Ethnic dominance in the Malaysian civil service

By Dr Lim Teck Ghee & Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam

This was written as a commentary in response to an article by Datuk Shagul Hamid Abdullah, Director-General of Biro Tatanegara that recently appeared in a national daily. 

Since the paper has declined to publish it, we are making the commentary available to other media outlets in the hope that it will be widely read and the subject of the racial composition of the Malaysian civil service is given the serious analysis and policy attention that it deserves. We consider this issue of paramount importance to our future as a united country.  

The article ‘Emphasis on raising standards’ by Shagul in The Star (Jan 30, 2010) seems to be aimed at ensuring that the situation of Malay dominance in the civil service should remain unchanged and unchallenged.

The Director-General’s analysis fails to point out some very important reasons why a representative and multi-racial civil service should remain a key national priority, especially in the context of building 1Malaysia.

One crucial reason is that the second prong of the New Economic Policy (from 1970) – the reduction in the identification of economic function with ethnicity – was intended to apply to both the private and public sectors. This second prong has been deemed to be so vital to the cause of national unity that the restructuring of the private sector continues until today (nearly 20 years after the NEP was supposed to have ended in 1990).

What has happened to the restructuring of the civil service that was part of the original NEP?

Although great strides have taken place towards a more multiracial private sector, the reverse has happened in the civil service.

According to available statistics for the year 2005, the proportion of Malays in the civil service had grown from 60% to 77% from 1970 to 2005 whilst the Perkhidmatan Tadbir dan Diplomatik (PTD) had 85% Malays in its staffing, or six Malays for one every non-Malay.

The situation of Malay dominance of the civil service, especially for the higher level service groups, is likely to have been enhanced since.

It is not simply the issue of Chinese under-representation mentioned by the DG that is of concern. Representation of other communities and the East Malaysia native communities in the civil service at all levels is of as much concern.

Data absent

Official statistics such as racial and regional breakdown of civil service staffing by ministries, agencies and departments and categorized according to top management group, management and professional group and support group and other key variables can provide us a better understanding of the representational issue. From it we can draw related racial, regional and other ramifications and implications.

Though easy to collate, analyze and make publicly available, these data are conspicuously unavailable.

Many government leaders have acknowledged that we need more transparency in government to raise public confidence. Should these data and the relevant analysis be made publicly available, we are confident that they will agree with the concerns of many Malaysians that current Malay over-dominance of the civil service is unhealthy and undesirable and that it adversely affects national unity, social cohesion and economic competitiveness.

Another important reason why the civil service in Malaysia needs to be made fully representative of the country’s racial make-up is that in all modern governments, civil servants are fully engaged in formulating and implementing public policies on behalf of, and in the interests of, all the communities.

Democratic norms call for a representative, impartial and neutral bureaucracy, not only to ensure that public policies are responsive to the legitimate needs of all citizens in a fair and equitable fashion but also to ensure that there is an absence of racial bias in the individual or collective manner that the civil servants formulate policies and conduct their work. 

In February 2006, a study titled “Towards a representative and world class civil service” was presented to the Government as part of the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS) proposals for the Ninth Malaysia Plan.

The study contained a full set of arguments as to why the civil service needs to pursue an appropriate and racially diverse representation policy in its staffing. 

It also provided practical suggestions on how this policy could be implemented in the form of a quota system in recruitment and career advancement. The quota system would be similar to the quota systems long used by the government in sectors such as education and commerce to bring about Malay advancement.

The civil service quota system – in this case specifically used as a temporary affirmative action tool to increase non-Malay numbers and reduce marginalization – could be formulated in such a way as to meet with the constitutional provisions providing for the special position of the Malays and bumiputera groups of Sabah and Sarawak.

This 60-40 recruitment system would be relatively easy and painless to implement. It would ensure Malay dominance but not over-dominance by helping bring a gradual increase in the number and proportion of non-Malay civil servants in the country. Your browser may not support display of this image.

Since that CPPS study aforementioned, the growing number of racial profiling allegations aimed at the police and various other ministries and agencies is a clear danger sign that changes in recruitment of new staffing and racial composition at the higher levels are urgently needed if these allegations are not to spiral out of control.

Sidelining non-Malays

The Director-General has emphasized that “there has never been any deliberate and conscious effort to discourage the non-Malays from entering and staying in public service”. 

The veracity of this statement can be questioned. 

If a full and open inquiry is held on the issue of whether or not bias exists in terms of recruitment and promotion in the civil service (and this includes staffing in the public universities and many strategic ministries and agencies), we are sure that many conflicting views – including those based on personal experience – are likely to dominate the proceedings.

Even if we accept as largely true the statement that there are no “deliberate and conscious” attempts to discourage non-Malay participation in the civil service, it does not absolve the government from its responsibility of ensuring a fully representative civil service – a national objective which it has long pledged to pursue but has cynically ignored instead. 

In fact, if only a miniscule fraction of the public resources that has gone into the restructuring of the private sector had been allocated towards the restructuring of the civil service, we would have long ago achieved that goal and arrived at a higher stage of national unity, resilience and competitiveness.

Instead what we have had is a lot of rhetoric, foot dragging, attempts to ‘blame the other side’, and now another garbled attempt at explaining why the status quo in terms of the civil service composition has to remain the same.  

That is why the contrasting statement by the Second Minister of Finance, Ahmad Husni Mohd Hanadzlah, that the civil service should be more multiracial is most welcome.

In order to fulfill this noble aspiration, we hope that Husni and his colleagues in the Barisan Nasional will support the introduction of a quota system reflective of the country’s racial composition and for the system to be introduced as soon as possible for all civil service recruitment and promotion.

It is important for the Government to change its mindset on the issue and not to view the issue of a representative civil service in zero-sum game terms. It is not simply the interests of the non-Malay communities presently under-represented that would be enhanced with more equitable representation. Malay interests would also benefit in many ways.

Implementation of reforms providing for the recruitment and career advancement of non-Malays in the civil service will help ensure that national unity and the goal of 1Malaysia will be more quickly realized.  

Dr Lim Teck Ghee is Director, Center for Policy Initiatives and Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam is former President, Transparency International Malaysia.