Anatomy of the civil service pay rise debacle

— Dr.Lim Teck Ghee
Jul 09, 2012

JULY 9 — New Straits Times group managing editor A. Jalil Hamid recently wrote an analysis of the recent changes in the civil service top leadership. The article titled ‘Of accountability in the civil service and putting people first’ ended with the lines “[t]hose in the public service can now look forward to a better and a more rewarding career as the country marches towards meeting the Vision 2020. We can now put the dark episode behind us”.

But has the dark episode ended? Although one prominent head has rolled, more were implicated in the salary revision debacle and should have been lopped off. Even with the latest attempt at salary revision, the basic problems besetting the civil service remain unresolved and continue to be kept out of the arena of public discussion and discourse.

Rushing through the SBPA

When the new Skim Baru Perkhidmatan Awam (SBPA) for the public service was mooted, it was clear that the scheme had the top echleon of the civil service as its principal beneficiaries. To prevent public scrutiny of the scheme, few details were provided and there was a concerted attempt made to rush the implementation through.

None of the country’s major stakeholders and key players emerged with any credit during the period when the SBPA was being pushed through with indecent haste.

Cuepacs, the main civil service union responsible for looking after the interests of lower-grade workers, only got to grips with some of the main flaws relating to the salary inequities very late in the game. Why did the Cuepacs leadership flip-flop over SBPA and finally register its opposition so late? Were their arms twisted or were they blinded by personal ambition and self-serving interests or by other factors?

Aspiring economists would do well to study the Cuepacs role in this episode of labour negotiations to uncover the tangled and often invisible dynamics of individual, group, organisational and political interests converging and diverging.

Politics and the civil service

The stand of the country’s top leaders was negligent and irresponsible. Thrilled at the prospect of the civil service continuing to serve as the Barisan Nasional’s fixed deposit, Prime Minister Najib Razak, deputy PM Muhyiddin Yassin and their entire cabinet failed to pay attention to the details of the proposed SBPA and were unconcerned with its shortcomings. A cabinet paper on the proposed SBPA was tabled and therefore the cabinet cannot claim ignorance on the matter or shift responsibility away from itself.

Aside from the civil service being one of the game-deciding voter segments in the coming elections, national interest also appears to be furthest from the minds of our political elite. Many would have benefitted personally if the SBPA had been successfully implemented because the practice in Malaysia is that the salaries and allowances of elected politicians are pegged to those of the country’s top administrators.

Thus it was not merely the nation’s top 5,000 civil servants that would have benefited from the durian runtuh or windfall of the SBPA. Tens of thousands of our political elite would have benefitted similarly from the surreptitious attempt to benchmark the pay rise to the wages of top private sector professionals and managers.

Is this why the political parties and politicians were so quiet on the SBPA during the critical months when the Public Services Department (PSD) attempted to ram the scheme down the country’s throat?

Another key force – the mass media – was also derelict in their responsibilities when the SBPA was being rolled out. Instead of critically analysing the new scheme and seeking feedback from the public, they dutifully reproduced the stream of official propaganda applauding the impact of the new scheme. Not a single editorial appears to have been written in the mainstream media calling attention to the obvious defects of the scheme and subjecting it to judicious scrutiny.

Today, four months after the scheme was aborted, there are belated editorials about how bold and responsive the government is to the needs of the lower rank civil servants and how fortunate it is that the scheme did not “see the light of day”. Spinning and hypocrisy, it seems, reigns supreme amongst most of our top media practitioners when it comes to crucial matters of state that may have political consequences.

The only stake player that has emerged with any credit in this sorry and continuing saga of political opportunism taking advantage of a national issue is the Internet media. It was the Internet media that raised the alarm bells over the defects of the SBPA and smelled a rat in the way that the scheme was being railroaded through by the government and the PSD. It was the Internet media that carried the comments of indignant readers calling for the scrapping of the scheme and decrying the attempts by government aimed at milking political mileage from it (see here).

Dark episode behind us, really?

Yet another special commission has now been set up. Headed by the former Chief Justice Tun Zaki Azmi, the commission is to study the transformation of the civil service in a comprehensive and holistic manner. The commission does not have to look long or far and wide to identify the key problems of the civil service.

NGOs such as the Centre for Policy Initiatives have identified four key reforms needed for a revitalized civil service. They are:
1. Fighting corruption within the service
2. Depoliticizing the service
3. Ensuring that the service is representative of our multiethnic population
4. Right sizing the service

To these should be added now another factor that requires scrutiny. How much did the Malaysian Salary Remuneration system (SSM) correct the salary inequality within the service or did it further reinforce the imbalance? Under the Barisan Nasional government, the salary differential within the Malaysian civil service has developed to be amongst the more inequitable ones in the world.

Has the yawning gap in civil service pay between the top earners and the rank-and-file become even worse with the SSA? The new special commission, Cuepacs and others should have something to say on the salary inequality within the civil service even if the government would rather this issue be put into permanent cold storage.

In fact, all Malaysians should be very concerned with the civil service salary inequality and other issues affecting the well-being and productivity of the largest body of workers in the country.

  1. #1 by Winston on Monday, 9 July 2012 - 8:29 pm

    Dr Lim, the fact is, “Who is going to bell the cat?”.
    In this case as in most cases, everything done in this country is to benefit those in the top echelon!
    As for the MSM, they know very well which side of their toast is buttered!
    Malaysians are very well aware of such goings on!
    You don’t co-exist with thieves and robbers for five over decades without knowing their true character!!
    That’s the reason for the pouring out of concerned people into the streets at Bersih 3.0.
    That’s why it’s absolutely imperative to give PR very chance at good governance.

  2. #2 by Godfather on Monday, 9 July 2012 - 8:45 pm

    They found out that they would have to cut back on some contracts if they were to implement the ill-fated policy, so the thieves sat around the camp fire and decided that the contracts were more important to Ali Baba and his 40 henchmen.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 5:46 am

    ///….the salaries and allowances of elected politicians are pegged to those of the country’s top administrators. Tens of thousands of our political elite would have benefitted similarly from the surreptitious attempt to benchmark the pay rise to the wages of top private sector professionals and managers…/// – Dr Lim Teck Ghee.
    I must add that the financial well being of many of our political elite is also tied up to the top corporate captains of the country. The former give the licenses and contracts, the latter reciprocate with financial support of all kinds and description. It shows the same people (the elites, whether political bureaucratic or economic/corporate) have authoritative influences & connections across organizations – whether govt agencies, civil service, GLCs or private sector corporations whether private or public. On the flip side what’s the difference between Cuepacs, the main civil service union responsible for looking after the interests of lower-grade civil servants opposing SBPA because they favour the top civil servants and, say, the MAS Employees’ Union opposing MAS/Asia share swap, as it is perceived beneficial to the top dogs of these 2 organisations more than the lower rung workers?

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 6:23 am

    What we see here is as old as human history – the anatomy of class conflict regarding distribution of rewards and burdens/national wealth. At any moment of history/tie the elite class will own disproportionate large share of the political and financial power over interest of us the ordinary, and the former will try to keep the peace so that they can continue ‘korek’ the lion share of scare resources whether money prestige, status. Honorific titles or Ferraris…..For the larger in number ordinary underdog class to “arise” (in Karl Marx’s terms) those leaders or elites (ascending from this class) must be able to mobilize their kind to blame the other privileged class for their problems and believe the other side’s rights and privileges or their demands to be unjust! That’s the condition to replace them so that these elites may rise to the top and start the cycle/process of self aggrandizement all over again.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 6:30 am

    50 years ago the class conflict took the form of the then new elite (then a young doctor) seeking to replace the Tunku (from Royal class) was able to narrate by his dilemma book the conflict in more poignant race/economic lines (which he’s still trying to do today) – hence the aggressive NEP as cloak- but his ejection of Anwar (an expulsion from the elite class) has allowed the latter to form his own elite group of politicians to try replace the existing incumbent elites by mobilizing (quite successfully since 308) along traditional generalized conflict lines between the few Privileged Rich who put their cows in Condos and the many exploited Ordinary especially of a certain racial class who have not benefitted as much from the affirmative policies intended for them…. Class conflict occurs in all societies. Earlier the conflict was painted along Non malays/urban “Haves” versus rural/Malay have nots; at this point of nation’s history it is painted along UMNOputras/cronies of what ever race/elite supporters in whatever echelons of institutions/bureaucracy who have the spoils versus the rest of the Others of whatever race who get the raw pittance.

  6. #6 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 8:46 am

    I don’t see the rationale why the upper echelons of the civil service are given special treatment just because of their allegiance to Umno. It is unfair to bring politics into the civil servant remuneration scheme.

    • #7 by PoliticoKat on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 10:00 am

      this goes beyond unfair to being illegal.
      Politicians ie the legislative arm has no say in the workings of the executive arm. The executive branch is apolitical.

      This is one important part of democracy, power is divided between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the government.

      Under DrM, these three branches has blurred until there is only the PM department. ie we have an effective dictatorship.

  7. #8 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 8:56 am

    The NST guy announced just a couple of days ago that the “dark episode” is now behind us. That is interesting. I am not going to say much about whether the way ahead will be bright. I am not positive – definitely not positive. But hey, the statement by that NST guy was really a big slap on jib’s face. Wasnt it?

    You see after all the transformation effort by jibby jib, all the publicity, all the money poured in and all those months and all those shining reports by certain ETP (whatever) people, this NST fella is telling us that he has only one comment to make, and it is that all those efforts represent a “dark episode”

    Someone is being dishonest here. Jib & gang reported to us good results – very good results – but this fella simply dismissed the whole thing as a “dark episode”. Now who is lying?

    Hoi cintanegara, mana sicelaka ni. Tell us who is lying. Jib, your hero or that NST guy?

  8. #9 by Winston on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 8:59 am

    Other than debacles after debacles, corruption after corruption, scams after scams and scandals after scandals for the past few decades, what else have UMNO/BN brought us?

  9. #10 by Loh on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 10:41 am

    ///Honestly, if all you want is to remove one racist government with another racist government, then don’t bother. We might as well just keep the racist government that we already have. After all, as what the Chinese say, is it not better to deal with a devil you know than a devil you don’t know? So let’s listen to Chinese sayings. At least this should make the Chinese happy.///–RPK,

    RPK quoted the right saying but utilized it in the wrong context. It is true that it is easier to deal with a known devil, but the Chinese do not want to deal with devil at all if they have a choice. The current government is racist. That is proven. The next government has yet to prove that it is racist. They cannot be called a devil until it has been proven.

    Chinese do not consider that they have a monopoly on knowledge. The Chinese sayings are just the summaries of their life experience. It would neither make Chinese happy nor make them sad if Chinese sayings are quoted. As Chinese culture is rooted on compassion, Chinese prefer not to see people make mistakes.

  10. #11 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 11:00 am

    Mad Madhathir fiddled while Malaysia burns.

  11. #12 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 11:23 am

    Better to deal with a devil you know than a devil you don’t know? What about nothing ventured nothing gained? RPK has lost credibility in what he says nowadays. He just argues and twists whatever to suit expedience of whatever his underlying agenda – and truth is not it! In the first place the idiom “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know” – ie It is better to deal with something bad you know than with something new you don’t – was not Chinese origin. I understand the proverb is of Irish origin and has been traced back to the 1539 Collection of proverbs by R. Taverner!

  12. #13 by limkamput on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 12:02 pm

    I agree with most of the views expressed especially on right and downsizing, corruption free civil service, competency and productivity. But I disagree in one point – there should be more equitable salary structure. Why must civil service salary structure always be concerned with equity unless we have implicitly treated the civil service as one big welfare organisation. In fact, I have observed that those at the top, unless they continue working with all the non-pensionable perks thrown in, they could retire quite poor because their basic salaries (which is used as pension calculation) have not grown in tandem for a long time. If the civil service is lean and mean, the salary differential (between the top and bottom) should be there to reflect talent, productivity, leadership and capability. Are salary structures of those in the private sector equitable? How many times are those at the top when compared with those at the bottom? Why hardly mention the inequality and the disparity in the private sector?

  13. #14 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 12:51 pm

    Dealing with the devil you know is better than the devil you do not know, said RPK.

    That is true but up to a point only. One can continue to deal with the devil one knows for as long as that deal is still beneficial, somehow. Thereafter (i.e. when such deal no longer brings any benefit) pragmatism takes over. And the circumstances would inevitably dictate that change be made. Chinese are fully aware that change is always accompanied by risk. But risk in such situation brings opportunities. In other words, the risk is definitely worthwhile taking.

    Umno the known devil is clearly no longer able to function properly for the benefit of the country. The time is now right for change and for new opportunities.

    ABU! Vote Pakatan.

  14. #15 by limkamput on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 - 1:14 pm

    Devils here devils there. Just say we are ostrich; forever bury our heads under the sand.

  15. #16 by waterfrontcoolie on Wednesday, 11 July 2012 - 4:31 pm

    I recently received a message from a Financial Consultation talking about the Civil serviec in the USA. The number keeps going up every year and he claimed that it had reached the same percentage as Greece hence his conclusion that USA would go bankrupt too! At the rate, we are going, it is for certain we will arrive there soon, or have also crossed the Rubicon? In the provate sector, the ‘Office Assistants’ to day replace the passed Secretaries plus IT sdministrators’; we still have a horde of clerical staff doing typing[?] when every executive or manager in the private sector is expected to type his own message and email it. We have spent millions if not billions on IT and we still cling to the old structure of administration! If you are a pensioner with your wife entitled to full pension or vice-versa, you can literally make the Gomen continuing paying forever; as you are also entitled to marry more than one! Yes, we will go the Greece way soon, very soon.

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