Of desperate, corrupt civil servants and the bureaucratic cartels

POLITICIANS often get the full brunt of public opprobrium for failures in policies and governance. Ultimately, the political leaders are accountable as they are the decision-makers, and also on behalf of the people and nation.

But it appears we have overlooked the corrupt civil servants that have largely stayed out of the limelight and the crosshairs of the people’s anger and outrage.

Ministers and political appointees come and go but the posts held by civil servants are relatively much more secure or are permanent and less exposed to public scrutiny.

As Malaysians fight for institutional reforms and cultural changes, who is there to police the civil servants to instill a cultural change deep within their ranks and secure networks?

Recall the time when the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) arrested seven civil servants for allegedly being part of the “tender cartel” which reportedly controlled over 150 companies and RM3.8 bil worth of government projects.

Collectively, these carnal, materialistic and corrupt minds in the civil service are a stumbling block to our quest and aspiration for a better Malaysia – a more just and prosperous society undergirded by holistic and inclusive progress, equitable share of wealth and so on.


Unscrupulous civil servants

It matters not who is the minister-in-charge if the civil servants responsible for the policy implementation have their own “rice bowls” and “turf” to protect – which have become so vested and entrenched over the years.

A cartel culture reduces potential investments by blocking new market players, and disrupt the natural dynamics of supply and demand. These market entry blockages and the absence of fair and proper competition is inimical to honest start-ups and small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs) – Bumiputera or not.

The outcome is increasing loss of confidence by the rakyat and investors.

Thus, national revival and rejuvenation will not happen without at the same time addressing corrupt, immoral, and illegal practices by public servants through their cartel activities and syndicates.

Although the 12MP focuses extensively on the Bumiputera agenda, civil servants play a big and critical yet often under-estimated role in excluding honest Bumiputera companies and contractors that compete for government projects.

Irresponsible and badly indoctrinated civil servants (by politicians playing the race card) act as background enforcers of cartel activities – sometimes hiding and masquerading behind racially-driven policies that only enrich the elites and privileged few of that nexus between politics and business.

The nexus of corrupt civil servants, self-serving politicians and venal business elites operating together and concurrently as cartels and syndicates only serves to increase the wealth disparity.

Ironically, the cumulative negative impact leads to socio-economic enervation.

In our context, this can be seen in the form of high debt levels among the low paid civil servants which in turn is one major driving factor for the susceptible ones to be drawn to illegal cartel activities.

Misdeeds and disservice

As published by Bank Negara Malaysia’s Financial Stability Review (FSR) in 2018 under “Civil Servants’ Debt: Risks and Policy Considerations”, civil servants spend more than half of their salary to repay debts which is 20% more than the national average.

According to the FSR, most civil servants have very little financial resilience as roughly 64% earn below RM5,000 per month.

After deductions for monthly loan repayments and food expenditure, utilities, and other basic necessities, only about 15% of their salary – approximately RM360–RM586 – remains.

Additionally, when witnessing lifestyle “peer pressure” through “living beyond their means” as a result of extraordinary pecuniary gains by senior civil service figures, this tend to induce “desperate” civil servants throughout the entire chain of command to be involved in corrupt practices.

We have seen reports of how even law enforcement agencies may have been plagued by their own internal cartels that work closely with the criminal syndicates.

What happens to those who don’t play ball?

The good ones may not get promoted but instead got transferred elsewhere – leaving the top positions filled with morally unqualified and ruthless individuals.

Do we really expect people “cut from the same cloth” to help curb corruption, cartels, and syndicates?

As we applaud MACC’s good work earlier this year in what appears to be a serious push against cartels and syndicates, officers within the corruption buster entity has found itself entangled with the issue of the “missing millions”.

There have been suggestions for the Public Service Department (PSD) to implement rotation of sensitive posts as mentioned by the Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Mohd Zuki Ali to be one of the ways to address syndicates monopolising government tenders.

However, the status of this policy is unclear. A similar policy for sensitive posts in the police force was mentioned in 2020 by former Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador.

We have a long way to go – in stemming and reversing the rot that’s so deep in our society. But it has to be done as at the end of the day, the civil servants – like their political counterparts – are answerable to both God and the rakyat.


Jason Loh Seong Wei & Ameen Kamal are part of the research team of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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