The changing of the guard in Malaysia’s civil service

The Civil service is vastly different from what it was a decade ago


Malaysia’s civil service is undergoing a changing of the guard. The civil service effectively runs the government. The civil service is also the prime developer of policy for the government of the day. If no executive government existed, the running of government would not be affected at all. This is why many ministers are able to spend an enormous amount of time on political engagements.

To understand government, one must understand the civil service.

The Malaysian civil service consists of around 1.6 million employees across ministries and agencies. There are around 25-40 ministries, depending upon the government in power. They are often merged and broken apart. There is a hierarchy of rank spanning some 25 levels, from director general down to junior clerks. Public service staff and military personnel are also civil servants.

Civil servants are usually on tenured employment, once they are confirmed as permanent staff. Once confirmed, they have a lifelong career and pension at retirement.

The civil service doesn’t represent the ethnic demographics of Malaysia. It is weighted very strongly towards Malays and other Bumiputeras. Consequently, the predominant culture and related practices and customs practiced within the civil service are Malay. In addition, with most senior civil servants domiciled in Kuala Lumpur, Shah Alam, and Putra Jaya, they tend to be urban-centric in their views.

The civil service was run by the Baby Boomer generation. This generation, at least the senior people, studied overseas, used English as their primary language, and had a strong bond with alumni from their respective elite secondary schools. Consequently, there was much lateral communication between ministries and agencies. They witnessed Merdeka as adolescents, and generally had strong work ethic to use their knowledge and experience to serve and develop the nation.

This group has all but left the service. However, they were the group that built up the service.

Most senior positions and upper middle management are now in the hands of Gen Xers. Gen Xers also have a strong work ethic and have kept the system intact. They have tended to be more pragmatic and thus political than their former bosses. Gen Xers also thought strongly about maintaining the so called ‘Malay agenda’ and protected the civil service from straying away from an ‘unspoken’ policy or cultural norm of ensuring the service always put Malay issues first. If any policy ever came down from the executive government that infringed the ‘Malay agenda’, it would be not acted upon or even sabotaged.

Coming into the middle ranks of the civil service are now the Gen Yers, or Millennials. The Millennials are much more IT and cloud literate. Thus, they are at the forefront of bringing systems within the civil service into the internet age. Millennials see KPIs or key performance indexes as their objectives. As long as issues and objectives are clearly defined, Millennials will work towards those goals. Ambiguity is not liked. Millennials are also products of the local education system, which slants the way they see issues. The civil service is now much more a bastion of conformity and compliance. Being out spoken is not a positive trait. Together with the strong power-distance between superiors and subordinates, dissenting opinions, creative ideas that might improve processes and outcomes are not welcome.

The most distinct change in the characteristics of the civil service is that the majority of Millennials have experienced a much more intense Islamic education. Thus, the ‘Malay agenda’ has to some extent transformed into a ‘Malay-Islamic agenda’. Millennials are much more aligned to the ideas of an Islam-centric world, than the generations before them.

Moving into the lower positions of the civil service are now the Gen Zers, after graduating form local universities. They share the same Islam-centric view of the world that the Millennials have. Gen Zers are more flexible than the Millennials. However, their personal values are much more self-centered than the generations before them. They will tend to calculate whether particular jobs and tasks will lead to promotion. They tend to be more assertive for their best interests. Within the next 5 years, the civil service will consist of around 30 percent of Gen Z employees.

Generation change is having a major effect upon the civil service. With more employees, products of the Malaysian education system, we should expect to see changes in the diversity of thinking within the service. Unfortunately, diversity of thinking would be expected to narrow, rather than widen. Malaysian institutions of higher learning are not as diverse as universities in the UK, USA, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. Work ethics will also be very different, especially when the Gen Xers leave the top echelon of the service, over the coming decade. The next generation of the civil service may be much more rules based, than project based than it had been in the past.

The civil service is losing much of its experience of past history. Basically, history for most civil servants will only begin in the 1990s. The memories of the Asian financial crisis and style of past administrations will be lost on those responsible for making policy for the government. The newer generations within the civil service have been much more sheltered than those before them. The new generations have been discouraged for contributing to groups in an open environment, especially when other generations are involved. This could inhibit creativity, especially in the rules-based environment that has been created by Gen Xers.

The civil service will be in the hands of a generation who are looking to see what they get out of their careers, rather than seeing what they can put into their careers. This will be a major issue to change for the future leaders of the service. Future leaders will also have to deal with a bloated and inefficient civil service, when a future government identifies this as a major issue. The civil service has been used to soak up graduate employment for more than a generation.

There are no prizes for guessing that the majority within the civil service tend to have political sympathies towards the PAS side of politics. The federal seat of Putrajaya is now in the hands of Perikatan Nasional.

This is perhaps the most important aspect of the civil service since Merdeka, and why the concept of Madani was created to appease this leaning. There must be an element of Islam in policy for civil servants to support and get behind it.

The civil service is undergoing these quiet changes that few are aware of.