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Isn’t a one-race civil service a form of apartheid?

I remember once as a young medical officer, I was boycotted by operating theatre staff when I wanted stern action taken against a staff nurse who went for a kenduri when she was supposed to scrub for a surgery.

An assistant nurse had to cover up for her delinquent senior. Both the nurses – the one who had absented herself and the one suddenly forced to relieve her duty – were Malay. The young patient lying on my operating table waiting to deliver her baby was Malay too. And also Malay, the anaesthesist and other operating theatre staff who gave me the cold shoulder after I remonstrated with the matron.

I had informed Matron right away after I found the young nurse shivering in fear because she was thrown into the deep end and unprepared to assist in a surgery. If I had expected disciplinary action to be taken, I was disappointed. My colleagues who rallied around the race banner sadly failed to see that the patient (someone belonging to their own ethnic community) about to give birth deserved the best medical care.

What if it had been an emergency case where a life was at stake? Malays have to be made aware that an incompetent and one-race dominated civil service may not be beneficial to them and as the majority, they would be the ones ultimately most affected. With such experiences, you can understand why I resigned from the public health sector.

One of my Malay superiors urged me to “think about the service” but then again, if only the Malays themselves could think about how racism among civil servants has hindered their own progress.

1Malay first and foremost
Malaysia has a “huge and largely ethnic Malay civil service, completely loyal to Umno, but increasingly incompetent” that is the biggest obstacle to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia. This was the view of former Economic Planning Unit deputy director-general K. Govindan, according to a leaked United States diplomatic cable.

The WikiLeaks that appeared in Malaysia Today on June 6 had the cable further quoting Govindan’s opinion that our civil service adopts “a very narrow worldview and will oppose, even refuse to implement, reforms perceived as damaging ethnic Malay interests, even if convinced of the long-run gains for Malaysia”.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has referred to the service as a “Malay administration”. He did not even bother to pass it off as a “bumiputera administration” in which case it can be claimed by the non-Muslim natives of East Malaysia. Alas, the Orang Asli indigenous to the peninsula do not even figure in the equation.

Non Malays have been gradually cleansed from the public sector with only a few remaining now in crucial and inevitable sectors such as teaching in vernacular schools. The Orang Asli have been totally excluded.
Umno ultra nationalists defend majority-race dominance as justifiable opposed to the minority-race dominance previously in South Africa under apartheid. They’re pretending their systemic racism is not discernible to the rest of the world even if the minorities in Malaysia are resigned to this supremacist order of public affairs.

The public sector should reflect the country’s plural society or in other words, set the example and no longer display the same ‘ethnic imbalances’ blamed on the divide-and-rule policy under British colonial rule.

Not a ‘reasonable’ apportioning
Mahathir and his ultras claim their affirmative action differs from apartheid. Yet the end result of the affirmative or rather discriminative action is the monopoly of all aspects of socio-economic life by a single politically dominant ethnic majority. One example of the 1Malay administration at work is the annual Public Service Department (JPA) scholarship disbursement where top non-Malay students appear to have been systematically sidelined.

Even though Article 8 (2) of the Federal Constitution states that all citizens are eligible if suitably qualified by educational standards to enter any branch of the public service, and there can be no discrimination on grounds of race, religion and the like, in reality, the Malay ultras have ignored this constitutional provision.

The public sector can declare that it is devoid of racial discrimination only if its staff composition reasonably reflects the ethnic composition of the country and its intake based primarily on merit. The competence, integrity and efficiency of personnel must take precedence over one’s skin colour and ancestral status.

In 1967, the Malays accounted for 68 percent of all civil servants (Supian Ali and Mohd Zainuddin: p.162). Chinese accounted for 16 percent and Indians 15 percent. In 1968, Malays outnumbered non-Malays only in two (administrative services and legal services) out of nine public service areas, and accounted about half of the uniformed services manpower (Mohamed Suffian: p.297). Nonetheless, many top administrative jobs, legal officer and technical posts were held by the Chinese and Indians.

Under clause (2) of article 153 in the constitution, it is the responsibility of the Yang Dipertuan Agong acting on Cabinet advice to ensure the reservation for Malays and natives of Borneo a “reasonable proportion” of positions in the federal public service. The constitution also prohibits any deprivation of a person of any public office held by him; and public servants all races of all levels must be treated impartially (Mohamed Suffian: p.294).

The constitution compels that any preferential treatment must still be reasonable to all ethnic groups and merit take precedence. The implementation of preferential policies has to be transparent.

In 1978, the American court ruled in Regents of University of California v. Bakke that merit must take precedence over ethnicity in the implementation of affirmative action, and reverse racism as well as racial quotas are strictly forbidden.

Strictly speaking, racial quotas have been found by the courts to be unconstitutional and not regarded as affirmative action in the United States. Instead racial quotas were the main feature of apartheid in South Africa

Consequences of racial quotas
The New Economic Policy imposed a quota in respect of Division I officers in the following services. The figures are shown in ratio:
Areas of Public Service
Non Malays
Home & Foreign services
Judicial and legal service
Customs service
Police force
Source: Mohamed Suffian, 1976, p.29

As of Dec 31, 2009, the Malaysian civil service comprised 1,247,894 employees. Their racial breakdown can be seen below as well as in comparison with past years.

Before NEP 1971
June 2005
December 2009
Source:, April 7, 2010

Shortly after Independence, there were about 40 percent Indians in the Johor civil service. Today the 8,372-strong Johor civil service has witnessed the dwindling of Indians to a mere 1.39 percent and Chinese to an even more miniscule 0.12 percent (The Star, April 8, 2010).

All of the Johor leading administrative officers, including state secretaries, secretaries, directors of various state agencies, district officers and land officers and special administrators are Malays in a state where non-Malays account for almost half of the population. 1Malay domination of the public service is prominent not only at the top administrative levels but also down to the general workers.

Is the absolute domination of the public service by the Malays to be deemed ‘reasonable’ and constitutional?

XXL size govt and payroll
As we all know, the Malaysian public sector is bloated and we have the highest proportion of civil servants to population compared with our neighbours. In fact, we’re likely the world record holder!

Yet the civil service still keeps expanding. It keeps absorbing Malay graduates who would otherwise be. This will cause the Malay young generation to cling to the theory of Malay supremacy until the bubble bursts.

The public sector comprised 11.9 percent of our total workforce in 1970, peaking at 15 percent in 1981 but dropping to 12 percent in 1991 after an aggressive privatization programme launched in the mid-1980s (K.S. Jomo et al: p.65).

Civil Servants
% of total pop.
The Philippines
* Population as at 2003, UN estimates
Source:  UN online Network in Public Administration and Finance, 2004

Like other totalitarian states in history such as the Third Reich of Nazi Germany, Umno needs a large number of Malay civil servants to control the populace through racism. Its state-sponsored Biro Tata Negara propagates Malay supremacy from top civil servants down to the grassroots.

BTN has successfully infused not only Malay supremacy but also Sinophobia and xenophobia among Malay civil servants. The British were perceived as the colonizers and Chinese subsequently became the new bogeymen after Independence as the counterfoil for instilling Malay ‘unity’.

Nonetheless, there are unintended consequences from the bloated number of Malay civil servants. Some of them living in urban areas take on second jobs – teachers give private tuition and sell insurance; nurses engage in direct sales; government office general workers work at petrol kiosks at night. But at least they are trying to augment their income through honest means.

Corruption among civil servants has even been justified as an acceptable way to “balance the income disparity” between the Chinese-dominated private sector and Malay-dominated public sector. The tragic thing about the whole issue is that corruption has not only victimized the non-Malay poor but has also denied the underprivileged Malays access to state resources.

The lack of promotion prospects has contributed to the phenomenon of many non Malays resigning from the public service besides deterring new prospective entrants from applying. The ‘kulitfication’ (skin colour) ceiling and other preferences along racial lines comes at the expense of public administration efficiency. Inefficiency in the public sector has in turn adversely affected our national economic growth and the incomes of those who dominate the public sector.

There were preferential policies during the apartheid era to upgrade the living standards of politically dominant white Afrikaner minority among other better-off whites. But apartheid is an immoral regime because it degrades fellow countrymen and refuses to allow that all human beings are equals. Such discriminative preferential policies are not ‘affirmative action’; they are immoral.

Jomo K.S., et al, ‘Privatizing Malaysia-Rents, Rhetoric, Realities’, Boulder, Colorado/Oxford, Westview Press Inc., 1995.
Mohamed Suffian bin Hashim, Tun, ‘An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia’, second edition Kuala Lumpur, Government Printers, 1976.
Supian Ali, Mohd. Zainuddin Saleh et al, ‘Rancangan Malaysia Keenam – Prioriti Pengukuhan Negara’, Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi, 1994

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