At Your Service by DATUK SHAGUL HAMID ABDULLAH
The civil service is less than ideal in its racial composition. But the greater challenge is how it can rise to the service level expected of it, given this situation.
THE racial composition of the civil service has always been a contentious issue, hotly debated in the light of varied perceptions.
The debates and more commonly, diatribes, sparked by shallow allegations that the prohibition of race discrimination as provided for in the Federal Constitution has been “forgotten”, is often blamed for the so-called lopsided racial composition of the civil service.
A representative civil service is important, firstly in terms of government responsiveness to the needs and wishes of the different segments of the population because civil servants affect public policy implementation in many important ways.
Both symbolically and substantively, a non-representative (in that its racial composition does not reflect the demographic realities) public service can to some extent alienate the under-represented races.
Symbolically, the representation of the various races in the public service affects the affinity of the respective ethnic group’s identification with the public service and, by extension, it can also affect their perception of the Government generally.
Poorly represented groups would tend to evaluate the civil service less favourably than adequately represented racial groups.
A survey conducted by Universiti Sains Malaysia for the Department of National Unity has found that Chinese and Indians generally give the Malaysian civil service lower marks than the Malays do.
While it is dangerous to make simplistic inferences from these observations alone, the point the study makes is that this is likely to occur even if the civil service serves in an unbiased manner towards all ethnic groups.
First of all, it must be stated categorically that there has never been any deliberate and conscious effort to discourage the non-Malays from entering and staying in public service.
This has never been a policy except in isolated cases where the religion or religious belief of a potential recruit becomes a relevant and pertinent factor.
An obvious example would be the case of the State Religious Depart-ment, which is allowed to recruit only Muslims.
The Federal Constitution, while clearly providing for the special status of the Malays and bumiputra groups of Sabah and Sarawak, equally guarantees the legitimate interests of the other races in the country.
It further stipulates that job opportunities and promotions in the public service should be awarded fairly to all deserving Malaysians.
But the fact is low non-Malay interest in working in the public service is a problem that is as old (or as young as the case may be) as this great country of ours is old.
Lower public-sector remuneration is a major obstacle, especially in comparison to the more lucrative private sector market.
This is made worse by the widespread perception that in recruitment and career advancement, there is an absence of equal opportunities.
There is also a cultural element in the perception of working in the civil service.
Among the Malays, a government job provides security. To a person from the rural areas, the shift from kampung work where the income is uncertain (like tapping rubber) and seasonal employment (planting rice) to a job that guarantees a fixed monthly income is a definite “move up”.
Many have at least a parent in the civil service. Therefore, there is less of a mental obstacle for a Malay to join the civil service.
For the Chinese populace, which came to the then Malaya as traders, for example, the move to join the civil service is more culturally alien.
Then, there is the issue of the wage structure.
Economics is a science of human behaviour and a human being will seek to maximise benefits and minimise losses. The beeline for the more lucrative private sector is only to be expected.
The obvious thing to be said for a mixed civil service is the need to reflect the racial composition of the country.
In a multi-racial country like Malaysia, no one race should be overly dominant to the exclusion of the others.
Furthermore, a mixed civil service would mean that the service would be exposed to a more varied gene pool.
The wider choice would only be good for the service. In this context, each race with its own particular strength will be able to contribute a great deal more to the service.
The synergistic mix of the different races would hopefully make the whole greater than its parts.
So it goes that the civil structure is less than ideal in its race composition. But the greater challenge is how the public service rises to the service level expected of it, given this less than ideal situation.
The aim should be to attain a level of standard so high that it obliterates the racial argument. Emphasis therefore should be on the continuous effort to elevate the standards and quality of service of the public sector itself.
The dominance of one race should not, therefore, be an issue.
The excellence of the Immigration Department is a case in point. Ever since it managed to greatly and significantly reduce the time taken to obtain passports, the general public has been very happy.
The fact that the department is predominantly staffed by Malays is no longer an issue.
As they say, if the food is good, everybody eats it. They love it. It does not matter anymore who made it.
Datuk Shagul Hamid Abdullah is the director-general of the National Civics Bureau. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
01 February 2010
At Your Service by DATUK SHAGUL HAMID ABDULLAH