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Talk about the deep state – a state within a state, a covert, shadowy body of bureaucrats and power brokers manipulating things from behind the scenes in pursuit of their own agenda – has suddenly taken on a life of its own.

Pakatan Harapan ministers use the term almost as if it was an established fact, routinely blaming deep state actors for every setback and misstep. A sudden flurry of transfers involving senior civil servants has taken place. And now the police are investigating the activities of deep state, never mind that they themselves have been accused of being part of the deep state.

But what are we to make of all these allegations about the existence of a sinister deep state intent on destabilizing the government and undermining confidence in it? Before we start a witch hunt and work ourselves into a frenzy over the issue, perhaps we might want to consider a few aspects of the problem.

A heavily politicised bureaucracy

First, we are dealing with a heavily politicised bureaucracy. UMNO systematically indoctrinated the bureaucracy with the Ketuanan Melayu ideology in order to ensure their support and cooperation. Bureaucrats were taught that they were on the front lines of an existential inter-ethnic struggle, that theirs was the responsibility to sustain Malay power, defend the position of the Malay rulers and uphold the dignity of Islam. This mindset now pervades the civil service, universities and the security services.

It should come as no surprise then, given this mindset, that some senior officials would have enormous difficulty adjusting to UMNO’s loss of power after more than 60 years of rule and the sudden arrival of a new crop of ministers from a multi-ethnic coalition.

What is surprising, however, is that the government seems so unprepared to deal with the issue.  While many PH ministers are indeed new, old hands like Dr Mahathir and Muhyuddin Yassin ought to have known better, especially as they themselves were instrumental in politicising the civil service when they held leadership roles in UMNO.

Corruption & incompetence

Second, we are dealing with a bureaucracy that has grown progressively corrupt and incompetent, as anyone reading the Auditor-General’s recent report will quickly discover.

Almost every department is compromised and has its share of corrupt and incompetent officials. Indeed, the bureaucracy has become a bloated monstrosity, poorly led and ill-equipped to discharge the huge responsibilities entrusted to them. Of course, there are many talented and dedicated officers who work long and hard in the service of our nation but there’s simply not enough of them to make a real difference.

And yet, no politician wants to face up to the challenge since the bureaucracy has always been considered an important vote bank that must be courted rather than confronted. Successive governments have, therefore, praised them and raised their emoluments despite their poor performance.

This again is another of UMNO’s noxious legacies.

There is no doubt that the civil service desperately needs to be reformed and their numbers reduced to more optimum levels. When PH came to power, there was a lot of talk about reforming the civil service and making it more ethnically diverse; clearly PH lacked the courage of its convictions. With UMNO and PAS ready to turn every attempt at reform into a non-Malay conspiracy against Islam and the position of the Malays, PH soon abandoned all talk of reform.

Until PH finds the courage to confront the civil service, implement major reforms to enhance both its professionalism and competency, the civil service will remain a drag on this and any other administration.

Lack of clear direction

Third, PH ministers have been slow learners in understanding the civil service culture and how to work the system to their benefit. As well, many ministers have failed to provide the leadership and direction that is needed.

A good example is the recent arrests of so-called LTTE supporters under SOSMA which is being blamed on deep state. If the government had taken a clear stand on abolishing SOSMA and demanding an end to further arrests under such anti-democratic legislation, Bukit Aman would have been more circumspect about using it.

The Home Minister also has the power to demand an explanation from the police over its actions. The police are, after all, not a power unto themselves  being subject to civilian oversight and control.

There is also widespread confusion within the bureaucracy as to what exactly ministers are trying to achieve, aside from flying cars and black shoes. The civil service depends on political leadership for direction and guidance; when that is missing, the bureaucracy becomes a headless herd pulling in different directions.

Clearly, ministers themselves need to get their act together and quickly. The sooner they set out their vision, provide dynamic leadership and direction, the sooner the civil service will fall into line.

And just because a department head doesn’t see eye to eye with his or her minister doesn’t mean that he or she is being obstructionist. The civil service is, after all, built on rules and regulations that are meant to ensure compliance with good governance. It is a culture that has evolved over time. Of course, unnecessary red tape should be excised but it ought to be remembered that the rules are there for a purpose.

In the 1980s when the push to encourage bumiputra involvement in public projects was stepped up, one of the frequent complaints by bumiputra contractors was slow payment which adversely affected their cash flow. Under political pressure, civil servants were soon forced to cut corners to ensure prompt payment; the result was that payments were made without adequate oversight. It is a problem that continues to plague the country to this day.

Witch hunt

Whatever it is, mindlessly accusing civil servants of obstructing the government, going on a witch hunt or playing up deep state conspiracies, doesn’t help. Already a culture of fear is seeping into the public service; officers fear speaking up because they might be accused of being anti-PH. It will only lead to more paralysis within the bureaucracy and make it that much harder for PH to implement its policies.

At the end of the day, the bureaucracy, like any large establishment, has its share of miscreants, recalcitrants and underperformers. It’s nothing new or sinister. That’s what the Public Services Department “pool” – a cold storage unit for those who can’t be sacked and won’t perform – was created for.

What is needed is for the government to crack the whip; those who don’t perform or who are proven to be obstructing PH policies should be immediately consigned to the pool. This is what the government during Mahathir’s first term as prime minister did. No one dared oppose him. And woe betide any officer who didn’t live up to the exacting standards of Iron Lady Rafidah Aziz; they were gone in 24 hours!

The Iron Lady might certainly be able to teach rookie ministers a thing or two about managing the civil service.

The point is, the government needs to exercise leadership, bring recalcitrant civil servants to heel and institute urgently needed reforms instead of hunting for saboteurs. What to do with underperforming ministers, however, is another issue.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |5th December 2019]