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Now that the fasting month and the Raya celebrations are over, one can expect that the pace of reform will once again gather momentum. After more than sixty years of UMNO-BN misrule, there is, of course, so much to do.

Nevertheless, if we are to go forward and cement the transformation now underway, institutional reforms, in particular, are an absolute necessity and it is encouraging that the PH government is giving it the priority it deserves.

Grovelling & self-serving

We used to have one of the finest public services in the region with integrity, accountability and professionalism as it’s hallmarks. Our public service was apolitical, speaking the unvarnished truth about policies and issues while always faithfully and professionally implementing the legitimate orders of the government in power.

Six decades of one-party rule have reduced the public service to a grovelling, self-serving, corrupt and incompetent one, ever ready to prostitute itself for promotion, perks and post-retirement privileges.

Who can forget how the Chief Secretary went around behaving like an UMNO minister. Or senior civil servants campaigning for UMNO-BN.  Or a senior general threatening to turn the troops against BERSIH demonstrators  or urging the troops to be loyal to Prime Minister Najib instead of King and country. Or the former IGP behaving like Najib’s bully boy. Or the shameful behaviour of the former AG, MACC chief and a clutch of other senior officials and judges.

It was thanks largely to senior members of the public service that Najib was able to maintain his grip over the country. They were willing accomplices who betrayed their own professionalism by facilitating his abuse of power. Many were also part of the whole edifice of corruption that engulfed the country.

Not all public servants were, however corrupt or unprofessional. Many valiantly carried out their responsibilities and remained true to their calling despite the appalling betrayal of their leaders.

In the Foreign Service, for example, middle and senior ranks baulked at instructions from above for each officer to furnish fifty names and telephone numbers of their friends and families for use in a programme to blitz the public with pro-BN campaign propaganda. Their reluctance eventually led to the programme being abandoned, at least in Wisma Putra.

Integrity & professionalism

Now the day of reckoning is here. Those who acted unprofessionally and unethically should be disciplined, if not sacked, while those who are found to be corrupt should be charged in court. It is important to clean house and send a clear signal to all public servants that the nation expects nothing but the highest standards of professional conduct and integrity from them.

Removing senior officials who behaved unprofessionally, however, is only the first step.  If our public service is to regain the confidence and trust of the people, men and women of integrity and commitment to the highest ideals of public service must be found to take their place.

In the private sector, search committees are usually established to seek out the best and brightest to fill senior management positions. The help of professional headhunters are also sought.  There is no reason why something similar cannot be done in the public service, at least until it regains its footing. It is also common practice in other countries.

No more business as usual

Whatever it is, we cannot and must not go back to the old ways of politicians choosing their own favourites for key public service positions. It makes civil servants too beholden to their political masters and sets the stage for apple polishing and other unprofessional behaviour.

If the PH government truly wants to build a better public service, it must remove itself from direct involvement in public service appointments and hand the task over to a specialised body, perhaps a public service appointments commission. The only criteria that should matter for such positions are competence, professionalism and integrity.

Voters have sent a clear message that they want a clean, efficient and trustworthy public service. As the PH government begins the process of replacing tainted senior officials, let us hope that they will learn from the past and bring in a new cohort of professionals with unimpeachable credentials and integrity to staff the public service.

We have a golden opportunity to reset the public service and restore its professionalism; we must not squander it by going back to business as usual.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur | 20th June 2018]