THE top three posts in government service in Malaysia which are responsible for public administration, law and order are the Chief Secretary to the Government (KSN), Attorney-General (AG ) and Chief Justice (CJ).
The KSN is the head of the civil service, which comprises the administrative, professional and technical services.
All secretaries-general of government ministries are accountable to the KSN. The AG who is the chief prosecutor and legal advisor to the Government and the CJ who is the head of the judiciary are together responsible for the justice system.
As good governance in the civil and judicial services rests on their shoulders to enforce the high ethical standards in government, without fear or favour, and with justice for all, their appointments are extremely important to the country.
In many advanced countries, especially for the international institutions and specialised UN agencies which are considered public service organisations as they serve the public interest across the world, the top positions would be filled through a robust selection and screening process where the appointment would be thrown open to competition from within the department as well as from outside to encourage those who feel they are qualified to apply.
The idea is to give the organisation a wide choice of candidates so that it can get the most qualified to fill the position.
For outsiders who feel that they want to experience public service, this open system gives them an opportunity to show why they deserve to be considered.
Thus, it is not surprising to see successful business executives or well-known academics changing their career to serve in public service organisations, thereby bringing new blood into them.
I believe Malaysia should move towards this robust system in choosing the right candidate, whether from the civil service or the private sector, to fill the top positions in the Government.
Thus, if a secretary-general in one of the ministries or any head of a government department feels he is qualified to be the next secretary-general of the Finance Ministry, he can apply to the KSN to be considered for the post.
Applications can also come from any of the GLCs or the private sector so that the KSN can have a wide choice of candidates to shortlist the best for the Government to consider.
This is meritocracy which the NEAC Report has stressed should be the way forward in making the civil service play its proper role to vet any ministerial proposals before they reach the cabinet.
This vetting function is sadly missing in today’s civil service, resulting in many policy recalls and reversals when they are criticised by the public and challenged by experts as being unrealistic and impractical.
Such frequent hiccups in implementation are not only an embarrassment to the political leadership but are also an indictment on the professionalism of the civil service, particularly the PTD (the former Malaysian Civil Service now called Perkhidmatan Tadbir Dan Diplomatik).
Its lack of professional skills with a keen sense for economics and finance is often the main cause of its ineffectiveness. The PTD should reinvent itself by recruiting expertise from the private sector and research institutions to create excellence among the officers so that they have the capacity to analyse difficult issues and appreciate the reforms that the country needs to initiate.
The NEAC report has made many good recommendations for raising the leadership of the civil service in providing advice and second opinion on policy proposals before the ministers bring them to the cabinet for approval.
One is the revival of the National Development Planning Committee (NDPC), the committee overseeing the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) in the Prime Minister’s Department.
The NDPC’s membership comprises the most senior civil servants and used to be a powerful body for inter-agency deliberation and coordination on macro economic issues as well as for reviewing project proposals from the EPU.
After the officials reached a consensus at the NDPC, the proposals would then go up for political decision at the cabinet sub-committee called the National Economic Council (NEC), before finally reaching the cabinet.
The NDPC and NEC were created when the EPU was established in 1960 to lead the development planning of the country.
The EPU served as the secretariat and provided the professional inputs to both committees in collaboration with other central agencies.
This three-tier planning system was part of the checks and balance on the powers of the prime minister and the finance minister on matters affecting the economy and the country’s financial management.
The other recommendation from the NEAC is the strengthening of the Public Service Commission (PSC) and turning it into a highly professional institution for managing human resources in the public service towards meritocracy.
It recommends that the PSC members be appointed from highly qualified professionals in the public and private sector with a mandate that the commission is independent in its function, as envisaged in the Federal Constitution.
Over the years, its independence has been eroded and its function limited to routine recruitment and confirmation of officers at the lower levels.
The Government should restore the constitutional status of the PSC and give it the independent power to vet even the highest civil service appointments before it makes its decision on who should be the KSN and the secretaries-general.
An independent PSC vetting the top appointments would give the person holding the office more legitimacy in the eyes of the civil service and the public.
These and other recommendations in the NEAC report for empowerment of the civil service should be urgently addressed by the Government in order to raise the morale of civil servants, many of whom feel they have been systematically sidelined in the decision-making process.