Re-energising Malaysia’s Public Sector

The World Bank has released a report on Malaysia ‘s public sector performance. In the report the Bank says that Malaysia’s civil service is doing better than most of its regional peers. However, the performance of the Malaysian civil service has plateaued from its peak in 2014 which, threatens the country’s long term competitiveness.

Improving the public sector performance has been an ongoing effort for this country of 31 million people. But the challenge to make the civil service even better is especially urgent now given a more sophisticated and demanding society who expects ever better public service delivery.

One of the factors that is holding back performance and preventing the best to work in the public sector is the low wage bill of civil servants when compared to their counterparts in OECD countries. This unattractive pay packet is a huge factor that has discouraged many from applying to the civil service. Adding to the woes are cuts in budget allocation for the public sector that threatens to hamper reforms for a more efficient and effective workforce.

Malaysia faces many challenges to improving its civil service. One biggest challenge is to attract Malaysia’s best into joining the civil service. This is proving to be difficult. Young Malaysians are more inclined to choose private sector jobs over public sector mainly because the private sector provides a more attractive job option. Besides making the pay more attractive, there is also the need to make for a more modern public sector whose vibes evoke to the young the elements of flexibility, adaptability and cultural openness. There is a need to redesign the public sector and create work spaces that are in tandem with the demands of the time.

Besides infrastructural issue, the civil service also suffers from perception problem that is preventing the best of Malaysians to be part of the service. This perception issue is an extension of a wider problem in the Malaysian employment sector, where non-Malays tend to concentrate in the private sector because of better financial incentives while Malays remains traditionally in the civil service. The World Bank has recommended for a fair and accountable recruitment system alluding to the presence of discriminatory hiring practices.

But the problem of recruiting the best in the case of Malaysia goes beyond the idea of discrimination. Though there are scholars who suggest that discrimination is the reason why the civil service is not able to operate at optimal capacity, but we must also take into view that discrimination is one among the many factors why Malaysia’s best and brightest are shunning public sector jobs. Perception of the civil service has in fact coloured individual’s employment option. There are those who have developed the impression that the civil service is only meant for those who cannot get private sector employment. More worrying is that Malaysians are socialised – by way of close family members, friends and even schools – to think that the public sector is only for a particular ethnic group. Through a mix of primary and secondary socialisation they have formed the opinion that it would be impossible for members of ethnic groups, other than Malays, to join the civil service.

Indeed providing better financial incentives alone may not enough to attracting the best people to the service may not be enough in the Malaysian case. There is the need for the state to systematically break down perception and undo the socialisation effect. In shedding perception of the civil service, Malaysians must be made to understand that public administration and public policy is a public good and that it is in the interest of every member of society to make sure that the civil service get the best people.

Under-investment in new technology and automation is another reason that is hampering Malaysia’s public sector efficiency. The sector urgently needs to incorporate new technology and employ digitisation of its work processes to improve productivity.

To be among the best, the Malaysian public sector needs to be aggressive consumer of news ideas in the field of public administration. It should leverage on new techniques or ideas that are now experimented by more advanced public sector setups. Increasing collaboration between different stakeholders, incorporating the-whole-of government idea or introducing an extensive application of the internet-of-things in dealing with administrative processes are but some of the new ideas that can make for better public sector performance.

Malaysia’s public sector has its work cut out in the coming years. The World Bank expects Malaysia to post more subdued economic growth in the coming years. A slower economic growth will make administrative reform a challenge. The more difficult time would see the civil service coming under enormous strain to balance between the need to build capacity for better public delivery and to keep costs down.

The World Bank report clearly spells out the need for Malaysia to invigorate its public sector to achieve its aim of becoming a high income nation. To take its place among the world’s premier public service, the civil service needs fresh injection of investment and new techniques and ideas to improve its capacity building.

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