Remaking Malaysia: Who are the saboteurs?

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 3, 2018 - December 09, 2018.
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I seldom agree with Utusan Malaysia, but I will make an exception on this one.

To Utusan, the civil servants who had tampered with the National Audit Department’s report on 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) are traitors and have “betrayed the trust of the people and besmirched the image of the public service”. I agree, if the allegations against them are true.

The Umno-owned newspaper also said the label applied to former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak as well. Naturally, again, I agree.

The comments came following a revelation by Auditor-General Tan Sri Dr Madinah Mohamad that Najib and others had tampered with the department’s final audit report on 1MDB in 2016.

In other words, some civil servants were said to have conspired with Najib to amend or remove several paragraphs in the report, including one relating to the presence of fugitive financier Low Taek Jho, aka Jho Low, at a meeting of 1MDB’s board of directors.

As this article is not about Najib, I will stick to the civil servants.

Utusan said the tampering incident showed that there was merit in Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s push to reform the civil service. It is good that Utusan, the mouthpiece of Umno and long-time defender of Najib, sees fit to acknowledge Mahathir’s effort.

Since taking office, the prime minister has been talking of sabotage of the Pakatan Harapan administration by civil servants.

Mahathir, speaking about when he first became prime minister in 1981, has said, “I took over the administration without much problem. Everything was in order, everybody knew the work procedures and they knew whether or not they could use their power for personal gain.”

But this time is different. The damage done by the previous administration was “so great [that] even we were shocked”, said Mahathir.

But how does that relate to acts of sabotage by civil servants? Surely incompetence and inefficiency are tantamount to just that and don’t amount to sabotage?

The only giveaway is that civil servants in the Mahathir administration of 1981 “knew whether or not they could use their power for personal gain”.

So far, Mahathir has not been willing to spell it out clearly except to cite cases of “some officers who are still not committed … for example, there are civil servants who have not been paid for four months when it clearly can be done. I don’t understand”.

I take it to mean that this involved the salaries of new civil servants appointed or employed by the Pakatan Harapan administration and the delay was the work of some in the old group of civil servants, that is, the “officers who are still not committed”, as said by Mahathir.

If that is the case, the new appointees would be frustrated and the new administration would be blamed for being not efficient not only by the appointees but also by the public, if they get to know about the matter.

A recent report by The Malaysian Insight, citing sources, said the Public Services Commission and the Public Service Department are reportedly going against the orders of the prime minister and sabotaging newly appointed officers.

According to the sources, PSD officers have even, at their own discretion, reassigned the grades of the new officers.

Closer to the ground, I have heard of pak ciks and mak ciks claiming to have been told by government officers of “uncertainty” over the fate of projects and what not. The projects, needless to say, are usually the kind that are meant to be beneficial to the rakyat. The underlying message is that the new government is slow or does not know what to do.

The prime minister admits that “the culture of sabotaging the implementation of government policies still exists among civil servants” although the number of those involved has decreased.

According to Mahathir, he will continue to talk about the issue as the process of cleaning up the government departments and agencies cannot be done overnight.

But just who are the saboteurs and why are they sabotaging the new administration?

I am not privy to who Mahathir has in mind. I can only guess that such acts are being carried out by the so-called warlords among the civil servants — people in high positions.

It is unlikely that low-ranking civil servants would be bold enough to indulge in such acts. What’s more, they do not have the authority to make or not make things happen.

And in all probability, they understood what Chief Secretary to the Government Datuk Seri Dr Ismail Bakar meant when he said the era in which civil servants must follow orders blindly is over. He also called on civil servants to uphold the doctrine of separation of powers — among the executive, legislative and judiciary.

But what is telling is that Ismail said civil servants should not be held back by the past as “it would not be possible to implement new approaches if we are still lulled by dreams of the past”.

Just what is meant by “dreams of the past” Ismail did not elaborate. Nevertheless, he urged civil servants to “move forward in a new Malaysia”.

It is not a big secret that there are high-ranking officials who are still loyal or sympathetic to the administration of the past and to Najib in particular.

A government source says these people started off resisting the Najib administration but ended up embracing Najib. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

Special media adviser to the prime minister Datuk A Kadir Jasin says there are enough laws to act on the matter, but he wants the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to investigate.

If I read that right, it would mean that investigations are to focus on how the loyalty to Najib was obtained.

As for the tampering of the audit report on 1MDB, the MACC has already initiated investigations.

To the prime minister, in order to restore good governance and to be able to further develop the country, those involved in wrongdoings should not be included in the makeover plan.

Those individuals, said Mahathir, “must face the consequences of their actions, including having legal action taken against them”.

Yes. For the good of the country, bad apples must go.

 

Mohsin Abdullah is contributing editor at The Edge. He has covered politics for the past four decades.

 

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