.
According to statistics from 2006 provided by the Centre for Public Policy Studies, of the 899,250 public servants, 692,736 are Malays; 84,295 Chinese; 46,054 Indians; 69,828 other bumiputras and 6,337 of other races.
The same report said there are 1,370 Malays in top management, as opposed to 151 Chinese, 83 Indians, 23 other bumiputras and five from other minority groups.
The report also noted that from 1971 to 2006, there was a drop of 10.8% in Chinese participation in the civil service and 12.3% among Indians.
If there is any truth to these statistics, one should just bear in mind that the most senior civil servants representing ethnic minorities are Datuk Thomas George, the secretary-general to the Human Resources Ministry and his counterparts, Datu Dr Michael Dosim Lunjew from the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry and Datuk Dr Victor Wee from the Tourism Ministry.
Some may argue that these three gentlemen make up the "quota" of ethnic minorities appointed to key positions in the civil servants. If this is so, then one can understand why ethnic minorities prefer to work in the private sector as there are better chances for career development.
Which is why it is encouraging to note the Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan’s assurance that the government is in fact colour blind when it comes to appointments and promotions.
To attract the best, Mohd Sidek pointed out, gender, colour and creed must take a back seat to education, skill, experience and diligence.
Mohd Sidek’s message must trickle down to the heads of department and a more transparent selection process must be implemented where the decision is not one person’s to make but by a group of senior civil servants.
However, other considerations the government must continue to bear in mind are to make benefits as competitive as those offered by the private sector (as in Singapore), opportunities for personal growth and job satisfaction.
By taking cognisance of the situation and making the required changes, the government is assuring taxpayers that their interests and that of the nation take precedence over other considerations, and that the most deserving and capable will be rewarded, whoever they are.
This will certainly pave the way to realise Mohd Sidek’s aspirations of making the Malaysian public sector a "first-class civil service".
Terence was discouraged from entering the civil service by his own father who tore up his Teacher Training College admission form. He is deputy news editor (special reports & investigations) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org