In February 1991 I was transferred from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, Perak and appointed as the Pegawai Kewangan Negeri or State Financial Officer of Perak.
I was to be the eleventh State Financial Officer of Perak. The first State Financial Officer of Perak was Mr. H.J.A. Cassidy, appointed in 1958.
For 22 years since 1970 I had been a civil servant at the federal level in Kuala Lumpur. I had been involved in many high level policy matters. But, beyond minor administrative decisions my role was limited to providing information and making analysis. Major decisions were only made by the Minister or senior officers.
However, as the State Financial Officer of Perak I was a Head of Department. More than that, as per the Law I was the Financial Authority of the state. I was an ex officio member in the State Executive Council and the State Legislative Assembly. These were appointments not enjoyed by civil servants at the federal level, no matter how senior they were. At the state level I had some of the power of the Minister of Finance and the Secretary General of the Treasury. This meant that, beyond the administrative power of a head of department I had many discretionary powers in terms of financial management in the state. I had my first taste of real authority.
I had consulted my friends in the state audit department on limits of my financial authority. They had advised me that once the state budget was approved by the State Legislative Assembly, as the state financial authority I had very wide latitude to operate. I would not be faulted on a discretionary financial decision unless there were elements of bad faith in decision-making.
Legally, State Financial Officers in most states in Malaysia had extensive financial authority. But some of my colleagues in other states surrendered their authority to others higher up in the state heirachy. That was their choice. In my case I chose to do what was right.
I was very aware of the pitfalls. Authorities and pressure groups always had their own interests and preferences. They always had their suggestions. But responsibility and accountability rested with the Financial Authority. The rule was simple: if I approved and signed up for something then I had to bear the burden of the decision.
How then did I exercised such authority?
There were many laws on financial matters of the State, including civil service regulations. But, the written laws were often not well understood by administrators like myself. Only lawyers understood them well. When the written laws were explicit there would be no debate. But when discretion was allowed and sometime even required then detailed operational guidelines were needed to help administrators make correct, quick and practical decisions. More important there should be consistency in decision-making.
As a civil servant I gave my loyalty to the Civil Service, next only to the Nation, and God. Although I was the Financial Authority of the state, I was also entrusted with promoting economic development. There was therefore a need to balance “correctness” and “practicality” in decision-making.
My mission as a civil servant was to carry out my managerial responsibilities well while at all times maintaining a minimum level of disquiet in the organization. As a matter of principle, a little bit of disquiet in management was always acceptable. After all a completely quiet organisation was symptomatic of a dead organisation. Too much disquiet in an organization would have created management difficulties.
In decision-making my strong inclination was usually to be “left-of-centre” (see my earlier blog post on ‘past wisdom, old values’). But the development mantra of the day then was about promoting businesses and generating rapid economic development. As a civil servant I had to give due respect to the philosophy of the government of the day. Sometimes these values did not rhyme in harmony.
So, I adopted three governance principles in making decisions:
- Follow all financial procedures. There were many financial procedures to comply in the form of Treasury Instructions and other Government circulars. As a first rule, I insisted that matters considered for approval must as far as possible complied with all financial procedures. This was a basic requirement for a good decision. Exemptions, where provided by law, were only considered only on exceptional bases in the interest of state development.
- No self-interest. There were many laws on self-interest in the forms of anti-corruption laws and various government regulations and circulars. Lawyers could argue continuously about their limits. But, as an administrator I needed simple and straightforward guidelines on decision-making. So I took a simple approach. Unless clearly specified in the written laws, it was sufficient that ‘no self-interest’ meant that, as a minimum, I and my immediate family should not gain materially from my decision. This way, my conscience would be clear and economic development would be expedited.
- Avoid hurting a third party. This third principle was basically a rule of caution. In making a decision which favoured one party, one should also look at its effects on competing parties. If a decision caused serious negative effects on a competing party, then if discretion was allowed by law the case merited a second look. For example, transferring state financial deposits from a small rural bank to a large city bank may have generated higher efficiency or even higher financial return. But, I normally avoided making such decision if it seriously affected the viability of the small bank and may lead to its closure. My philosophy was that development was about generating positive growth and overall development in society, and not about promoting one and destroying another.
The above three principles worked reasonably well as operating guidelines. But they were not perfect. Some of my colleagues and peers hinted that I was too strict. I was regarded as a bit too rigid with the rules and not flexible enough to be business-friendly for rapid economic development. But that was my brand of financial administration. In the later years this characteristic was to slow down my career progression in the civil service.
I served as the State Financial Officer of Perak for the period February 1991 until March 1993. I was subsequently assigned to another civil service position in Kuala Lumpur.
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.
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.
- Past Wisdom, Old Values! (sjaznan.wordpress.com)