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Malaysia at a crossroads: Can Anwar drive true reform?

Unless the PM acts firmly, we will remain bogged down by bureaucratic bungling, corruption, inefficiency and incompetence

Anwar Ibrahim addressing top civil servants soon after he became PM - VIDEO STILL

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By M Santhananaban

Many in Malaysia are unhappy over the slow progress of reforms and the lack of competitiveness, inclusivity and innovation in the country.

We need to improve national unity and enhance education, healthcare and public transport. Traffic congestion, drug addiction and rising pension and debt servicing obligations are also serious problems.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has three major challenges ahead: political instability, climate change and an ageing population.

The most pressing issue is whether the prime minister can serve out his full five-year mandate.

Anwar’s 19 months in office have been notable for some bold, even brash, announcements. But genuine action to bring about much-needed rationalisation and reforms has been less tangible.

The widely felt feeling is that little is happening – though the recent decision on floating diesel prices has to be commended. One would have wished that it had been handled in a more efficient, educational and proactive way.

A diminished PM’s office

In November 2022, Anwar stepped into a much damaged and diminished prime minister’s office. One of his predecessors had begun serving a long prison sentence just three months earlier.

Three of his recent predecessors had fared unimpressively, their short and stale prime ministerial tenures ranging from 15 to 22 months.

One of them, Anwar’s nemesis Dr Mahathir Mohamad, had ruled for 22 years with an additional 22-month tenure from 2018.

But Mahathir was rendered inconsequential when he was thumped in the 2022 general election, even losing his election deposit!

To add to the weakened PM’s office, Anwar had to head a hastily formed “unity government”. This coalition of coalitions had been frenetically cobbled together to govern the nation after the election resulted in a hung parliament.

One of these coalitions in government has a component that is clearly not at home with the more open, robust reform mantra that had driven the campaign of Anwar’s own coalition.

Conflicted coalition

As leader of a multi-coalition government that includes a single but relatively weighty component, Umno, which has been vague about reforms, Anwar has not had it easy.

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Zahid Hamidi, the incumbent leader of the problematic party, had a prima facie case to answer. But he was miraculously given a discharge not amounting to an acquittal.

This was highly irregular as a voluntary initiative of the prosecution. The judge hearing the case could do nothing but grant the discharge. This episode took place some nine months into Anwar’s prime ministerial term.

Five months later, Najib Razak, the convicted ex-Prime Minister, was given unprecedented ‘discounts’ on both his 12-year jail term and RM210m fine.

But the former king, who granted these discounts, affirmed the conviction and left no doubt that the conviction was sound.

These unprecedented events have nonetheless blunted and blemished, at least partially, Anwar’s reform credentials. They have also put the spotlight on the PM’s uncertainty about punitive legal measures for grave and proven embezzlement, crime and corruption.

Limited manoeuvrability

It would seem Anwar’s hands are tied. He has had to cope with the public disquiet over Zahid’s discharge not amounting to an acquittal and the heavy discount on Najib’s court-sanctioned sentences.

A cynic may view this bruised prime minister as being more obsessed with staying in office than in allowing the law to take its course.

Alone, Anwar cannot prevail

For his part, Anwar seems to soldier on doggedly with the anti-corruption drive.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has perhaps attained a marginally better reputation under Anwar. The media seem to regularly carry reports of arrests involving crime and corruption in both the public and private sectors. We have witnessed a slew of convictions.

But many observers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied and distressed over the slow and patchy implementation of promised reforms.

For reforms to be put in place effectively, any leader, Anwar included, has to persuade, persevere and prevail with parliament and entrenched civil service chiefs. The leader cannot do it alone.

Neither can this Herculean task be carried out without the active involvement of dedicated and sound leaders in the present bureaucratic structure.

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The reform problem is complex and has affected the top officials in the civil service.

This service has been managed largely by the Public Service Department. From the explosive revelations of the infamous 1MDB court cases, it would seem that there was an epic failure to safeguard the nation’s financial sovereignty and security.

The department’s specially selected and nurtured elite cadre to protect, preserve and promote the nation’s wellbeing appeared to have a flawed focus. The functionaries were ineffective and just went along with Najib’s harmful plans that damaged the nation and its reputation.

The so-called three wise men – the chief secretary of the government, the director general of the Public Service Department and the secretary general of the Ministry of Finance – not only failed to discern the rot. They also failed to arrest the nation’s overall decline.

The trio had full influence and power over the entire policy, administrative and implementation system in vital areas – including defence, economic planning, and finance – and every other public sector activity.

Instead of speaking truth to power, represented by an errant prime minister, they appeared to keep quiet. They accepted their prestigious titles, enjoyed the perks and privileges of their respective positions and played along with the then PM.

A former attorney general was also perceived to be negligent, derelict in his work.

If the top government officials prioritise pleasing the prime minister over the interests of the country, it harms the entire nation.

Unfortunately, this is the reality that Prime Minister Anwar has inherited. The many challenges he faces cannot be solved by him alone.

The elite civil service must buck up. The Public Service Department, the most powerful institution in the government, needs to have its power and authority reviewed.

The Public Service Department and the Malaysian Administrative and Diplomatic Service have some 10,500 minions. They design, develop and dominate the entire system through various central agencies, including federal ministries.

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We live in a time of rapid change. Even specialised agencies handling areas such as defence, economic affairs and education have a tough time keeping up.

So how can the ponderous Public Service Department manage and monitor the situation? Can it handle priority areas, such as the development of Sabah and Sarawak and the training of personnel in those regions?

The department is simply not equipped to handle such a wide range of issues. It was created and cultured as a centrepiece of a colonial divide-and-rule system. It has since evolved from being called the federal establishment office into a highly protected, powerful politburo-type of nexus.

The institutions handling various specialised fields in a fast-changing world should be freed of the tutelage of the Public Service Department. Some of its functions should be taken over by the service commissions.

Other responsibilities should be delegated to the various ministries and specialised departments.

Career development and training in the uniformed services and other departments should be assumed by the respective specialised agencies.

A small ombudsman’s office can take up the residual responsibilities.

The country does not need a supreme corps of overly powerful Public Service Department officers to run and further ruin it.

That’s not all. Retired Public Service Department and Ministry of Finance chiefs tend to go on to helm government-linked companies. These firms and agencies often fail to function satisfactorily.

Retirement Fund (Incorporated) or KWAP, which manages civil servants’ pensions and benefits, is one example.

Will Anwar do what is needed to disband the Public Service Department and allow much-needed reforms to begin?

If he does not, we will remain bogged down by bureaucratic bungling, corruption, inefficiency and incompetence. Not only that, we will be saddled with more leakages with little accountability.

The bleeding of our vital assets must stop.

Dato’ M Santhananaban is a former ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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