The critics of the Malaysia’s public services claim it is bloated by using the ratio of public servants to population. This simplistic empirical analysis is manipulative in nature.
Historical Expansion of Civil Service
A report by UNRISD, revealed that between 1970 to 1980 Malaysia’s population grew by 30% but the number of civil servants grew by nearly 400%. The ancestor of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) which is the Socialist Front (SF) was the primary reason for the explosive growth.
In 1960s, Malaysia was a wealthy nation but 99% of the population suffered under inequality, poverty, dirty water, and tropical diseases. This was attributed to Tunku Abdul Rahman continuing the laissez faire imperial capitalism. The imperial capitalists controlled 66% of domestic capital and siphoned societal wealth with the blessing of race-based politicians.
The Socialist Front (SF) was advocating for renationalisation and redistribution of workers’ wealth through public healthcare, public education, and poverty eradication. Fearing loss of political power, Tunku Abdul Rahman’s UMNO ordered the detention without trial of many Socialist Front (SF) leaders and suspended local council elections.
Most of the Socialist Front leaders were absent due to detention without trial for General Election 1969 the people voted for anti-establishment parties such as PAS, DAP, Gerakan, PPP and SUPP. The UMNO-MCA-MIC Alliance lost the popular vote but retained a parliamentary majority due to the First Past the Post system (FPTP). Subsequently, UMNO adopted Socialist Front’s policies including public healthcare and public education.
Malaysia saw a dramatic rise in the number of schools, rural clinics, and public hospitals. Public hygiene such as waste management, tap water, sewerage systems, mosquito elimination and building cleanliness was prioritised to reduce the severity of diseases outbreak. Daily schools and boarding schools (like SBP and 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 rapidly industrialisation. These social advancements demanded a large civil service but put us on path to modern prosperity for permanently. Malaysia could have industrialised and modernised faster without Mahathir.
‘Piratisation’ of Public Services
Mahathir’s neo-liberal capitalism had carved out government operations through the Privatization 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 government staff. These critical workers had jobs and living wage increments to buy houses 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 billion 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 RM 1 billion. Basically, these crony contractors get RM500 million 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 for a near-developed nation.
Underpaid but Overworked Real Workers
Currently, Malaysia has about 1.6 million civil servants for a population of 32 million. However, nearly 50% of civil servants are in health and education. This is big jump compared to 1 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 Ministry of Education had 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. There is a need to nearly double the number public pre-school teachers. This kind of burdening work conditions similarly occur in public hospitals, rescue operations etc.
Those who criticise the size of public servants can be linked to personal economic agenda. The either benefits from the lower corporate taxes or acquiring government contracts through privatisation. Research by Jaringan Pekerja Kontrak Kerajaan (JPKK) exposed how that most the privatised government support service contract goes handful politically linked individuals.
The class based political climate in the 60s had caused Malaysian government to change from a protector of private property to social advancement providers. Malaysians should not support the retrenchment any critical civil service to serve private economic agenda for few upper echelon of the society. Public services must be re-imagined from the bottom up by democratically engaging with public workers. This will be discussed in the second part of this article series.
Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM)
Parti Sosialis Malaysia Negeri Melaka (PSM Melaka)