Being Human: Use the payroll crisis to trigger a mindset change

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THE government’s abrupt decision to impose a blanket freeze on civil service recruitment at the end of last month gives the impression of a forced decision, like a car running out of fuel on the highway.

It is elementary that a measure that was justified as a need to optimise the government’s use of human resources, as stated in the leaked directive from the Director General of Public Service Tan Sri Mohamad Zabidi Zainal, would normally be implemented in a phased manner so as to mitigate its impact on essential and priority services.

Let us leave aside the inappropriateness of official secrecy concerning a matter of such far-reaching significance in order not to clutter the discussion about the systemic issues surrounding public sector employment and the public delivery system.

Clearly, no self-respecting public administrator would allow the quality of public services to be so precariously compromised by such a drastic decree if he could help it.

This exposes the political dimension in the recruitment of government servants, with 77% of public sector employees comprising Malays, a core vote bank for the Umno party as the lynchpin of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

So, although it is no secret that Malaysia’s 1.4 million-strong civil service is abnormally high in relation to its population, the electoral dividend from the government’s job creation role is a powerful disincentive against keeping its payroll lean and mean.

Enter a fiscal crisis such as the one we are currently facing with oil price deflation and the inevitable tipping point is crossed. As the dividend from oil revenue shrinks significantly, it forces the government to streamline its expenditure despite the political fallout.

Therefore, the first step towards the optimisation of human resources in the public sector should be to separate the civil service from the political sphere of influence. However, this is easier said than done at the current stage of our political life as it will require a leap of faith to move beyond the era of paternalistic government.

Nevertheless, it is clear that such a tectonic shift in the state of governance is indispensable in order that structural weaknesses affecting national productivity can be effectively addressed.

Running parallel to the concern about the impact of youth unemployment in the wake of the job freeze are the effects of a grossly inadequate social safety net on the well-being of marginal and disadvantaged groups. Exacerbating their plight is the multi-pronged menace of unaffordable social goods given over to profit-driven privatised entities, under-performing public institutions blighted by quality issues and the pernicious effects of suppressed wages.

The additional strains arising from reduced employment opportunities on poor households, ranging from increased pressure on living space to cost-of-living issues to the impacts on educational outcomes, healthcare and other basic needs are indeed food for thought.

The upshot is that the case for cutting out wastage from public expenditure and the misallocation of resources due to an insidious patronage system becomes so much more compelling when the life outcomes of the underprivileged hang in the balance.

The emergency recruitment freeze is a powerful signal that the time is well past due for a systemic overhaul of current approaches to national development in favour of productivity-driven, socially just, forward-looking and inclusive ways to enable Malaysia to grow.

To be sure, a number of key initiatives have been launched to encourage the next generation of job seekers to focus on changing the game in order to drive the country forward in an increasingly volatile economic climate. But while these initiatives, such as the intention to produce job-creating graduates instead of job-seeking ones under the recently-launched Malaysia Education Blueprint (Higher Education) 2015-2025 are on the right track, it is important not to underestimate the cultural transformation that will be required to bring these ideas to fruition.

An immense barrier exists in the contradiction between the enabling message of self-starting programmes offered by the government under the umbrella of the bumiputera empowerment agenda and the constant political rhetoric that Malay rights are under threat, that the community needs protection and that the preservation of the Malay identity is the issue of the moment.

In a world that is changing at Internet speed, perhaps the biggest favour that our leaders can do for the people is to junk this addiction to a communal agenda and get all the young people in the full bloom of their diversity to collaborate in fresh ways to overcome the threats that are casting a dark shadow over their future.

The true test for the country’s leadership may well lie in whether the current emolument crisis facing the government can yield a national transformation.


R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 25 - 31, 2015.