A REPORT by United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) revealed that between 1970 to 1980, Malaysia’s population grew by 30% but the number of civil servants grew by nearly 400%. The precursor of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), which is the Socialist Front (SF), was the instrumental for the explosive growth.
In the 1960s, Malaysia was a wealthy nation but over 90% of the population suffered under inequality, poverty, dirty water and tropical diseases. This was attributed to the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s decision to continue the laissez faire colonial capitalistic system.
At the time, the colonial capitalists controlled 66% of domestic capital and siphoned societal wealth, with the blessing of our race-baiting politicians.
The Socialist Front (SF) was advocating for the nationalisation and redistribution of workers’ wealth through universal healthcare, good education and poverty eradication programmes. Sensing the groundswell was working against them, Umno ordered the detention, without trial of course, of many SF leaders and suspended local council elections.
Hence, most SF leaders were absent, due to detention without trial, in the 1969 General Election. In return, the frustrated electorate voted for anti-establishment parties such as PAS, DAP, Gerakan, People’s Progressive Front (PPP) and Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP).
The Umno-MCA-MIC Alliance lost the popular vote but retained its parliamentary majority due to the First Past the Post system (FPTP). Subsequently, Umno adopted SF policies such as near universal healthcare and public education.
With that, Malaysia saw a dramatic increase in the number of schools, rural clinics and public hospitals. Public hygiene system such as waste management, clean tap water, proper sewerage systems, mosquito elimination and instilling cleanliness was prioritised to reduce diseases outbreak.
Special schools for top students and boarding like Sekolah Berasrama Penuh and Mara Junior Science Colleges (MRSM) were also set up to democratise education for the rural communities.
Between 1970 to 1983, these social advancement policies caused public sector employment (non-security personnel) to grow from 139,467 to 521,818. From late 1970s onwards, the healthy and educated workforce allowed Malaysia to industrialise rapidly.
And these social advancements demanded a large civil service to put us on the path to prosperity permanently. In my view, Malaysia could have industrialised and modernised faster if not for the rise of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who took over the premiership for the first time in 1981.
“Piratisation” of public services
Mahathir’s neo-liberal capitalism had carved out Government operations through the Privatisation Policy. This had created rent-seeking businesses for crony capitalists and political patrons across the board.
Prior to privatisation, critical public sector workers such as cleaners and security guards were considered Government staff. These critical workers had jobs and living wage increments to buy house and food for their families to escape poverty. Government premises such as schools, hospitals and offices are given buffer funds to repair any minor damages.
Post privatisation, the Government pays about RM1.5 bil per annum to crony contractors to manage security guards in public schools. The cumulative wages of 40,000 security guards working 84 hours per week is about RM1 bil.
Basically, these crony contractors get RM500 mil worth of commissions to pay minimum wages, on behalf of the Government.
Malaysia outsourced the maintenance of schools, hospitals and offices to profit-oriented crony contractors. Thus, these contractors maximise profit but not swiftly repairing damage to public buildings. The Privatisation Policy was the primary reason our Government buildings are in deplorable conditions, despite Malaysia being a near-developed nation.
Underpaid yet overworked real workers
Currently, Malaysia has about 1.6 million civil servants for a population of 32 million. However, nearly 50% of our civil servants are in health and education. This is a big jump compared to the one million in 2003 when Mahathir’s first regime ended.
In the mid-2000s, the Government had recognised the importance of preschool to close the education performance gap. However, artificially low wages and income amongst the B60 means most cannot access private pre-school. Thus, the Education Ministry expanded the public preschool system nationwide, which required tens of thousands of new preschool teachers.
In 2019, there were about 24,000 public preschool teachers for about 450,000 public preschool students. Thus, the ratio of public pre-school teachers to public preschool students is 1:18. Meanwhile, the ratio of private pre-school teachers to private students is 1: 10.
So, there is a need to nearly double the number public pre-schools teachers. This kind of burdening work conditions similarly occur in public hospitals, rescue operations and others.
Those who criticise the size of our civil service usually have their own personal economic agenda in mind. These people either benefit from low corporate taxes or salivate on acquiring Government contracts through privatisation. In fact, a research by Jaringan Pekerja Kontrak Kerajaan (JPKK)
exposed how most of the privatised Government support service contract goes to a handful of politically linked individuals.
In a nutshell, the class based political climate in the 1960s had caused the Malaysian Government to change from a protector of private property to social advancement providers. Malaysians should not support retrenchment of any critical civil service to serve the private economic agenda of a few elites.
Public services must be resynergised from the bottom up, by democratically engaging with its workers. That will be discussed in the second part of this article. – Sept 18, 2021
Sharan Raj is a human rights activist, environmentalist and infrastructure policy analyst. He is also a central committee member for Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM).
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.