Saturday, May 02, 2009

Civil Service Needs Overhaul, Not New Steering Wheel

While Sdr Lim Kit Siang focused on meritocracy when he ripped into the new Prime Minister's announcement on "multi-level entry system" into the civil service to "attract" private sector talent, I focused pretty much on endemic and entrench structural problems facing the civil sector. It will require a whole lot more than just attracting a handful of "private sector talents" to turn the civil service on its head.

A few days ago, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak proposed structural changes to the Malaysian civil service, which he called “multi-level admission system” where key positions in the government are opened up to talent from the private sector and government-linked companies (GLCs) in an attempt to modernise the civil service.

While we will always welcome top talents joining the civil service and serving the country, the above piecemeal measure will not be anywhere near sufficient to reform the ailing government sector.

Najib has himself admitted that there was a need for the government to justify the high expenses of RM41 billion to maintain the civil service in 2008. This represented a 60.2% increase from emolument expenses just 3 years earlier in 2005 which amounted to RM25.6 billion. What is worse is, the entire government operational and development budget combined in the 1990s never even exceeded RM48 billion, but 10 years on, the amount is barely enough to sustain our bloated civil service.

The civil service has been expanding rapidly since the 1990s, and the growth accelerated under the current prime minister. In 1990, the Federal Government had 773,997 employees; by the year 2000, there were 894,788 on the payroll, a significant increase of 15.6%. However, since then, the civil service employment has accelerated by more than 210,000 personnel in 2006, marking a 23.5% increase over the 6 years alone.

In fact, studies by Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development have ascertained that we have the highest ratio of civil servants to the population in the Asia-Pacific at 4.68%, while our regional neighbours have less than half our ratio, like Indonesia (1.79%), Philippines (1.81%), Korea (1.85%) and Thailand (2.06%). This clearly indicates the low level of productivity of our civil service.

The bloated civil service problem has been further exacerbated by the Governments policy of making our the service a dumping ground for unemployed graduates over the past few years. For example, in July 2006, as the then Deputy Prime Minister, Najib had instructed the Public Services Department (PSD) to speed up the recruitment of graduates to fill some 30,000 vacancies in the civil service to “overcome the problem of unemployed graduates.”

As part of the above initiative, the Government had actually created 2,000 positions in the Ministry of Domestic & Consumer Affairs in 2007 to employ unemployed graduates as “price monitors” just to “keep watch on the price of goods at 96 locations that included wet markets, supermarkets and grocery stores” with little or no value-added functions.

And even in the latest 2nd Economic Stimulus Plan announced by Najib who is also the Finance Minister in March this year, Najib said “the government would recruit 63,000 staff to fill vacancies, including 13,000 jobs for contract officers.”

Hence, while Najib has rightly recognised the problem of needing to “justify” the RM41 billion spent on maintaining the unwieldy civil service, he is now also contributing to the problem by adding massively to the staff force. It has also to be noted that while it's easy to add new staff, shedding them is nearly impossible and it will only lead to deeper structural problems for our beleaguered civil service.

To overhaul the civil service sector, we must first stop treating the sector as an employer of the last resort. By absorbing these graduates who were not able to obtain gainful employment in the private sector, it results not only in a poor quality workforce within the civil service, it also increases the Government's financial obligations. Persisting with these policies will only serve to negate any positive impact from the “multi-level admission system” which Najib is trying to implement to attract talents into the service.
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