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The controversy over the racial composition of the civil service is once again raging. It is an issue that won’t go away because like so many other issues in our nation successive governments have refused to deal with it in an honest and transparent manner.  

Whenever the issue crops up, there’s no shortage of people who will insist – as both Cuepacs president Adnan Mat[1]  and the Public Services Commission[2] did recently – that recruitment is based entirely on merit, that there is no discrimination in the recruitment process. 

But the merit argument by itself cannot adequately explain why the vast majority of non-Malay applicants are deemed unqualified for entry, so they have to come up with other reasons to explain away the low levels of non-Malay recruitment. 

The favourites ones are that non-Malays are either insufficiently patriotic or that they prefer to go after higher-paying private sector jobs. When Zahid Hamidi was defence minister, he added another shibboleth to the mix – non-Malays avoid the armed forces because they are unable to withstand the rigours of military life.[3]

These are all dishonest arguments, designed to deceive, mislead and cover up a deliberate policy of racial discrimination.

In the 50s, 60s and 70s, non-Malays were well represented in the public sector. In fact, at one time, non-Malays comprised about 50% of the public services and were well represented at all levels of the uniformed services as well.[4]

Did non-Malays suddenly become less patriotic? Of course, not

But everything changed after May 13 1969. Non-Malays came to be seen as a threat to Malay hegemony and a decision was quietly made – at the highest political levels, I suspect – to drastically limit their participation in all sectors of the government. As a consequence, non-Malay recruitment fell drastically from the mid-1970s onwards. Promotion for non-Malays also slowed significantly while non-Malays in senior positions were quietly sidelined. That policy still remains in effect despite all the denials to the contrary.

As for renumeration, of course, joining the private sector is more lucrative  but that  did not stop hundreds of thousands of non-Malays from joining the government in the past.

When I joined the foreign service as a PTD officer in 1972, my starting salary was just RM750. When I retired in 2008, my salary and pension was far below that of my colleagues who worked in the private sector. Of course, I would have liked to earn more but financial renumeration was not my only consideration. Serving my country mattered greatly to me as it did for my father and grandfather and hundreds of thousands of other non-Malays.

In any case, while it is true that civil service renumeration is much lower than that of the private sector, it nevertheless remains an attractive career path in view of the job security, generous paid leave and medical and retirement benefits that it offers. Besides, not everyone has the aptitude or interest to work in the private sector. Given the chance, a great many non-Malays would relish the opportunity to join the civil service if they are given a chance and are treated fairly. 

To suggest that the lower renumeration is a determining factor is, therefore, pure hogwash, yet another attempt to disguise systemic and institutionalised racial discrimination.

The real issue here is not about Malay rights or Malay domination of the civil service but whether our nation ought to have a civil service that is reflective of our diversity or not. If we want a more inclusive civil service, it is not hard to achieve; if we don’t want it, all sorts of reasons will be found to justify a monoracial service. It is as simple as that.

Prime Minister Anwar has now said that he does not see any issue with the  current composition of the civil service – lopsided and unrepresentative of our diversity though it may be.[5] Perhaps he wants to focus on more pressing issues like the economy or perhaps he feels that it is too controversial an issue for him to tackle at this point of time.

But is it too much to expect a little bit of honesty on the matter and an end to the constant assault on the integrity, patriotism and commitment of Malaysia’s non-Malay citizens?

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 15th February 2023]

[1] Cuepacs says no racial element in civil service recruitment | Malaysian Insight | 12 February 2023

[2] No racial discrimination in recruiting civil servants, says SPA |Free Malaysia Today | 14 February 2023

[3] Lack of patriotism among reasons for lack of non-Malays in armed forces | The Star | 09 November 2010

[4] For a brief history of non-Malays in the civil service and armed forces, see ‘The unpatriotic non-Malay’ [chapter 10] of my book Paradise Lost: Mahathir and the End of Hope, DJI Publications, 2022.

[5] Anwar shoots down call to reform Malay-dominated civil service | Free Malaysia Today | 11 February 2023