Political impartiality of civil service

IN a recent address to civil servants Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak likened the inseparability of the government and the civil service (known in Malaysian law as "public service") to the proverbial "ibarat aur dengan tebing" (like the bamboo and river bank). True indeed. Because, as he alluded to earlier, civil servants develop and implement government policies. And serve the government of the day, as the prime minister noted. He went on to lambast, "particularly the Opposition", for insulting or slandering civil servants with "those nasty words … directed at the whole government and vice versa".

"Hence, we should be grateful for the benefits that we are enjoying and not allow this country to fall into their hands as they do not appreciate the toil and contributions of the civil servants," he added.

This sends the clearest signal yet – that civil servants must pitch for the ruling party and vote against the Opposition. A message no doubt of the forthcoming, looming general election.

How does the prime minister's clarion call to abandon its neutrality match up to the fundamental tenets and ethos of the civil service in our constitutional construct? Let's start at the beginning.

The Reid Commission – which drafted our Federal Constitution – said: "The first essential for ensuring an efficient administration is that the political impartiality of the public service should be recognised and safe-guarded". Its continuous existence is assured only if it maintained its distance "irrespective of changes in the political complexion of the government of the day". The safeguards were embedded in the Federal Constitution by the establishment of independent service commissions (Article 132). The Reid Commission emphasised that these service commissions must "be completely free from government influence and direction of any kind".

Reinforcing this independence, the position of individual public servants is constitutionally protected by placing restrictions on their dismissals and reduction in rank (Article 135), by ensuring impartial treatment of federal employees (Article 136) and by pension rights (Article 147).

The Reid Commission has been referenced in decisions of our higher courts – Susie Teoh Eng Huat v. Kadhi, Pasir Mas [1990], PP v Yuneswaran [2015]; as have reports of the Inter-Governmental Committee that fleshed the detailed constitutional safeguards for the formation of Malaysia (Mohammad Tufail v Ting Check Sii [2009]).

A bloated civil service

The prime minister levied a further charge against the Opposition: For accusing the country's civil service as "bloated".

"If they are in power, with arrogance, they would want to reduce by half the number of civil servants", he added.

This conceals the concern that the government has itself expressed. In February 2017, the deputy finance minister warned that the annual payroll was already at RM81 billion while pension payments were RM19 billion a year.

The deputy minister rolled out the figures: One civil servant for every 19.37 people in Malaysia. Contrasted with 1 to 71.4 (Singapore); 1 to 110 (Indonesia); 1 to 50 (South Korea); 1 to 108 (China); 1 to 28 (Japan); 1 to 84 (Russia); and 1 to 118 (Britain).

Expectedly, political parties are wary when dealing with our civil servants. After all, they constitute a sizeable mass of the voting electorate: Reportedly 1.6 million. And predominantly Malays – approximately 79%.

A dip in the votes of such a sizeable electorate could spell consequences. Political strategists predict, if Malay votes were to dip by 15% – the Opposition could gain another 34 seats in parliament. And deny the ruling party's 112-seats majority.

Understandably then, political parties vie strenuously to reach out to this massive vote bank. Especially now that their hitherto support for the ruling party may no longer be assured, according to political commentators. But how this support is garnered is the issue.

Conjuring up the spectre of a loss of their jobs if the Opposition wins (half of 1.6 million) and the fear and hatred that this seeks to engender, violates the basic tenet that a civil servant "must serve the government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality": Civil Service Code of the UK. And, more critically, injures the fundamental precept of an independent public service firmly anchored in the Federal Constitution.

Gurdial, a former University of Malaya law professor, is now a practising legal consultant.