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Monday, February 27, 2017

Right-sizing the Malaysian civil service



There have been a lot of emotional reactions from Cuepacs and Perkasa about my statement regarding the oversized civil service. Perhaps the sensitivity is due to the fact that the civil service is mainly Malay and Malay dependence on the civil service for employment is very high.
The right-sizing of our civil service through a voluntary separation scheme is much needed. There are ways of doing it in a humane and caring manner.
First, the government can start with retraining of redundant employees by giving them free courses on skills development: computers, English, basic accounting, corporate law, etc - all the skills needed to make them employable in the private sector.
I am sure once the employees get these skills, many would like to leave as soon as they reach optional retirement age. The government employees will self-separate.
It should be noted that there are thousands of civil servants, where both husband and wife are in the government service. In many cases among the lower level categories, one of them is doing part time business like selling kain, tudung, kuih, religious books, etc, to earn more money. They probably have business ambitions but cannot afford to leave the government, because they have no capital.
Imagine if an offer is made for a voluntary separation package of RM40,000 for 20 years of service. The chances are one of them will take the package, while the other one will continue to work in the government until retirement to enjoy the medical benefits for the whole family. Thus, the government is helping the Malay wife or husband to become an entrepreneur, a genuine one because they have a track record.
Voluntary separation schemes, like those in the private sector, cannot be forced upon because it is illegal to terminate a worker who has not done anything wrong and has been a loyal employee.
Automation can replace human labour
The scheme should affect those whose functions are no longer needed because automation can replace human labour and because, with technology, there is no more need for sending letters or face-to-face service - i.e. the human intensive work is no longer relevant in 21st Century Malaysia.
In the banking sector, there is no need to go to the branch for transactions. That is why banks are closing down their branches and terminating their employees.
I believe the government can also look at closing down completely, or partially, certain offices and branches without affecting the quality of service. The redundant civil servants should then be deployed to other functions or retrained to prepare them for the separation scheme.
While the government right sizes redundant civil servants, it will have to continue to recruit those that are needed for specialised expertise in the fields of finance, economics, research, medicine, education, science, environment, law, etc. This should be encouraged as the civil service must continually upgrade the quality of its staff.
The government should be focusing more on quality, rather than quantity, because this is the way to increase productivity and efficiency in the civil service.
We should have a much smaller administrative service to support the functioning of government ministries and departments. This can be achieved by decentralising and empowering of authority to reduce the multi-layer approval process.
A lot of progress has been made in recent years to improve the counter delivery services in several departments, with the use of technology and the simplification of procedures. Logically, there should be less need for manpower and the redundant staff can be offered voluntary retirement with an attractive compensation package.
If it takes some years for the government to recover the heavy expenditure of the separation scheme, then it is worth it. We can hope that with smaller government, the economy as a whole will become more efficient and with dynamism and growth in private sector activities, the government will collect more taxes to recover the cost of the separation scheme.
With less spending on wages and pensions as a proportion of the budget, there will be more room in the operating expenditure to spend on upgrading the facilities in schools, universities, hospitals and research departments, which today do not get enough budgetary allocations to keep them in proper working conditions.

I believe the government should start planning a right-sizing programme of the civil service now, so that it can be done in a proper manner, rather than wait until there is a financial crisis, at which time government employees will be retrenched without justice for all their years of loyal service. This has happened in Greece, as I mentioned previously.

MOHD SHERIFF MOHD KASSIM, the former secretary-general of the Treasurer, is a member of the G25 Group of Eminent Malays.-- Mkini

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