Past Wisdom, Old Values!

Joining the Civil Service

In  early 1970 I joined the civil service of Malaysia. It was the beginning of a long career in public service at the state, federal and international levels, until my retirement from full-time employment in 2009.

In 1970 I was only 22 years old. I had just completed my three year degree course in late  1969. All I wanted to do then was to go home to my kampung for a while and be with my parents.  But I had barely time to relax when I was asked to report for duty as an Attachment Officer at the Treasury, Kuala Lumpur. It was a temporary posting until the university results came out. I would be paid an allowance of RM400 per month, slightly more than what a junior clerk’s pay.

Changing from ‘student’ mode to ‘officer’ mode was not completely smooth. As a student my life centred around the University of Malaya campus, mostly at the Arts Concourse. My normal dress code was a long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. They were clean but seldom smoothly pressed. Unlike most of my friends, I never wore a belt around my waist. That was just not my style! I wore shoes, and put on socks. Yes, I wore socks! I moved around on my faithful Honda Cub 60cc, to everywhere I wanted to go. In my pocket I would have usually around ten to twenty Ringgit only, enough to cover petrol cost for my motor cycle, lunch and snacks, the occasional movies at the State cinema at New-Town Petaling Jaya, and contingencies. That was already a lot of money by my standard then.

In March 1970 the university examination results were announced. Attachment Officers who secured honours degree were placed as Temporary Officers in the  Malaysian Civil Service  (later transformed into the Administrative and Diplomatic Service). We were then paid a basic monthly salary of about RM590. Those who did not obtain their honours degree were placed in a lower category with lower pay. Some of them left to join semi-government bodies and the private sector where no such differentiation  on pay was made. As it turned out years later, this group progressed very well in their career. Many of them became better off financially than me.

As an officer I faced changes. My shirt and pants had to be pressed smoothly. I had to put on a neck-tie. Yes, a neck tie! Learning to knot a neck-tie properly took some time. I had to keep my hair well groomed. As an officer I had to look presentable. I had to learn office protocol.

The image issue was important. As an officer I had to supervise  clerical staff  some 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 , put on a serious face, or gave an impression of being a clever person. Perception was important. It did not help that I was physically small built and had a rather boyish face. So getting respect from them involved lessons of trial and error, including some humorous episodes!

At the Federal Treasury I was assigned to the position of Assistant Secretary, in the Tax Division. I had the opportunity to learn in much depth the 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, the late Tun Tan Siew Sin. That was where all tax policies were discussed!

On 1st October 1970 I was formally appointed as an Administrative and Diplomatic Officer. To the traditional Malay community I had become a Pegawai MCS (Malaysian Civil Service officer), something held with pride by many Malay mothers then.

Three Principles

As a new entrant into the civil service I had to undergo training. During that time training was done mostly at the old Training Institute for public servants  at Lorong Elmu  near the University of Malaya. I had to undergo a two-week training programme.

Many things were taught during training. They included 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 learned 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 departments. I was keen to know what it meant to be a civil servant, to be part of this powerful organization, particularly in the premier Administrative and Diplomatic Service. I learned that there were three guiding principles to note.

First, A civil servant  serves at the pleasure of the King.  So, although I was likely to have security of tenure in practice, I did not have a contract of employment as those in the private sector. The speaker, from the Attorney General Office tried to explain the legalities but I must confess now that I did not really understand them then. But this did not matter. For me then, joining the civil service was a very honourable decision, a chance to serve king and country. The fact that my friends in the private sector had higher income did not matter much. After all, my parents in the kampung were definitely very happy to have a son as an MCS Officer in Kuala Lumpur! A parent’s dream fulfilled!!

Second,  A civil servant WILL earn enough, but MAY NOT be rich. 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 have the lifestyle of my colleagues in the private sector. Salaries of civil servants in those days were generally low compared to the private sector and this was deliberate. Those who wanted higher salaries were expected to leave 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 to king and country, civil servants enjoyed stature in society. For example, if you were an Assistant District Officer then you could expect to be given seniority in a public function in your district. In terms of state and national honours, civil servants would also be given priority for recognition when they had the seniority. 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.

Third,  In making recommendations on public policy, a civil servant is expected to adopt the position Left of Centre. I was not expected to be a champion of Socialism, but should lean to be slightly left of centre.  In the context of development economics in Malaysia then, this meant that whenever I was confronted with a choice, between one that favoured the majority and the less fortunate,  and another that favoured the minority and more fortunate, then I was expected to support a policy favouring the majority. The economic efficiency of the decision was of secondary importance.

That was the idealism of the time. For someone like myself who had just studied development economics those ideal principles were attractive.  After all, this was a chance to put all those economics ideas we learned in the university into practice.

Fast forward a decade later, all these started to change.  It was then the Mahathir era in Malaysia. His brand of economics was dominating. The guiding principles that made up the  idealism of the 1960s and 1970s began to crumble and fade away.  The three principles that I learned became past wisdom and old values. Service to king and country was forgotten. ‘Left-of-centre’ thinking was substituted by a business friendly and economic efficiency approach. Civil servants no longer enjoyed high stature in society, being replaced by politicians and businessmen. The institution of the civil service  gradually descended to a footnote of history.

Many reasons led to the changes above. I was a witness of the time. But, I will not go into the details here. I will leave this to historians and political scientists.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s