Keep politics out of civil service — Emmanuel Joseph

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Source: The Malaysian Insight

BY EMMANUEL JOSEPH

RECENTLY, the Education Minister warned teachers and staff of the Education Ministry to stay out of “opposition” political activities. Strangely, later in the speech, the minister appeared to encourage the same audience to participate in ‘government’ party activites.

As lopsided as his comment seemed, the minister was not really suggesting something new, but merely putting on record, what appears to be the unwritten rule about political participation amongst civil servants; open support for the opposition is frowned upon, while open support for the Government is quite encouraged.

This policy, partially official but partially not, also sees schools, hospitals, mosques and other government-run facilities, shy away from hosting visits by opposition leaders, even if they are members of a state government that is run by the (Federal) opposition.

Federal facilities that do receive contributions from these state governments often request that photos of them not be taken, and even if they do get highlighted in the media, it would be by online news outlets, or the Chinese newspapers.

This is probably why it is not uncommon to hear high-level government employees making statements that almost sound like what an opposition backbencher would say.

The reality is, however, that members of the civil servants, are, in fact, allowed to not only support whichever party they like, but subject to the necessary approvals, participate in, and even join, any party they like.

The only restrictions to this are members of the management category, and certain bodies that are to be remain neutral, like the police force.

Even in state governments held by opposition parties, the line between state and Federal are made quite clear, and although relations are generally friendly between staff of the two, it gets a bit frosty at the top. This is especially true for states without their own state civil service, and who relies on Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA) for staffing.

However, at times, civil servants themselves cannot really be faulted for their behaviour.

There are push and pull factors that shaped this kind of thinking – the pull being the perception that their pledge to support government policies and programmes somehow also means supporting the parties that make up the government. This crosses the border from being a responsible civil servant, to a political one.

The push factor, sometimes, is the opposition’s negative way of engaging civil servants. Harsh criticism, accusations and accusatory language and downright rudeness whether engaging high-level officers on issues like corruption, to roughing it out with enforcement officers during demonstrations or trying to block a building’s demolishment or a forest clearing often sends the wrong message that the opposition are against civil servants, rather than the politicians who made the decisions that the government employees are merely carrying out, and indeed, obliged to support.

Apart from that, for some civil servants, it is the belief that this would make their jobs and lives easier, with access to ministerial offices and political connections (although this is clearly prohibited in the civil service circulars) to push programmes and ideas through. Again, here, many interpret “political activity” as (opposition) political activity.

Lines are also blurred between what are political events and government events. Even the prime minister’s speeches to civil servants are often filled with taunts and jibes aimed at his political opponents, and the present civil servants are expected to clap and cheer. The same applies to events in Penang and Selangor, which is helmed by chief ministers belonging to the other camp.

It is not uncommon to see heads of government agencies at party general assemblies and events, and party officials not holding government posts at ministry functions.

The problem is not with the laws, or guidelines. The problem is with conventions and practices formed over the years, many of which are inherited and which have grown improper and unprofessional over time, blurring the line between political and executive. This leads to confusion between the two, and confidence, bordering on arrogance, stemming from this unchecked wrong.

Civil servants are there to serve the people, by executing the will of the government of the day. They are not there to be political lackeys of either side.

It is time to remove the venom of politics from the civil service. – January 23, 2017.