Nearly every budget, this never fails to happen. Malaysians, so eager to compare their new-found knowledge of the world, sought to impress their other less-read compatriots, start to lambast the government for not managing the civil service workforce and claiming that the proportion of civil service that we have today is unrealistically high and not manageable in the long run.
We are often compared to our neighbour, Singapore (1 to 71.4), our former colonial master, the UK (1 civil servant to every 118 citizens) and a few other nations as seen in this screen-capture. What more, this was shared by Dato' Seri Nazir Razak, the Prime Minister's own brother.
This paints a negative picture of Malaysia, that the government service is very inefficient.
So how true is it?
Which this article published by Free Malaysia Today comes to my mind. World Economic Forum has proclaimed that Malaysian Government spending is the 15th most efficient in the world. This information does not seems to jive with what we see above.
This is where statistics play a part. Statistics does not lie if you frame it properly, ie having the measured items matched first. And in this case, as we are measuring civil servants, what we need to do first is to define what is civil servants. Make sense?
In Malaysia, the definition of civil servant is governed by Article 132 of the Federal Constitution.
Now let's have a look at Singapore's definition of public service.
Singapore only has 84,000 civil service personnel. You might ask, why not 145,000? Singapore's population today is about 6 million. 84,000 times 71.4 equals to approximately 5.9 million.
Do take note also that Singapore's civil servants figure does not include their military, health, police, and teachers. We include all 4.
And not to forget that Singapore is a small island. Basically there are no rural hinterlands where the government needs to set up service to service the rural communities.
Let's look at the UK.
While I can't find a definitive explanation of what is civil servants for UK, I did however manage to find this archived content from a UK government website. This roughly gives us an idea what is defined as a civil servant in UK.
Let's take note at a few items.
There are no military, no police force, no teachers, and no health workers. Do please take note that if we were to account UK's health services as public servants similar to us, their civil service size will be tremendous as it was once touted as the fifth largest employer in the world.
By now, you would have noticed that these 2 nations do not include their military, police force, teachers and health workers in the list of civil service. As it is very difficult to get the information of the headcounts in other countries, what we can do is to do a reverse search.
Note that some of these data may be obsolete as I do not have access to the latest data.
We know that our civil service size today is circa 1.6 million. And today's Malaysian population is 32.1 million. So let us do a simple math exercise.
Based on this recalculation, the numbers should be 41.42 ratio. Still high nonetheless, as the civil service is being reformed. Do please not forget, during the 1997/1998 Asian Financial crisis, the civil service was forced to absorb many unemployed youths to artificially reduce the unemployment rate back then. The legacy of this would only leave the civil service circa 2030 to 2040.
Assuming the next step in civil service restructuring would see these services being reclassified as non-civil service, from where do we finance their pay? Are there independent source of income for these agencies?
I do not seek to assuage your fear on the increasing civil service size. If you read this article from Malaysian Digest, we do have a real concern on the wage issue. Reclassifying the existing service to non-civil service would not reduce the above-mentioned burden to the government budget. Do please take note too, especially when we talk about pensioned civil service, it is not right for us to tell them to forgo their pension so that the government budget looks beautiful.
One reform step that the government could take is to make it compulsory for newly recruited government servants to take up contribution approach, similar to private sector. This will reduce the financial burden to the government in the future. Note, this approach would also allow the EPF (Employee Provident Fund) to grow larger as they would now have access to a new sector. However, considering the opposition in Malaysia that would oppose for the sake of opposing, even if it means opposing what they had previously fought for, this is likely going to be turned into a political issue and would be linked to as an attempt by the Federal Government cheating funds from ordinary Malaysians.
If you closely at the definition used on what is civil service in Singapore, UK and even Australia, their definition of civil servants are more closely matching what we have in our Pegawai Tadbir Diplomatik (PTD) or Diplomatic Administration Officer scheme. For those in PTD scheme, we could allow them to continue to maintain whatever benefits that are enjoyed by civil service today. In fact, from my interaction with some PTD personnel, they are very versatile and can be posted into any services, as they are the cream of the crop.
Note also that the 4 sectors which are classified as civil service in Malaysia are critical service; military, police, health and education. If these are to be taken out of civil service, would it lead to a dystopic future, where we need to pay for their services? To hire an army to prevent our country being invaded? To hire a cop so they catch a crook for us?
Currently, I do know that at least the Health Ministry has already beginning to reform their service. Permanent posts are only given to the best medical officers. And they are also allowed to perform locum, thus increasing their take-home income.
So now you have the idea what we are facing today and in the future.
The problem with statistics is at times, we compare things that do not match. And that is why we have been comparing apple with orange because both are fruits.