Does Malaysia have a deep state?

Rayner Sylvester Yeo

Is the Pakatan Harapan government being undermined by the existence of a 'deep state' in Putrajaya? – The Malaysian Insight file pic, June 24, 2024.

THE Pakatan Harapan-led government has been in power for more than a year and a half. If you follow current affairs, by now you may have perhaps read hundreds if not thousands of articles criticising the administration for its slow introduction of reforms.

When discussing this issue, two possible causes are quickly identified by both the critic and the apologist.

One is that the government is not a PH government but a unity government. While there is some truth to this, it should be noted that many of the promised reforms are also present in the manifestos of other parties or coalitions, so this is not a convincing argument.

This article, however, will focus on the second reason – the existence of a “deep state” within the civil service with anti-PH leanings that is hell-bent on sabotaging the government and undermining any reform agenda.

Funny thing is, we heard the same excuse during the first PH administration too. It turned out that if there had been any sabotage, it was done by a 90-something old man to his own team.

After the fall of the PH government, many supporters who had ardently defended the old man finally woke up to the fact that he was not their saviour.

Now that another PH-led government is foot-dragging over reforms, the “deep state” is again being held up as a convenient bogeyman.

Is there any truth to this allegation? While there is a possibility that there may be people in the civil service who act with partisan bias, there is no evidence they constitute a big enough group to conspire to undermine the government.

In my opinion, many of the issues related to the so-called “deep state” narrative are the result of institutional inertia, overzealous officials, long-standing bureaucratic habits rather than any conscious malignant attempt by a large group of ideologically homogeneous civil servants conspiring against the elected government.

The idea of a “deep state” sounded more plausible during the first PH adminstration when the long-ruling BN was in the opposition.

There could be an argument that during the long reign of BN, the system of patronage and ideological indoctrination was used to tame the civil service and made them susceptible to the coalition’s influence even after it lost power.

But now that BN is part of the unity government, can those who believe in a deep state claim that this secret network has somehow shifted its allegiance to Perikatan Nasional? For proof of the claim, they have held up a survey conducted by the Ilham Centre prior to the 2023 six-state elections, which found that many civil servants supported PN.

I do not think that such a survey should be used as proof that civil servants intend to sabotage the government.

Were PH not in the government and a survey had found out that many civil servants supported the coalition, I don’t think the same people would claim that the civil servants were covertly working to subvert the government.

Of course, PH supporters do not have a monopoly on conspiracy theories. Like-minded people can be found on the other side too. The judiciary is often their favourite target. For example, some supporters of “Bosku” Najib Razak believe that there is a “deep state” in the judiciary bent on destroying the life of the former premier.

There are also Islamist “deep state” believers who think that the judiciary is dominated by secular and liberal judges (notwithstanding the fact that the current chief justice is a hijab-clad Malay woman) who want to prevent Islamic laws from being upheld in this country.

Conspiracy theorists are not limited to Malaysia.

If we look at the United States, there are people on both sides of the political divide who believe that the civil servants are biased against their side.

Many Democrats believe that the police and military are right-leaning and biased against the liberals.

At the same time, many Republicans believe that the “deep state” had undermined the Donald Trump presidency.

Trump himself believes this and has committed to an initiative called “Project 2025” which aims to fill the civil service with Trump loyalists.

I hope no politician in Malaysia will come up with their own version of “Project 2025” anytime soon, though that is not impossible if everyone keeps on blaming the “deep state” for their own side’s failures. – June 24, 2024.

* Rayner Sylvester Yeo is a member of Agora Society. He was born in Sabah and is currently residing in Kuala Lumpur. Having grown up in a mixed-ethnic, multi-faith family and spent his working life in public, private and non-profit sectors, he believes diversity is the spice of life.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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