By KJ John
fter the spat between Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and Nik Ali Mat Yunus – the federal officer posted to Penang as state development officer (SDO) – the chief secretary to the government concluded: “If he (Nik Ali) was accused with all kinds of untruths and criticised repeatedly, he too, has his dignity. If he did not reply, then people would say that he is guilty. So, it was proper that a clarification was given.”
I disagree with your judgment, Sir!
The word ‘dignity’ is a very expensive word in human sociology and psychology and cannot be treated lightly. Much like the word ‘integrity,’ it cannot and should not be abused by all and sundry. In fact, when I proposed the ‘dignity in the workplace’ hypothesis, the first and biggest challenge was defining the concept as applied and used at the workplace.
And, even before I could define it, I had problems at the ontological level about our differing theories about the nature of man and our assumptions about reality. Some of my professors thought I should move to a school of theology or philosophy to seek a definition, instead of a School of Government and Business Administration. Therefore, that word is neither a simple word nor an easy concept to understand and then defend.
While I agree with the chief secretary’s application of the word and its personal meaning to defend the honour and due regard for the human being responsible, I disagree that the manner of his defence was either right or proper. The officer should never have publicly responded to the matter against the chief minister; after all he is the head of a state administration. That is public service decorum.
While the chief secretary is a very good friend, as is the chief minister, and Nik Ali (left) was my colleague at the International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti), truth matters in every area of life. What I write now is an attempt to be professional about the subject and my views are nothing personal.
First of all, all federal public servants serve at the pleasure of the Agong. And in both the unfederated and federated Malay States, officers serve at the pleasure of the sultan or head of the state.
The chief secretary is the secretary to the cabinet and therefore a federal level cabinet officer, but his appointment is institutional and ex-officio, regardless of who forms the government. The chief minister or menteri besar is an elected head of administration at the state level from the party that commands the majority in the state.
The SDO is only a federal departmental officer not even of cabinet rank, like an ambassador, whose names are cleared and approved by the cabinet before their appointment is gazetted.
Respect not shown
My disagreement therefore with the chief secretary’s views stems from the fact that the SDO is only a departmental appointee who holds office in the state at the pleasure of the head of the state or the governor.
This SDO is not the head of all government officers in Penang. That post is held by the state secretary, who also serves as ex-officio secretary to the state executive council. Therefore, why didn’t this SDO carry his complaints to his immediate boss in the state where he serves?
He has thus failed in a major way in terms of state-level courtesies and respect for heads of administration at state level. To me, it is the equivalent of insulting the governor of the state or, in the case of a foreign government, tantamount to insulting a sovereign head of state.
The chief secretary should not make this error of judgment because the officer’s poor example can now be repeated by all federal appointees in every state led by the opposition coalition.
While I am aware that the SDO’s Office, sometimes called the Federal Office at state level, can be used and abused by the federal government for its political agenda, this cannot be rationalised as good and acceptable practice.
When we have a two-party governance structure; the government of the day may become the opposition of tomorrow.
In fact, the chief secretary himself was previously reported as saying that all public servants must undertake their duties professionally and without fear or favour.
For the record, let me also say that when I was in Penang for a conference last April I heard case-stories from federal government officers that the SDO was giving them explicit instructions not to submit information to the state government, especially in terms of statistics and feedback on progress or failure of federal government programmes.
At that point I was not aware that the SDO was my former colleague, Nik Ali. My advice to him, therefore, is the same one given to me by then Miti minister Rafidah Aziz (left): if you cannot serve the government in authority with a clear conscience, then please leave and take optional retirement. I agreed and I did.
Service in public interest
The public service is always a service in the public interest. If one has strong views against the particular colour and shape of the government, please do not seek to serve in that state or department. It should never become incumbent upon federal government officers to succumb to partisan interest of one group versus another.
Partisan leadership of the public services must become a thing of the past. Public servants must seek to serve the public interest first and foremost.
The power and authority model of leadership is no more relevant in all spheres of work; what is now needed is the responsibility model of leadership. Any federal officer serves first of all at the pleasure of the Agong and works for the public interests as defined by the federal constitution.
How does the constitution define the role and jurisdiction of the SDO? Was not the SDO a creation of the Abdul Razak Hussein (right) era? Are there not limits to the definition of ‘minor works allocations’ under this delegated authority? Can the SDO bypass the state financial officer (another ex-officio state administrator) in doing his job, other than for minor works projects? Are not district officers still the executing authority for all such projects?
Are not the real issues actually related to the federal government abusing financial and procurement procedures to circumvent publicly financed projects in Penang and keeping them outside the philosophy of competence, accountability and transparency in the open purchase of services and goods by the state administration?
Dear chief secretary: let us become more transparent, open and accountable over the core concerns in this issue. The SDO was speaking out of turn, and if this was in any state with a Malay Ruler, he could easily have been given the ‘get out of state’ order!
Maybe in Penang, a former Straits Settlement, the rules are different. But are we not the federation of states? Would a federal officer also be allowed to speak in the same way in Sabah or Sarawak? Would you support him or her too? Professionalism calls for us to conduct ourselves rationally and without fear or favour.
May God grant all of us the grace to become more professional and courteous in our conduct!
KJ JOHN was in public service for 29 years. He is now dean of the Faculty of Economics and Policy Science at UCSI University, Malaysia. The views expressed above are truths that matter to him as an individual citizen wearing private and civil society hats and therefore are not opinions of the university or faculty. Do send feedback to him at [email protected]