‘Most ministers aren’t qualified to run ministries’

The recent revelation by former Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador regarding political interference in the management and running of the police force brings to light the predicament of the civil service vis-à-vis the politicians.

Although this backbone of governance serves the government of the day, it is subject to the parameters of regulatory measures that govern the modus operandi of the civil service.

While ministers and other politicians are charged with the responsibility of macro policy direction, civil servants are the ones who formulate the policy content and its implementation through the inputs of its various experts from the various branches of the civil service.

Most ministers do not have the professional qualification to actually helm and manage their ministries. They depend on the civil servants to advise them.

For example, one does not expect Environment and Water Minister Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, who is a religious teacher, to know the technicalities of water resources management and conservation.

He depends on the expertise of the civil servants, for he, on his own, cannot make informed decisions. Even Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba, who is a medical doctor, depends on the advice of the civil service professionals in his ministry.

Also, ministers who are politicians, cannot give their full and undivided attention to the needs of their ministries as they have to serve their political agenda, which sometimes may not be consonant with the ethical requirements of the ministries.

Thus, the synergy between the elected representatives and the civil servants depends on each operating and respecting their designated parameters of authority.

However, power and control are the lifeblood of politicians. They will not allow themselves to be subservient to the civil servants and may exert their authority to breach the protocols of the civil service and thus, may flounder in giving directives that may challenge the ethical principles of the service.

This is further compounded when the minister brings in his own political cohort on the ministry’s payroll. Usually, these political upstarts will throw their weight around in the name of the minister.

There have been cases where these political sycophants have siphoned off projects by circumventing the standard protocols in awarding projects. As such, good governance and best practices are compromised for political expediency.

Thus, civil servants are in a quandary – discharge their responsibility of serving the public as they are sworn to do, or to abide by the dictates of the politicians.

To avoid troublesome confrontation that would undermine their position, most higher echelon civil servants would manoeuvre between good governance rubric and political alignment of the minister and his cohorts.

When faced between a rock and a hard place, they have no choice but to relent and sacrifice principles of good governance.

No serving civil servant could stand his ground against politicians because of the uneven playing field, since they would be on the receiving end. In the case of Abdul Hamid, he has nothing to lose as he is retiring, except perhaps the chairmanship of a government-linked company or statutory body usually accorded to top civil servants after they retire.

Civil servants should be apolitical when serving the public and politicians. Their political leanings should not interfere with their work.

However, top echelons civil servants are most susceptible to the politician’s overtures that would positively affect their status and positions. When they succumb to these overtures and accept the gratifications, they in turn influence their staff to favour the ruling political parties.

This was evident in the run-up to the 14th General Election, when some top civil servants were involved in campaigning for the ruling government.

There must be professional courtesy between politicians and civil servants in keeping to the confines of their responsibilities. The executive must respect the separation of powers and not manipulate the civil service to serve their political agenda.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.

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