Synergise, not downsize, the civil service

CRITICS of Malaysia’s civil service claim it is bloated by using the ratio of public servants to population. This simplistic empirical analysis is manipulative in nature.

Historical expansion of the civil service

A report by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development revealed that between 1970 to 1980 Malaysia’s population grew by 30% but the number of civil servants grew by nearly 400%. The ancestor of Parti Sosialis Malaysia, which is the Socialist Front (SF), was the primary reason for the explosive growth.

In 1960s, Malaysia was a wealthy nation but 99% of the population suffered under inequality, poverty, dirty water, and tropical diseases. This was attributed to Tunku Abdul Rahman continuing the laissez faire imperial capitalism. The imperial capitalists controlled 66% of domestic capital and siphoned societal wealth with the blessing of race-based politicians.

SF was advocating for renationalisation and redistribution of workers’ wealth through public healthcare, public education, and poverty eradication. Fearing loss of political power, Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Umno ordered the detention without trial of many SF leaders and suspended local council elections.

Most of the SF leaders were absent for the 1969 general election due to detention without trial, when the people voted for anti-establishment parties such as PAS, DAP, Gerakan, People’s Progressive Party and the Sarawak United People’s Party. The Umno-MCA-MIC Alliance lost the popular vote but retained a parliamentary majority due to the first-past-the-post system. Subsequently, Umno adopted SF’s policies including public healthcare and public education. 

Malaysia saw a dramatic rise in the number of schools, rural clinics, and public hospitals. Public hygiene such as waste management, tap water, sewerage systems, mosquito elimination and building cleanliness was prioritised to reduce the severity of diseases outbreak. Daily schools and boarding schools were also set up to democratise education for the rural communities. 

Between 1970 and 1983, these social advancement policies caused public sector employment (non-security personnel) to grow from 139,467 to 521,818. From the late 1970s onwards, the healthy and educated workforce allowed Malaysia to rapidly industrialisation. These social advancements demanded a large civil service but put us on path to modern prosperity for permanently. Malaysia could have industrialised and modernised faster without former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. 

‘Piratisation’ of the public service

Dr Mahathir’s neo-liberal capitalism had carved out government operations through the privatisation policy. This had created rent-seeking businesses for crony capitalists and political patrons across the board.

Prior to privatisation, critical public sector workers such as cleaners and security guards were government staff. These critical workers had jobs and living wage increments to buy houses and food for their families to escape poverty. Government premises such as schools, hospitals, and offices are given buffer funds to repair any minor damages. 

Post-privatisation, the government paid about RM1.5 billion per annum to crony contractors to manage security guards in public schools. The cumulative wages of 40,000 security guards working 84 hours per week is about RM1 billion. Basically, these crony contractors received RM500 million worth of commissions to pay minimum wages on behalf of the government.

Malaysia outsourced the maintenance of schools, hospitals, and offices to profit-oriented crony contractors. Hence, these contractors maximise profit but not swiftly repairing damage to public buildings. The policy was the primary reason our government buildings are in deplorable conditions for a near-developed nation.

Underpaid but overworked real workers 

Currently, Malaysia has about 1.6 million civil servants for a population of 32 million. However, nearly 50% of civil servants are in health and education. This is big jump compared with a million in 2003 when Dr Mahathir’s first regime ended.

In the mid 2000s, the government had recognised the importance of pre-school to close the education performance gap. However, artificially low wages and income among the bottom 60% means most cannot access private pre-school. Thus, the Education Ministry had expanded the public pre-school system nationwide, which required tens of thousands of new pre-school teachers.

In 2019, there were about 24,000 public pre-school teachers for about 450,000 public pre-school pupils. Therefore, the ratio of public pre-school teachers to public pre-school pupils is 1:18. Meanwhile, the ratio of private pre-school teachers to private pupils is 1:10. There is a need to nearly double the number public pre-schools teachers. This kind of burdening work conditions similarly occur in public hospitals, rescue operations, among others.

Moving forward

Those who criticise the size of the public service can be said to have a personal economic agenda. They either benefit from lower corporate taxes or acquire government contracts through privatisation. Research by the Government Contract Workers’ Network exposed how most privatised government support service contracts end up in the hands of a few politically linked individuals.

The class-based political climate in the 1960s had caused Malaysian government to change from a protector of private properties to social advancement providers. Malaysians should not support the downsizing of the critical civil service to serve the private economic agenda of society’s elites.

The civil service must be synergised from the bottom up by democratically engaging with public workers. That will be discussed in the second part of this article. – September 18, 2021.

* Sharan Raj is a central committee member of Parti Sosialis Malaysia.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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