NST Leader: A better civil service

THE most revolutionary change in the Malaysian civil service's 67-year history will start on Feb 1, when all levels of new recruits will be hired on contract.

The Public Service Department (PSD) says the cabinet-approved move aims to improve remunerations and control long-term pension expenditure, covering 900,000 retirees at a colossal RM32 billion annually.

All well and good, this sensible future-proofing of finances, but the jolt is shocking. The PSD is not saying it, but the immediate implication is this: unlike now, after Feb 1, civil servants cannot hope to hang on in the service if they are mired in indiscipline.

Currently, government employees with dubious disciplinary records cannot be terminated. At best, they are transferred, demoted or placed in cold storage, thus perpetuating the crisis. But with short-term contracts stretching from one to three years, a future civil servant's tenure, from a director-general to a clerk, can be discontinued if they breach contract conditions.

It's a subtle way of easing out problematic employees, especially those deep in the corruption quicksand. Still, it'll be interesting to assess the attitude of post-Feb 1 new recruits who can't help but approach government service differently.

Fixed hours, guaranteed salaries and free medical care remains, but the tax-free pension will be replaced with Employees Provident Fund contributions, on top of having to work harder and smarter to meet contractual Key Performance Indicators.

Wait. If that's the case, why join government service when the same KPIs exist in the private sector, but with superior salaries, overtime pay, benefits and bonuses that compensate better their verve and initiative? With details still pending, it's unknown if the post-Feb 1 scheme will match the private sector's remuneration scheme, even if it emulates their hiring and firing style.

Still, there are other far-reaching implications. If extended long enough, these new contractors may reduce the long-term bureaucratic bloat of 1.7 million-strong, one of the biggest in the world.

The Congress of Unions of Employees in the Public and Civil Services may be forced to confront depleting membership when non-unionised contract workers swell into a discrete bloc.

The so-called "vote reservoir" of the civil service may become fragmented, which may push the current administration to woo this electoral bank with goodies when a general election looms.

When news about Feb 1 broke, the government was quick to clarify that the new scheme is "temporary", pending a complete study on remunerations for civil servants. Some critics, who misunderstood that the pension reform will affect existing civil employees, say that the pensions of elected representatives should go first. But as contractual systems go, expect bureaucratic resilience, efficiency throughout divisions, dynamic response to population needs, rise of specialised talent and custom-fit solutions to complex challenges.

Still, this new scheme is understandably a hard choice, but for the sake of a sound foothold in future public finances, the government must remain steadfast in sticking to its game plan, no matter the inevitable resistance from the unions and other interested parties.

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