THE bureaucracy continues the administration of a nation regardless of political change. At least, that is the observation in theorising on political and social revolutions in the modern world.
Recently, I engaged with a group of Administrative and Diplomatic Service (Perkhidmatan Tadbir dan Diplomatik) cadets in talking about the nation at the National Institute of Public Administration (INTAN). The title of my lecture was “Malaysia: engaging with History, State and Society”.
In the session, I touched on a number of areas deemed to be useful to the orientation of members of the nation’s elite civil service. These included managing representations of discourse, history and historiography; colonialism; “Malaysia” as rantau/region and as nation-state; phases of independence, nation-crafting, ethnicity and identity; the New Economic Policy, the Iranian Revolution, Islamisation and Globalisation; and, Technology, new media and new history, as well as decolonisation. I also touched on the current discourse on the origins of the Malays, and the contestations on their history and narrative in recent times. Public debates and subsequent policies have to be informed on the nature of the discourse and how it influences the nation.
In that regard, civil servants, especially those at the policy level, must be informed of the different levels of discourse permeating in our midst. What is popularly known as public perception is actually crafted and informed by these discourses, their levels and interactions.
Policy, academic and popular levels of discourses and feed are informed by each other. PTD cadets, in taking on the role of policymakers, must be engaged as to the origins of the discourses and how they affect public sentiments. What is important here is to hold in abeyance what happens on the ground through formulating an objectivised knowledge of the national society.
The civil service serves the government of the day. Like any major national institutions, it cannot be partisan. At the policymaking level, civil servants serve as social scientists. They should develop such an orientation in structuring practice as produced by knowledge — that of the concrete and of the abstract. They have to forge paths in understanding society and constantly engage in its renewal on how and why the nation comes to be what it is now.
The orientation of the cadets must allow for epistemological diversity, cultural and scientific pluralism. There is a variety of ways of knowing and policy formulation in sustaining social, cultural and political relations among members of the nation. In this regard, the cadets need to know how history is related to attitudes and policy. I gave the case of the kampung in Penang which are conceived as slums or as residues of the past and, therefore, must be uprooted in the name of “development” by the authorities.
Public attitudes towards places, peoples and names, as well as institutions, inform policymakers, and vice versa. Being alert to what is absent or present is critical in their orientation. Being alert also means what has been produced by one’s own society, and that of others, of the world. And there has been a tremendous propensity for new narratives of the nation over the last two decades. PTD cadets would have to know what these are and how they are represented and in what form.
The new media has given a
plurality of meanings to history, ethnicity and identity. In the Malaysian context, any form of civil service training must not only expose participants to present policies and procedures, the Federal Constitution and national institutions, but also notions of history and who we are, and why we are what we are.
Digital technologies and new media have been instrumental in inducing these notions. If everyone can fly, as an airline slogan says, now everyone can write and express himself or herself. This is the new challenge for civil servants now. The new media enables the manifestation — construction or deconstruction (perhaps destruction too) of nationhood and nation building. We have become at the same time, users/producers of the new media, immersed in a complex media ecology of divides, diversities and literacy.
PTD cadets must be aware of the ongoing cycle of subversion and reconfiguration then pitting the more-concentrated mainstream of a national “centre” against diffuse, but increasingly, interactive and participatory “edges”. That still continues in the post-May 9 condition. Unlike much of the nation before the 1990s, there are now alternative views for participation, speech, interaction and creativity. There is the growth of oppositional and activist new media. The dust has yet to settle.
Even the name “Malaysia” has not been unaffected. We know that it is the name of the nation-state. But there is a revival to that name — historically and geographically — in response to a complex host of forces permeating our midst. Thinking about space (and place), scale and ratio is a fundamental ingredient in PTD training and orientation. What is also critical is how this can facilitate Malaysia’s new engagement in foreign policy and international relations — the nation’s image and ideas through public diplomacy.
Coming back to a non-partisan civil service, the INTAN module has to factor in political ideology in Malaysia/Malaya over the different phases of the nation’s history before and after 1957, after 1969 and certainly after May 9, 2018. With 61 years of serving only one government, certainly the training of the civil service and its PTD echelons must see a reorientation and a re-understanding of neutrality, viz., the political culture and ideology of the nation.
Datuk Dr. A Murad Merican is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia