I disagree, chief secretary!

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]

  1. #1 by frankyapp on Wednesday, 4 August 2010 - 12:36 pm

    The problem with civil servants,federal or state is either, most do not know the direction of their duty or are arrogance. Or it can be both. Like I said before,most people especially the ordinary folks when they visited or entered any government department or an agency,they always felt a lost and most time needed to beg from officer to officer before meeting the right officer and yet no assurance or guarantte he/she was being treated well,let alone business accomplished. Most time I find civil servants have no proper sense of duty,no proper respect of the people they were dealing with, except some big shots. Though all of them have gone through training before being put to serve the public,I find most of them still lingering around the office,misdirecting people to different places,have no clear conscience,no passion and no energy to genuinely serving the rakyat.Unless the opposite of the above( principles) are being inculcated into the civil service,problem and more problem will continue to tarnish the government of the day.

  2. #2 by Winston on Wednesday, 4 August 2010 - 12:42 pm

    The one and only way to rid, not only Penang, but the whole country of such scums, is to boot out the UMNO/BN government at the next GE!
    Make it the mantra of your thoughts so that your resolve will be enhanced everyday until they’re booted out of the government.

  3. #3 by undertaker888 on Wednesday, 4 August 2010 - 1:06 pm

    i never had a pleasant time dealing with public civil servants. not even once. zit.zero. they are very good at making your head short circuit.

    for one application, they can make you return 3 times, because they dont spell out clearly what they need even if you asked.. it is like a joy when they do this. little bl00dy napoleons.

    everytime you are there, they make it like they are doing you a big favour and you must kow-tow. Tuan here, tuan there. ya tuan, yes tuan.

    Does that describe the SDO? Even the CM is feeling it…not to mentioned us, ordinary folks.

    Luckily i need to deal with them maybe once in 5 years, for my licence and passport. ya..i dont renew yearly anymore just to avoid them napoleons.

  4. #4 by monsterball on Wednesday, 4 August 2010 - 3:04 pm

    If Najib sincerely believe in his “1Malaysia” slogan..he should go to Penang and say…”Come now…..we are all Malaysians. Lets settle this like gentlemen…bla bla bla”
    This greatest liar only know how to fan and making deals.
    Hot lips is soooooo irritating.

  5. #5 by limkamput on Wednesday, 4 August 2010 - 5:02 pm

    KJ John, eloquence you may sound, but the reality is we have not become wiser after reading your piece. You are essentially stating the ideal state, how things should be or ought to be. But the reality is political, vested interest and racist considerations have taken over everything completely. Who does not know public servants must serve the public and the government of the day. Who does not know the judiciary must serve justice and law, and not expediency. Who does not know the police must maintain law and order and not in furtherance of political interests of certain political party or parties.

    Tell us if you can, since you so blatantly like to boost about who you know and which professors you have studied under, how in the first place our country have become in the state of faux and entropy and how do we get out of this? To say that all of us need to behave more professionally and with higher level of integrity is not enough. It means nothing.

  6. #6 by lopez on Wednesday, 4 August 2010 - 8:20 pm

    what dignity,
    YB Lim is elected by the people, what about the DIGNITY of the people who put him there.

    Like the NEver ending acts of prevention by people like this little napolean , can he really see the nation need to move forward more than his pity fool dignity.
    sikit sikit menjadi bukit, is he a malay or what or forgot all his belibahasa and $impulan bahasa….

    it looks like this type of people will not “walk a mile for camel”.

  7. #7 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 4 August 2010 - 10:53 pm

    Talk too much, nanti kena ISA baru tahu
    Panic oh, kia si qui, quickly vote 4 BN
    Dat’s how BN got voted in again n again 4 >50 years

  8. #8 by raven77 on Thursday, 5 August 2010 - 2:27 am

    Its the Yes Minister syndrome isnt it…

    Politicians who cant or wont rein in Little Napoleans….just shouldnt bother to stand for elections and “represent the “rakyat”

    The whole of Malaysia know that in Penang, Perak and Selangor, the little Napoleans of UMNO are sabotaging the every move of PR reps. The rakyat are not dumb. Oddly enough it doesnt appear to happen in Kelantan.

    This is the time to “masok nama dalam buku” time

    After PR gets into Putrajaya..everyone of these jokers are going to be working with orang aslis and will be posted to Sarawak to help the Penans….

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