Correcting the civil service racial imbalance

Dr Lim Teck Ghee

Can the government promise that all young Malaysians will be given fair treatment, and racial or regional discrimination will not be tolerated in order to encourage non-Malay recruitment into the civil service?

Once more the government appears to be clueless and befuddled as to why the non-Malay young do not want to take up civil service jobs. Once more, there will be a taskforce and a high-level committee at work to produce yet another report on how to attract non-Malays to join the service.

Once more the almost obligatory letters are appearing in the mainstream papers applauding the government (in this case) the Public Service Commission new chairman for his bold initiative in proposing a study “to nail down…the reasons for the poor number of applications from non-Bumiputeras for public and civil service jobs”.

Do we need more studies?

Come on, we already have a plethora of research and studies on the subject. We have more than enough figures and data showing that the severely racially imbalanced civil service is not a recent problem but one going back more than 30 years. Do we need some more studies?

Everyone – well – just about, everyone knows the reason why non-Malays are avoiding joining what one of the top Barisan Nasional leaders has described as the best civil service in the world. As one cynic in the blog world recently remarked,

“Even the … office boys in those departments can see the unfairness [in promotions], and we have top civil servants wondering why. Please, just practice fairness and they (non-Malays) will come.”

Rampant racial discrimination

The most important reason why disparity in civil service participation amongst the races exists is the discrimination against non-Malays in recruitment and promotion exercises. This explains why the numbers applying have dropped dramatically. If there is going to be an uneven playing field and if others less qualified or less capable than you are promoted ahead of you – and this is perceived to be a standard practice – why stay in the job, even if it may be a well paying or secure one.

Factors of pride, dignity and self-respect also come into play which explains why non-Malays refuse to remain in the service even when they have a good position. After a few years of frustration and alienation with racially structured obstacles when they apply for promotion or other career opportunities, many see the writing on the wall and opt to strike out for the private sector or self employment even though they may have to make sacrifices.

This game of pretending not to know why non-Malay recruitment and enrolment is so low in the civil service has been going on for so long that many of its practitioners appear to believe their own fairy tales and prejudices about non-Malays being less patriotic (explaining their low enrolment in the military and police); or more grasping and calculating (hence, less attracted to teaching or other service occupations); etc.


Let’s do away with the pretense and acting dumb on this long-standing blot in our societal make up. The steps to ensure higher non-Malay (and East Malaysian bumiputera) participation in the civil service are simple:

1. Firstly, there must be a solemn declaration and promise by the prime minister and government that racial intake as well as all treatment after recruitment in the civil service will be fair and transparent and that racial or regional discrimination will not be tolerated.

2. Secondly, the Public Services Commission and Public Services Department must be a party to this declaration and should mainstream this declaration into all service manuals and directives. It is a fact that some of the major obstacles to making the civil service more racially representative comes from within the civil service itself.

3. Thirdly, all recruitment, appointment, promotion and other service related committees and boards should have full multi-racial representation. Inclusion of token non-Malays as we have seen in the past does not work.

4. Fourthly, a new civil service quota system – in this case specifically used as a temporary affirmative action tool to increase non-Malay numbers and reduce marginalization – should be formulated. This can be done in a way as to meet with the constitutional provisions providing for the special position of the Malays and bumiputera groups of Sabah and Sarawak. A 60-40 recruitment system would be relatively easy and painless to implement. It would guarantee Malay dominance but not over-dominance and help to bring about a gradual increase in the number and proportion of non-Malay civil servants in the country.

5. Finally, we need a civil service ombudsman to act on cases of racial discrimination within the service as well as to respond to allegations of racially biased policies and programmes.
Make or break the nation

It is a truism that the civil service can make or break a nation, more especially in the case of multiracial societies such as ours where neutral stake players are necessary to play a critical role in balancing complex and contentious racial demands.

Democratic norms call for a representative, impartial and neutral bureaucracy to ensure that public policies are responsive to the needs of all citizens in a fair and equitable fashion. A genuinely multi-racial civil service is also necessary to ensure that there is an absence of racial bias in the individual or collective manner in which civil servants formulate policies and conduct their work.

Unfortunately, we have moved away from these democratic norms for so long that nothing but a radical change in the mindsets and actions of our politicians and civil service elites can stop the rot. A mono-ethnic civil service – which is what we are fast moving towards – is the single biggest obstacle to the goal of 1Malaysia.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 5:29 pm

    It is much easier for non-Malays to get a job overseas than to get a job with the Malaysian government. Two of my friends with degree qualifications are now working as lecturers in Canada. They migrated with their families to Canada few years ago. They are unlikely to come back to Malaysia.

    This is how Malaysia is being trapped in the middle-income gap (as commented by analysts). Professionals and experts are emigrating to other countries (because of racial discrimination) leaving the unskilled to develop the country.

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 6:05 pm

    Tun M is the one who wanted a “Bumi only” civil service.

  3. #3 by Loh on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 6:21 pm

    The government has never been sincere to be concerned about the imbalance of racial composition of the staff in government services. The persons voicing the issue are just paying lip services, and at times utilizing the issue to question the sense of loyalty of non-Malays. That rubs salt into wounds.

    UMNO has made use of NEP in the most perverse method to have Malays control everything, and they have succeeded most impressively in the government services. NEP should have corrected the predominance of Malays in civil service but instead it was NEP which has aggravated the situation. To remedy drop NEP and all the ills which came along with NERP into the governmnet service would go away.

    The government has utilized employment in the public sector as a fixed deposits for its general election results. The more the Malays are recruited into the public sectors the more votes are assured; what more with government funds to make them happy to continue having secured employment in return for doing almost nothing. It is therefore not convincing that UMNO government ever want any change in the racial composition of the staff in this sector. Indeed, apart from robbing entrepreneurs of their wealth in the 30% NEP equity requirement, transferring national funds to private hands through negotiated tender of government projects, and transferring of monopolistic enterprises to cronies, recruitment into government services which intends to recruitment of teaching staff at universities are the greatest achievement of UMNO in NEP. It does not make sense for UMNO to stop its perverse NEP practices to usher in non-Malays.

    UMNO has also made use of NEP to get disproportionately more Malays into tertiary education. UMNO considered that the parents would be grateful to continuing voting for them. UMNO has miscalculated that the Malays who are better educated than their grandfathers do use their head more than their heart. They do not buy the argument that the few super-rich cronies of UMNO powers-that-be made rich through government funds and legalized corruptions would give them pride. The younger generation want the opportunity to spend the money themselves rather than just be happy that some Malays are rich. Besides the so-called Malays who are super rich such as the sons of mamakthir, are mostly the constitutional Malays. They surely question why Mamakputra is more powerful than bumiputras, and sometime more than the royals.

    UMNO will not change the racial composition of the staff in the government services. UMNO tries to fool non-Malays in the remaining months before the next election!

  4. #4 by undertaker888 on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 9:05 pm

    The reason for this racial discrimination is because they can’t compete. Pure and simple.

  5. #5 by limkamput on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 11:37 pm

    Dr. Lim, you are smart, so I expect you to first get the issue right. Getting employed in the civil service is not getting a “job” It is getting welfare payment in the form of wages and salary. So your proposal to set quota for non-Malays is not only radical but unthinkable because it is snatching away their welfare payment. We produce thousands of Malay graduates but you tell me where do they go for employment if not the civil service? We produce thousands of school leavers with SPM, STPM and numerous nincompoop diplomas but where do these people go for employment if not the civil service. Unless and until the civil service is restructured, it will continue to play its role as the employer of last resort. Civil service has nothing much to do with output; civil service is largely generating activities and kidding themselves they are doing something for the economy. Why do you think there are millions of foreign workers in the country? Do you seriously think Malaysia is a labour shortage country? No, the vast majority of our people can’t do “real” work anymore, they can only be civil servants, i.e. collecting perks and salary but doing nothing. Think about it.

  6. #6 by sheriff singh on Sunday, 10 June 2012 - 12:09 am

    Some hardcores have said that the civil service is ‘ours’ (theirs). Others are not welcomed. Get it?

  7. #7 by Jong on Sunday, 10 June 2012 - 1:39 am

    The truth hurts eh, there is much truth in what limkamput just said. Yeah, don’t believe, take a walk into any government office canteen anytime between 10am and 3.30pm, you will see them taking turns over cups of coffee reading newspapers, and chatting away.

    That’s how things are, cushy until the next payday and will be repeated.

  8. #8 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Sunday, 10 June 2012 - 9:17 am

    This Bumi policy is Singapore’s greatest competitive advantage vis-a-vis Malaysia. A double whammy for Malaysia – loss of local talent by Malaysia and gain of talent by Singapore. How to compete?

  9. #9 by on cheng on Sunday, 10 June 2012 - 7:54 pm

    According to unpublished policies, Maybe, Non bumi are generally disqualified from joining Msia Govt services because they usually speak better English and or know another language pr had better skill, which may threatened the ”purity of Msia govt services”

  10. #10 by good coolie on Sunday, 10 June 2012 - 10:34 pm

    Malaysia has overdone the affirmative action policy. I agree, a 60%-40% make up would have contributed to a more efficient civil service. As for corruption in the civil service, “take it from me” that the non-Malays are as corrupt as the Malays! I know – I was “accustomed” to work in the civil service. Dr. M’s hasty admission of Malays into the civil service compromised its quality, for it is a fact that non-Malays are more confident and qualified as a whole compared with Malays.

  11. #11 by Cinapek on Monday, 11 June 2012 - 12:23 am

    “…. if others less qualified or less capable than you are promoted ahead of you – …..”

    I totally agree as I know this for a fact and was a victim of this discrimination. When you can see that someone less capable than you and whose shortcomings you have been covering up for being promoted ahead of you and the only reason you can find is the skin colour, you decide that enough is enough. I quit and join the private sector and on merit has done well in life.

  12. #12 by waterfrontcoolie on Monday, 11 June 2012 - 6:39 am

    The Civil Service has dual purpose: to allow employment of selected people wjo are obliged to become yes-men. The current policy of almost excluding non-Bumi from the highest heirachy would certainly mean the loss of people who can positivcely contribute to the progress of this country. No doubt the great majority of the Civil service is just to act on directives but the correct process is to get the very best to the top. In the past, even the Malay KSUs were above average in their administrative ability, today they have gotten only yesmen! We are just lucky to be able to export and keep our economy floating by the private sector! If we were to be in the same position as the Little Dot in the south, we would be on par with most African countries by now. M has only one agenda to endear himself to all those non-thinking Malays so that he would do anything without any protest from them. In a sense those brainier Malays who quietly sat through their career in the Civil Service should shoulder a good portion of the blame!

  13. #13 by SENGLANG on Monday, 11 June 2012 - 2:44 pm

    How many DG are from non Malay. Without any intention of racial-lised the issue, let ask why we could not have an Non Malay DG for LHDN?

  14. #14 by ringthetill on Tuesday, 12 June 2012 - 5:42 am

    Been there and done it in the 80s and 90s. Discriminated against promotion, exactly as described in this article.

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