The jostling for political primacy that is going on in Malaysia today, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin fighting off challenges from competing factions including that of long-time opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim, who recently said – convincing very few – that he has the votes to overthrow the government, masks an unfortunate truth.
Changing Malaysia’s policymaking malaise is totally dependent upon the reform of the civil service. The reality is that the civil service is more powerful than the executive government. Changing governments is possible through the ballot box, but changing public policy is another thing.
Although three separate administrations have held the reins of Malaysia’s government over as many years, they have one thing in common. Although their narratives have been vastly different, all three pursued in practice the same public policy framework. It hasn’t really mattered who governed Malaysia, policy has been consistent across all successive federal and state administrations, and local government.
At the political level, it’s all about slogans and personalities, but at the administrative level governments differ only on emphasis. There are three distinct aspects to Malaysian public policy: the grounded philosophy, the mode of policy formulation, and hierarchy of implementation.
Malaysia as a post-colonial and post independent economy was strongly influenced by British economic advisers who were close to the Anglophile Malay political elite at the time. The prevailing economic dogma within orientalist academia favored public sector led development economic theory. The race riots of May 1969 highlighted the need to close the racial wealth gap between Chinese and Bumiputera groups, at the time cited as an underlying source of the violence. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was formulated as a policy to create new wealth within Bumiputera groups to facilitate an economic catch up with the Chinese.
Although the NEP was intended as a temporary policy to be dissolved once bumis caught up, successive Barisan Nasional administrations transformed it into a political philosophy. Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy doctrine grew out of a reinterpretation of the Constitution mentioning the special position of the Malays. The NEP was its manifestation, and an appealing policy philosophy to the rural Malay electorate. Ketuanan Melayu is evident over all public policy, membership of the armed forces and civil service, places in education, preference to Bumiputeras in business, and even the establishment of high-interest-yielding special investment accounts such as ASN and ASB, exclusive for Bumiputeras.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed and his then deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, pushed for the Islamization of the civil service during the 1990s, which developed a one-dimensional ethnic and quasi-religious culture within a multicultural country. Its informal mission became the Malay agenda.
Since the 1963 formation of Malaysia, the civil service is where public policy is formulated. The Prime Minister’s Department is by far the largest ministry, housing the Economic Planning Unit (EPU). The EPU has produced successive five-year national and sector plans covering all aspects of government and the economy. They became the basis of policy, budgeting, the allocation of resources and implementation. Each state has its own EPU, which usually works in close tandem with the federal EPU, primarily because, the federal one controls development fund allocation.
Bureaucrats produce these plans. As a consequence, these bureaucrats have wielded great influence, with successive administrations tending to follow civil service advice on most policy issues. Over the past couple of decades, outside parties, including local academics, and later consultants were brought in to assist in specialist areas.
Economic planning, report writing, and implementation began to be outsourced during the Abdullah Badawi administration (2003-2009). This became a very lucrative consulting area, with Najib Razak, once he became minister, immediately establishing the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) under former politician Idrus Jala, who set up the Government Transformation and Economic Transformation Programs. Most policy formation was focused here, with lucrative consultancies dished out to private subcontractors.
The effect of consultants taking over Five-year plan preparation changed the format of these reports from very detailed to glossy table book presentations. Government policy and plans have lost their substance, degenerating into catchphrase headings with complex and colorful diagrams.
However, politicians through the selection and employment of outside consultants have more influence over the direction of public policy. There is now a large industry of local consultants pitching ideas at ministers for this lucrative work.
The power dynamics between politicians and civil servants is not unsimilar to other countries. The minister is a go-between the prime minister and cabinet and permanent director general of the ministry. In Malaysia, the prime minister as government leader is usually the most powerful, with individual ministers carrying out his agenda.
A minister’s influence over his or her ministry most often depends upon how ‘hands on’ they are, hinging on the minister’s knowledge of his or her portfolio, ability to communicate, persuade and motivate the ministry director general to follow the political line. Some ministers like former international trade minister Rafidah Aziz, and current minister in the prime ministers’ department Mustapha Mohamed are well known for their domination and micro-managing of their ministries, while others like former minister Noh Omar, tended to leave almost total decision making to the bureaucracy.
The Malaysian civil service is not apolitical. The majority of bureaucrats have a Malay-centric worldview. Any policy or decisions that run counter are stalled or blocked, overtly or sub rosa. Malaysia’s civil service is strongly Islamized, with an extremely strong culture that suppresses any deviation from accepted assumptions, beliefs, and values embedded with this Malay-centric worldview. When Pakatan Harapan took over the government, ministers found this an insurmountable barrier to implementing reforms.
Although Malaysia’s states are sovereign territories, state public policy is generally compatible with federal policy, except on land and religious issues. Politically, prime ministers have controlled who takes up the office of chief minister in states where the same party governs. State dependence on funding is the federal government’s dominant lever in influencing state policy. In many cases policy is implemented at district levels through agencies like FELDA, MARA, and KEMAS. With the exception of Kedah, Pahang, and Johor, and Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia, states have very small civil services, with federal civil servants seconded to assist in state administration work. In states where opposition parties govern, federal governments have traditionally bypassed state government, and implemented policy through federal agencies. There have been no elections for local government since 1964. Mayors and local government councils are state government appointees who generally subscribe to state policy directives.
The unexpected win of the putative Pakatan Harapan reform government in GE14 is a good example how public policy remained almost the same, even though there was a change of government. Although the government created a long-term platform in its buku jingga or orange book, the administration almost totally relied upon the civil service to develop policy. This was certainly true in health, agriculture, primary industries, housing, rural development, and defense.
The only exception was education, when then-minister Maszlee Malik, went rogue, micro-managed and implemented his own set of policies which further Islamized the higher education sector, rather than reforming it.
One of the Pakatan Harapan administration’s greatest mistakes was the failure to overhaul the public policy making process. That process is locked into the inertia of developing policy through the ritualization of strategic planning tools done at great cost. Consultants who are in favor with politicians and top bureaucrats guide these processes to predetermined outcomes. Little change occurs to policy outlooks, just a set of key performance indexes or targets that look good.
Participants have little opportunity to introduce new “out of the box” ideas. The community is rarely approached for input. Policy generation is still very much blinkered and inward-looking, run by the elite civil servants of Putra Jaya. Each successive administration taking on the reins of government has become dependent upon this process for policy development. Different administrations may espouse different political ideas, but policy is still grounded within this same domain.
The policymaking framework has other longstanding structural and dynamic weaknesses. The traditional dependence on public sector leadership in opening up new economic and business sectors is another such area. Regional economic and business development was made the responsibility of regional corridor authorities who have promoted public-sector and GLC business participation over the private sector and micro-businesses especially.
The Information technology industry was promoted through the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, and biotechnology through various public sector agencies, leading to massive waste. These initiatives have all basically been terrible failures, leaving behind an ineffective bureaucracy, instead of vibrant sunrise industry opportunities. Public sector interference has actually created unnecessary barriers to entry for innovative start-ups, rather than providing assistance.
Government linked companies, sovereign corporations and state economic development authorities have actually restricted, rather than opened the economy. In many cases these agencies create companies which dominate a sector and prevent the private sector from any meaningful market entries. Private start-ups in many sectors rely on political connections rather than new ideas, capital, skills and competencies capable of exploiting entrepreneurial opportunity. Creativity and innovation are stifled in sectors like aviation, agriculture, transport, direct marketing, shipping, and logistical distribution.
The policy paradigm is a hangover from the 1960s, designed at a time when the government had to step in as a pioneer in many economic sectors. The successes of agencies like FELDA, FELCRA, UDA, and MARA are an antiquated model for present day public policy makers to follow.
Malaysian politics has always been more personality rather than policy based. Malay based parties such as UMNO and Bersatu rely on a Malay identity for survival. PAS relies upon its Islamic identity. They are satisfied and complacent with the civil service as the prime generator of policy. With the electoral system heavily malapportioned towards rural Malay electorates, Ketuanan Melayu as a policy anchor is here to stay. The only way for this to be removed is electoral reform, which is not going to happen.
Just how influential and powerful the civil service really is in formulating and implementing policy in government is best seen with the current Covid-19 pandemic, where Health Director General Noor Hisham Abdullah is calling all the shots without political interference.
The success of the civil service’s handling of the pandemic has bolstered the image of Muhyiddin Yassin, who was promoted on billboards all over Sabah during the recent state election campaign. The financial support provided to Sabahans during the pandemic made him personally popular. This has also enhanced the position of his Bersatu party, winning 11 seats as a Malay based party that can potentially challenge the dominance of UMNO.
Contemporary politicians only really contribute to policy making through their narratives and symbolism. However, this can come undone very quicky when narratives mismatch policy reality. The 1Malaysia slogan quickly wore out its luster with the electorate when the public saw the same policies in action. PH’s reformasi didn’t happen, partly leading to the government’s downfall.
Politicians in Malaysia prefer to make symbolic gestures rather than dabble in serious policy reform. Changing the name of iconic streets in Kuala Lumpur, as with the name change from Jalan Raja Laut to Jalan Palestin is much easier than abolishing child marriage. Making political statements popular with the Malay rural heartland, and handing out assistance to voters wins more votes than policy reform.
Originally published in Asia Sentinel