Joining the Civil Service, 1970
By: Syed Jaafar Aznan
(First published in WordPress on 8/9/2017 ) ( ed.17/5/18, 14/12/21 ).
I joined the Malaysian Civil Service in early 1970. It was during the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia (31.8.1957-22.9.1970). The Chief Secretary to the Government was then Tan Sri Abdul Kadir Shamsuddin. This was the beginning of my long career in public service at the state, federal and international levels. I retired as a Malaysian civil servant in 2001.
Back to my Kampung.
In December 1969 I was 22 years old. I had just completed three years of study at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and sat for my final examinations. All I wanted to do then was to leave the city for a while and go home to my kampung (small village). I wanted to spend some time with my parents and renew my acquaintances with old friends.
The house where the family lived was a wooden kampung house located in a small Malay community just about one kilometre outside the small town of Slim Village in Perak. My father was then the local penghulu there, but we lived in a rented house since there was no government quarters built there.
The small town of Slim Village had electricity supplied from a private commercial generator owned by a local tycoon, but it could not generate enough power supply to be extended to my kampung. The national grid power lines could be seen a few kilometres away from my house, but national electricity supply took some time to reach us.
The standard sources of lighting in the community were traditional oil lamps (pelita minyak) and the gasoline pump lamps. The “Butterfly Brand” and the “Eye Brand” gasoline lamps were popular. Even the sole street lighting at a junction near my house was from a gasoline lamp. We had a portable petrol generator for electricity in the house and it was good for a few light bulbs for a few hours. We experimented using the generator to power a television, but the picture quality was poor due to unstable power supply.
The community had piped water supply, but the water pressure was often very low. The quality of the water supply was also doubtful, due to poor piping connections from the main pipes.
In terms of economic activities many in my kampung were self-employed and farmers. Some were rubber-tappers while some had ventured into small-time business like selling foodstuffs at food stalls.
The educational level was low. There was no secondary school in the nearby areas, and the few that attended secondary schooling had to go elsewhere.
My kampung friends were special. They had little or no education reflecting the effects of social neglect of pre “merdeka” days. But they had strong survival skills. I had friends who specialised in bringing out from the deep jungle seasonal produce like the petai (parkia speciosa) to trade in the town, and others who grew sugarcane and other plants alongside the river. The petai is a fruit from a very large and tall tree which grew deep in the jungle. Only expert climbers could climb up the trees to bring down the fruits. One of my friends was a sugar-cane water and apam–balik (turnover pancake) seller near the local bus terminal, while others did odd jobs in the kampung. Some of them were younger than me in age but they were then already earning income from gainful employment. At my last visit to the kampung a few years ago one of my old friend, then in his sixties was still running a small coffee stall there. After over four decades since our young days he survived all on his own.
At university I had studied about poverty in the context of development economics. I was at times introduced to the effort factor as a cause for poverty. There was this notion then that people were poor because they did not put in enough effort in work. But here in my kampung reality painted a different picture. Sometimes I heard at the early hours of around 4 o’clock in the morning, sound of people outside my house moving to their workplaces. They included rubber-tappers, some of whom were only working on somebody else’s land. They put in lots of hard work to earn their daily bread and what they earned was below the poverty line.
The story of the kampung rubber tapper has to be told to understand better the meaning of local poverty. I had earlier lived in other kampung in Perak and the stories of rubber tappers there were similar.
The rubber tapper at my kampung was already on his way to work at around 4 in the morning. He worked on family inheritance land which had multiple owners and even on land owned by others. In all cases income from the land had to be shared. The rubber trees were normally located a distance from his house, and he would have to cycle there in the dark. The rubber trees were old trees in need of replanting, and thus the tapping spots were usually high up on the tree trunks. Thus the tapper had to carry a ladder from tree to tree for this purpose. Sometimes the trees were on uneven terrain, and this made the task harder. Some tappers had to use oil lamps for lighting in areas of darkness in the early morning. Some also brought cheap cigarettes which had almost no tobacco content, not for the purpose of enjoying tobacco but just to produce smokes to keep away mosquitoes. Tapping was normally done in a few hours, but the tapper had to return to the trees later to collect the latex. The process of pressing and rolling the latex into rubber sheets continued later in the afternoon.
That was the tapping technology at a kampung at that time in the 1960s. It was less sophisticated than the process in plantation estates. To the kampung rubber tapper, if it rained in the morning then tapping was affected and the latex of the day could be lost. In a worst-case scenario the rubber tapper would have no income for the day.
The work of a kampung rubber tapper was hard. Return was low and further subject to disruption from weather.
I was never a rubber tapper. But I have lived in the same community with rubber tappers. I noted the great effort tappers put in daily. I had the opportunity to listen to their stories and noted their strong sense of survival. Their plight was almost similar to the padi planters working in bendang (padi fields) elsewhere in Perak.
What I learned debunked the theory of the lazy native as cause for poverty.
At the Federal Treasury, Kuala Lumpur.
My stay at the kampung this time was short-lived. I had barely time to relax and enjoy kampung life when I was asked to report for duty as an Attachment Officer at the Federal Treasury, Kuala Lumpur.
In January 1970 I reported for duty to the Administration Division of the Federal Treasury, Kuala Lumpur. It was the department in charge of human resources. The Head of the Administration Division was Mr. Bhupinder Singh.
The Permanent Secretary (now styled Secretary-General) to the Treasury then was Tan Sri Shariff Samad. But I never had the chance of meeting him as he was to leave the ministry later in the year. The Minister of Finance then was Tun Abdul Razak who held the finance portfolio briefly since mid 1969, until the return of Tun Tan Siew Sin to the Cabinet in late 1970.
My posting as Attachment Officer did not place me under any scheme of service of the Malaysian Government. It was a temporary appointment on a month-to-month basis until the release of university examination results. I did not get a salary but was paid an allowance of M$400 per month. This was just slightly more than a junior clerk’s pay, but it was very welcome as my first taste of income from employment.
In March 1970, the university examination results were announced. It was the second graduating batch from the new Faculty of Economics and Administration of the University of Malaya. I graduated with honours in Applied Economics. The assessment standard at that time was definitely very high. Some of my colleagues who had done well in school previously were not able to secure honours degrees. Just slightly more than half of the class graduated with honours, while the rest had general degrees.
Attachment Officers who secured honours degrees were placed as Temporary Officers in the Malaysian Civil Service (later transformed into the Administrative and Diplomatic Service after the merger with the Foreign Service). We were paid a basic monthly salary of M$592. Those with general degrees were placed in a lower scheme of service with lower pay. Technically, they could apply for admission into the premier Administrative and Diplomatic Service after a three or four year period. This would place them three or four years behind in term of seniority of service when they were admitted into the premier service. Some of those with general degrees left to join semi-government bodies and the private sector where no such differentiation was made.
Changing from ‘student’ mode to ‘officer’ mode was not completely smooth. My normal dress code at university was long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. They were clean but seldom smoothly pressed. But as an officer I faced changes. My shirt and pants had to be pressed smoothly. I had to put on a necktie. Yes, a necktie! Learning to knot a necktie properly took some time. I had to keep my hair well groomed. As an officer I had to look presentable in office.
I learnt office protocol. Senior officers were to be accorded much respect in office for their rank. They were also older in age and had more working experiences.
I learnt to write official documents like office memos and letters to other ministries and departments, prepare minutes of meetings and even drafts of cabinet papers which ultimately was to be signed by the minister himself. These skills were never taught at university.
I learnt that all official letters had to begin with the phrase “I am directed to…” and end with the statement “I am, Sir, your obedient servant”. Letters were always written for and on behalf of the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry.
I noted then, with slight humour and curiosity that every officer in the Ministry of Finance was a “secretary”. At the very top was the Permanent Secretary. Below him was the Deputy Secretary, then the Under-Secretary and so on until the Assistant Secretary.
Drafting and editing a Cabinet Paper was a good experience. Cabinet papers had a minimum security classification of “secret” and placed in a light red colour file. Only selected typists were allowed to type secret documents and a small number of officers were involved in preparing the papers. In the case of those files marked “top secret”, i.e. those yellow files with a large “X” marking in red on the covers, handling was further limited only to very few authorised officers. These files had to be carried around in big envelopes or locked boxes.
There were no word-processors then, and electric typewriters like the IBM typewriters were still uncommon at those times. The standard typewriters were usually the manual Remington brand. To make multiple copies we had to get the documents typed on stencils and then duplicated using the Gestetner cyclostyle machine. When an error was detected on a draft cabinet paper the process of correction was tedious, particularly under requirement of secrecy.
I recalled with some sense of humour that one day in 1971 a certain Mr. Sarwan Singh, a senior clerical staff from the office of the Minister of Finance had rushed to my room with a cabinet paper which I helped to draft. Apparently at the concluding line I had written as follows: “Cabinet is therefore requested to approve as follows: …..”. Mr. Sarwan told me that there had to be a dash (-) after the last colon as in “:-”. I was surprised and slightly amused. Was it really a grammar mistake? More importantly why can’t Mr. Sarwan himself asked the typist to make the correction. On this Mr. Sarwan told me that it was the Minister of Finance, Tun Tan Siew Sin himself who wanted the correction made. Since this was a secret document he had directed that the officer responsible for the cabinet paper itself should rectify the mistake. This was a lesson to me on the need to be meticulous in work to a standard set by the boss, and to understand better the meaning of document secrecy.
The image issue was important. As an officer I had to supervise clerical staff many of whom were much older than me. The Chief Clerk himself was old enough to be my father. To gain respect authority alone was not enough. An officer had to look matured physically or put on a serious face. One colleague related to me an amusing story of a very senior officer during the British era who grew a moustache to put on a serious look! For me personally, it did not help that I was physically small built and had a rather boyish face, and that I could not grow a moustache. So getting respect from my office staffs involved lessons of trial and error, sometimes even humorous episodes!
At the Federal Treasury I was assigned to the position of Assistant Secretary, the entry level rank in the first division hierarchy. I was placed in the Tax Division which at that time was headed by a distinguished civil servant who later rose to be the Chief Secretary to the Government.
In the Tax Division my job scope covered revenue analysis and direct taxation. I had the opportunity to learn in much depth revenue and tax matters of the nation. I had an office room, sharing with two other officer colleagues. Our room was just below the big clock tower in the State Secretariat building (Sultan Abdul Samad building), in front of the Selangor Club, Kuala Lumpur. Every time the big clock reached the full hour, we obviously heard the loud sound very clearly! One floor below was the office of the Minister of Finance, Tun Tan Siew Sin. That was where all tax policies were discussed!
Tax matters in the Federal Treasury were placed very high in security classification. Some of the subjects handled were classified as “secret” and some even “top-secret” . To enable me to have access to highly classified tax files I had to undergo extensive security vetting or what was then referred to as positive security vetting. I was interviewed by officers from the Security Office. This was a much more rigorous process than the normal negative vetting done on most of my colleagues in other ministries.
Appointment to the Civil Service.
On 1st October 1970 I was formally appointed by the Public Service Commission as an officer in the Malaysian Administrative and Diplomatic Service (ADS). This was after an interview selection process.
In the initial period after appointment I had to pass several civil service examinations before I could be confirmed as a permanent officer. I was also required to contribute to the Employees Provident Fund scheme for at least three years before I was emplaced in a pensionable scheme of service.
I had then become a member of an elite group of civil servants in a fast developing country. To the traditional Malay community I had become a Pegawai MCS (Malaysian Civil Service officer), something held with great pride by many Malay mothers then.
In September 1970 Tun Abdul Razak succeeded Tunku Abdul Rahman as the second Prime Minister of Malaysia. He held the post until his untimely death in January 1976. The finance portfolio was again placed under Tun Tan Siew Sin on his return to Cabinet ministership.
Malaysia under Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak started an ambitious programme of economic development. The New Economic Policy was introduced in late 1970. It was focused on the twin-pronged objectives of poverty eradication and restructuring of society. As a new and young officer close to the nerve centre of government planning I was excited. My appointment into the civil service and placement in the Federal Treasury was a dream and justified my rejection of more monetary rewards from employment in the private sector.
As a new entrant into the civil service I had to undergo training. During that time basic training was done mostly at the old Training Institute for public servants at Lorong Elmu near the University of Malaya campus. I had to undergo an initial basic two-week training programme. This was followed by several other training programmes in the following years.
Many things were taught during the short training period. They included subjects like the General Orders, the Financial General Orders, the Treasury Instructions and Diplomacy. These were important for us since they were subjects for examinations for confirmation in the civil service.
I learnt about the structure of government, and how ministries and departments worked. More importantly I learned about the relationship between politicians and civil servants, particularly in the working of a ministry.
I learnt that at that time the Minister of Finance was the chief policymaker in the Treasury, being a member of the cabinet of ministers and also being bestowed with various powers under several laws on financial management. Below him was the Permanent Secretary who reported to the Minister. All civil servants in the Treasury reported only to the permanent secretary. At that time Deputy Ministers and other political appointees around the minister were not part of the hierarchy of command in the administration of a ministry.
I learnt a lot from the various speakers during training. The speakers were mostly trainers from the Training Institute itself, but there were some senior officers from other government ministries and departments.
I was a very enthusiastic participant. I was keen to know what it meant to be a civil servant, to be part of this powerful premier Administrative and Diplomatic Service.
Three things were impressed on me during the training sessions for new civil servants:
1. As a civil servant I was expected to be a proud servant to the king and country.
2. A civil servant was expected to lean slightly left-of-centre in terms of economic management. Thus, in making policy recommendations I was expected to have the welfare of the masses at heart and to work towards their wellbeing.
3. The guiding principle of remuneration was that a civil servant would earn enough but would not be rich while in service. This meant that my salary as an officer would be enough to maintain a certain minimum standard of living, but I should not expect to lead the lifestyle of colleagues in the private sector. Salaries of graduates in the civil service in those days were generally lower compared to the private sector, and we had no annual bonuses. But it was acceptable that those who wanted higher salaries could leave the civil service and join the private sector.
The Government provided limited assistance in terms of housing and car loans, and free medical benefits for the civil servant and his or her family. In return for a dedicated service civil servants would enjoy stature in society. In terms of state and national honours, civil servants would also be given priority in recognition of their social service. And when they retire after a long period of service they would be given a small pension to keep them out of poverty. This was some sort of a social contract.
Fast forward a decade later, all these started to change in the 1980s. It was then the Mahathir era (1981-2003) in Malaysia. He had succeeded Tun Hussein Onn (1976-1981) as the fourth prime minister of Malaysia. His brand of economics was dominating.
The Mahathir premiership era was marked by the pursuit of rapid growth in the country. Malaysia was then trying to achieve developed nation status quickly. It was a nation in a hurry to achieve its targets. This led to the implementation of unorthodox measures in economic management.
The private sector was then considered as the primary engine of growth in the economy. More resources were allocated to it. Selected individuals from the private sector were identified to be more efficient and productive than others and were entrusted to manage large development projects. They were expected to generate more wealth for the country and the government would benefit through more taxation income from their profits. The additional income earned by the government would benefit the rakyat as a whole. This was a major paradigm shift in economic management and the basis for the new Privatisation Policy of the government.
The Privatisation Policy enabled government projects and operations to be given to the private sector for management. This policy was formulated based on the belief by some policymakers that the superior management efficiency of the private sector over the public service would ensure greater chances of success in implementation.
The government Privatisation Policy started in the Treasury in 1981. There was then around 1000 “public enterprises” and many were not performing well financially. It was then thought that these non-performing public companies could be privatised to the private sector. It was expected that the companies would be turned around financially through better private sector management and this would benefit the country.
But the Privatisation Policy quickly changed direction. The private sector was not overly eager to help revive losing companies using its own resources without major compensation.They preferred taking over projects which had much assets to dispose. It was in a way some sort of insurance to the private sector to maximise returns on their investment. To facilitate this policy shift, management of privatisation policy and related government procurement matters were taken out operationally from the Treasury which was considered conservative financial managers. These matters were then placed in the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Ministers Department. They would then be under the direct control of the Prime Minister himself.
I would not venture here to argue whether this move was legal or proper in administrative terms. It was largely a political decision on which the civil service had no comment to offer.
Economic planning then borrowed a page from Keynesian economics. Aggregate spending and investment had to increase through government spending for more development. Spending had to be accelerated to have rapid growth. To achieve this the machinery of the government, centered on the civil service had to face some overhaul.
The new economic planning approach at that time was a novel idea. It was based on thinking big and thinking out of the box to achieve rapid growth. It had required simplification of processes in planning for quick decision-making. But while process simplification was desirable it required the civil service to be more alert and efficient to ensure end objectives were achieved. The civil service always had a duty to ensure good governance prevailed.
But, when the civil service was seen to be slow and weak, politicians gained entry into the operating domain of civil servants. The lines demarcating the roles of civil servants on one hand and politicians on the other became blurred. The civil service began to lose ground on its own terrain.
Erosion of civil service role and authority crept to almost all institutions of government. Mahathir had resigned as Prime Minister in 2003 after 22 years at the post*. The trend of a weak civil service continued in the following decades, during the period of successive Prime Ministers.
The period after Mahathir (post 2003) saw more uncertainty in economic management. Mahathir was a tough manager with aggressive economic policies. But he understood well the complexities of the economy to ensure the country moved forward even during difficult economic times. His successors were however less able and resorted to importing large number of advisors into economic management.
During post 2003 period there was formalised intervention into government administration through the creation of “pseudo civil servants” around the Prime Ministers and other ministers. They were non-civil servants who were advisors to the ministers but assumed the roles of civil servants in economic management. They assumed authority of the ministers but accountabilty was largely left to the civil servants. Soon this group of advisors became de facto point of reference for many civil servants. It was obvious that the structure of government machinery was severely compromised.
Politicians ascended from being “political leaders” to aggressive “political masters”. Civil servants were expected to execute the command of their political masters. The principle that civil servants should be obedient to the government-of-the-day was pushed to the extreme. They lost their strength to say even a polite “no” to politicians.
Civil servants continued to lose leadership in management and became subservient to the political masters. The institution of public service as a whole lost its strength and stature.
In my view, the decline of the role of public service in economic management and national planning then was largely due to the aggressive role of politicians in the country’s management.
However, I could not help but noted how weak was the leadership in public service then and how easily it gave itself to submission.
Much more could be said about the above changes in economic management and national planning. But I would leave this to future historians and political scientists to analyse in more details.
Posting at Ipoh, Perak 1991 – 1993.
From 1991 to 1993 I was posted as State Financial Officer of Perak, and based in Ipoh. The family and I moved residence to Ipoh, Perak.
I had been in the Federal Treasury at Kuala Lumpur since I joined the civil service in1970. I had progressed very well career-wise. In the twenty year period 1970 – 1990 I had been extensively trained academically and in treasury management. I had been assigned positions in taxation, government financing, and federal budgeting. I completed my Masters in Business Administration degree at an Ivy League university in USA in 1978, and subsequently obtained a Ph.D degree in the United Kingdom in 1989. In addition I also attended several in-service courses domestically and abroad.
In 1990 I was a middle-level officer in the civil service. I was then a deputy secretary in the Tax Division of the Treasury. It was then I was informed by my superiors that career-wise I had spent a long time at the Federal Treasury, and had undergone sufficient academic and operational training. It was time that I should experience management at a state level, where many operational decisions had to be made. This was to prepare me for possible senior positions in the coming years.
My posting in Ipoh, Perak lasted from 1991 to 1993.
Back to Kuala Lumpur.
From1993 to 1997 I was back in Kuala Lumpur taking senior positions in several federal ministries. But the civil service then was undergoing drastic changes. My skills as a conservative technocrat were no longer considered good enough to keep me on the fast-track in career development. I was slow to adapt to the new norms of the civil service. The criteria of “suitability” for a position and “acceptability” to policymakers had become crucial factors in deciding appointments to very senior positions. Those who failed to adapt to the new realities would find themselves placed in the slow-track for appointments and promotions. They even risked to be conveniently forgotten and left to fade away to retirement. That was the new civil service way.
From 1993 to 1996 I found myself in several unproductive appointments at the federal level. I had been trained well in various aspects of economic management, but then had to undergo two successive postings dealing with administrative house-keeping matters of ministries. These postings did not match my expertise nor my preference. In the culture of the civil service this was a clear sign that my skill was no longer appreciated.
My career in the civil service was then no longer on the fast-track. At 49 years old my progress to join the top echelon of the civil service was approaching a premature end.
As an International Civil Servant abroad.
In 1997 at 50 years old I successfully competed against a number of candidates for a professional appointment in an international financial development institution located in Jeddah. I was offered an appointment as vice-president in the organisation and be a senior member of the management team. There would be a new work and life environment in the new place, and many challenges to overcome. But there was the attraction that my skill as a technocrat would be better appreciated there.
It was a difficult decision to take the family with school-going children to a foreign land at my age then. The family had to live in a new environment. I discussed the subject with my family for a decision. Working abroad did not only mean leaving the country for a while. At 50 years old I was just 5 years away from mandatory retirement age. Time was not on my side in term of career. It also meant that I had to forgo any opportunities locally that could revive my chances of reaching the top level in the Malaysian civil service. But, my wife and I were confident that the move was for the better and the family would overcome all new challenges.
Retirement and after.
I retired officially from the Malaysian civil service in 2001 without achieving totally my dream of success. I continued to work quietly as an international civil servant in the new organisation. As vice-president and at various times as acting president of the organisation I continued to work on promoting economic development among its many member countries. It was a very satisfying 12 years experience in international development financing. I left the international organisation in 2009 at age 62, and returned to Malaysia with my family.
* Mahathir resigned as Prime Minister in 2003. He returned to the post in 2018 and again resigned in early 2020.