A friend of mine told me recently that he was considering home-schooling his two sons. A battle with the private international school where his sons are enrolled and fruitless encounters with Ministry officials who were either incapable of seeing his point of view or could not empathise nor appreciate his lack of options had brought him to that point. It could be that to many a civil servant, private schooling is an elitist luxury that one purchases at the expense of its ills and pains. If so, this overlooks the reality that for many in this country private schooling is not about snob appeal but rather a necessity in an increasingly competitive world.
Many a parent is caught in a conflict between wanting to avail themselves of public services, be they education, medical or otherwise, on the one hand, and doing the right thing for those they love on the other. They, like many others here in Malaysia, have been forced into these positions of conflict by a public system that has been increasingly undermined by political and vested interests despite the obvious consequences.
It is evident that for a nation to progress sustainably into the future, the pillars of the nation must be protected and continuously strengthened. Of these, much has been said of the Judiciary and the Legislature. We should however not underrate the significance of the civil service. It is crucial for being the engine that impels the nation in the direction it should. Civil servants serving in a diverse range of capacities from teachers, administrators, lawyers, doctors, engineers, surveyors, geologists and so on provide invaluable input and service. They reach far into this nation’s heart, its people, and provide the nurturing and guidance that keeps it safe and beating.
Civil servants oversee every aspect of the system from schools to hospitals to hill developments. It is therefore crucial that those who take on the responsibility of administration be suitably qualified for their jobs. This is both a matter of competence and integrity. There is no excuse for not having the best possible persons for such positions, be they teachers or director generals of Ministries.
Even a cursory glance at modern Malaysia would show that this is sadly not the case. If it were otherwise, we would not be stuck in the rut that we are. The nation lacks sparkle, energy and drive. Hamster like, we run on the spot in our wheels of misfortune as the system, such as it is, wears itself down at the expense of the future we could have. Can we really say that we have the best people for the job in the various ministries, departments and agencies that we rely on to make sure this country runs at the optimum level in all respects? I think not.
It seems that the only employer that does not complain about poor levels of competence, at least publicly, is the government. This is understandable. The civil service has always been potentially useful as an employment bank, a direct means of furthering agendas, for control and, for all these reasons, winning votes. Somewhere along the way, that potential was harnessed, and welfare and privilege elements exploited to justify abuse.
The notion that employment in the civil service is an aspect of welfare or privilege is self-serving and dangerous. The civil service is so inextricably linked with our future, giving meaning to the adage “we reap what we sow”. This is not just about the alarming number of unemployable local graduates and school leavers, as worrying as that is, it is also about bad decision making with sometimes catastrophic results, tangible and intangible, and other equally significant aspects.
Things are definitely not as they should be in this nation. We are slipping far behind as we drown in a dizzying cocktail of lackadaisical attitudes, a total lack of imagination, mind-numbing incompetence and corruption. Mediocrity has become our standard. And though we rush to justify and distract from failings, be it for having allowed our tertiary institutions to slip into the “not worth bothering” section of the rankings or the increase in corruption, this is not addressing the problems.
Change became a catchword this year with even UMNO elites claiming it for their banner. If we are sincere about transforming Malaysia, the alarming state of the civil service must be addressed.
For this, ground-rules must be set and respected. Politicians must learn to respect the intent underlying civil service regulations that restrict political involvement: civil servants must be left alone to do what needs to be done. They do not serve political parties; they serve the government of the day. Additionally, key sectors of the civil service must be made impermeable to appointments based on race quotas and be defined only by appointments based on of high levels of competence and integrity.
Above all, politicians must learn to respect the civil service for the fundamental role it plays in nation building. Change is in its hands.
(Malay Mail; 9th December 2008)