Categorised | Columns, Commentary

Civil servants and the art of silence

(© scol22 /

INCREDULOUS. That’s how a journalist feels when a senior civil servant responds to a request for information with a flat refusal to answer.

Following the commentary on the need for a Freedom of Information Act, it is timely to relate another story about failed attempts to get answers on matters of public interest from the government.

On 15 June 2009, The Nut Graph published a story on how Members of Parliament (MPs) are funded. We highlighted allegations of discrimination and selective approvals that were experienced by MPs on both sides of the political divide.

The funding in question was a special development fund for all parliamentary constituencies called Peruntukan Khas Perdana Menteri. This is an annual allocation. The maximum amount an MP can apply for varies from year to year.

MPs apply for funds on behalf of projects in their constituencies, but they don’t receive the actual funds themselves. Instead, upon approval by the government, the funds are channelled to the state and district level at the constituency for projects to be implemented.

The agency that approves MPs’ applications, and directs disbursement of the funds, is the Implementation Coordination Unit (ICU) under the Prime Minister’s Department.

In the course of writing the story, The Nut Graph compiled the MPs experiences, explained the situation in brief, and posed some questions in an email to the ICU director-general, and the agency’s public relations officer. Follow-up with the public relations officer over the next few days revealed that the director-general had received the questions and had tasked his special officer to draft the replies.

Finally, however, the public relations officer told The Nut Graph that the director-general would not reply. Not “could not” reply, but a wilful “would not” reply.

Incredulous. That the head of the said agency, a civil servant entrusted to manage taxpayers’ money with regards to how it is used to support the work of MPs elected by the people, would not answer. That on a matter which was totally under his jurisdiction, he would not reply.

What gives?

On one hand, this reaction wasn’t too surprising because from past experience, it is not uncommon for civil servants to decline comment or speak off the record, since it is the practice to leave comments on policy to ministers. At the very least, the ICU director-general could have conveyed that to the public relations officer instead of issuing a blanket refusal without explanation.

talking to a silent brick wall

(brick wall texture by Lars Sundström /

The ICU’s response to a legitimate question also betrays a lack of awareness about what good public relations really is. Ever tried talking to a wall? Doesn’t take too much to imagine what that feels like. Plus, didn’t it occur to the ICU that it could be embarrassing not to answer a question, especially when the information should be public to begin with? Does the ICU not care about its public image as a government agency under the Barisan Nasional administration?

Additionally, the information The Nut Graph asked for should surely exist in some form of policy statement or minutes of meetings. Why not cut and paste? And if the replies do not exist in some documented form already, then we should be really concerned about whether certain policies are decided ad hoc and arbitrarily.

Turning to the minister

We, of course, didn’t give up just because the ICU director-general refused to answer our questions.

Nor Mohamed

Nor Mohamed (© Jeff Ooi / Wiki commons)

The Nut Graph turned to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop whose portfolio includes finance and the ICU. Going by civil service logic, only he could answer a nosy reporter’s questions.

The questions for Nor Mohamed were the same as those sent to the ICU director-general. A week after sending the queries by e-mail to his aide, there was still no reply.

To be fair, his aide did respond to reminders throughout the week to explain that the minister was busy in meetings. The minister was preparing for the government’s announcement on scrapping the 30% bumiputra quota on equity for companies seeking listing on the stock market. Other major changes to liberalise Malaysia’s capital markets were also made.

These are indeed momentous adjustments which understandably would keep any minister busy. But that begs the question about the way government is run. Is there to be a bottleneck of queries every time the minister in charge is occupied? Are other issues to be put on the back burner until he or she is available? What is a whole department of government officers hired for? Why are we paying taxes to the government to finance the salaries of civil servants if not even one of them can draft answers for the minister to approve and release to the media, and by extension, the public?

If nothing else, this experience with a federal department and a federal minister lends weight to the argument that our public sector is too politicised. Civil servants, the people who turn the wheels of government administration, hide behind politicians who are left to decide on “sensitive” matters. In the case of funding MPs, what seems “sensitive” and hence unanswerable are how requests by opposition MPs or for non-Muslims houses of worship are handled.

And if policies don’t exist in black and white to which they can be referred for speedy responses to queries, we have to wonder how these policies are decided, who determines them and in whose interest, with the use of tax payers money, they are implemented.

Consider the admission by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz in The Nut Graph‘s report about funding for MPs. In response to questions about the MPs’ complaints, Nazri said that “it is easier” for BN MPs to obtain approvals.

It won’t go away

The ICU director-general and Nor Mohamed’s office are not the only ones guilty of trying to evade public accountability.

When, in a rare article on the subject, the New Straits Times broached the allegation that racism and ethnic segregation were taught in Biro Tatanegara (BTN) orientation courses under the guise of patriotism, guess who kept silent?

Almost unsurprisingly, it was the BTN director-general who declined to comment even though he was in the best position to set the picture straight.

Angel shushing

An angel that likes silence (© Alejandro Heredia /

BTN courses are meant for civil servants and government scholars. It would be troubling if they, through the BTN, were being taught ethnocentrism and the notion that non-Malay Malaysians are “second class” citizens. If these allegations are true, it would hardly be surprising that MPs are complaining that approvals for projects related to non-Muslim houses of worship are being rejected.

One wonders if the current administration believes that not answering a question will make it go away, or that people will eventually forget.

Pledges and efforts made to improve efficiency and delivery, and to make the public sector more service-orientated, will come to naught if partisan and ethnocentric politics are not taken out of the civil service.

So, what do we need? We need a Freedom of Information Act, yes, but we also need to de-politicise the civil service if “1Malaysia, People First, Performance Now” is to mean anything. Favicon

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10 Responses to “Civil servants and the art of silence”

  1. Eric says:

    I suppose we should similarly “decline” to pay taxes.

  2. Muhammed Bakri says:

    How certain can you be that a Freedom of Information Act will change the state of Barisan-driven breaucreacy? As it is, dealing with public service goverment departments is like seeking consultation from an arsonist to prevent indiscriminate burning.

    Secrecy, intimidation, manipulation, bribery, inefficieny, racism and nepotism shape our goverment agencies. Corruption is deplored in a thearitical display while practised religously. As your article rightly reveals – it is a case of business as usual. Playing the Barisan parrot to valid queries by saying that it is “sensitive” is not going to help the rakyat. Get off the Datuk syndrome and cut the red tape.

  3. goldee says:

    Aiyoh…what and how to talk when one is in ICU (intensive care unit) […]?

  4. The Tipping Point says:

    Why not name the DG of ICU as opposed to referring to the office of DG? It is obvious that the “art of silence” is a personal choice and trait and as such it would be better that the person in office be identified.

  5. lee ching says:

    To de-politicise the civil servants, we need a change of government. It will never happen as long as BN continues to govern. The power of the people must come to bear in the next GE and hopefully accountability becomes a part of KPIs for government servants and the Freedom of Information Act could be enacted and passed into law!

  6. Nicholas Aw says:

    There is, to a certain extent, an improvement in government service especially in certain sectors like the issuing of international passports and MyKad. Still, there is room for improvement overall in the civil service.

    The problem can be broadly divided into two. Firstly, it is the lackadaisical attitude of many government officers who act as Little Napoleons; and secondly it is the Official Secrets Act (OSA) which could get those involved in trouble.

    The way to have an improved civil service whose officers will not be afraid to divulge information is to repeal the OSA. As for attitude, the government should not continue maintaining bad apples and deadwood at the expense of taxpayers. Emulate the private sector and go for the policy of “hire and fire”.

  7. Paul says:

    I agree with Muhammed Bakri. Consider this… even if the powers-that-be want to change for the good of the people who put them in office, it is often met by resistance from people whose interests are threatened. For example, our last prime minister tried to clean up corruption in the civil service only to be met with resistance from within his own government.

    Politics in Malaysia is a game of US and THEM. The BN would not be caught dead upholding the law of the land (a job they were elected to do, I might add) by being held accountable if it means giving THEM (PR) political mileage. It’s as simple as that. Every now and then you get some small fry being investigated by the MACC but never someone who matters.

  8. whatlah says:

    Yes, name and shame the people responsible as they still don’t get it through their thick skulls that we the rakyat are the ones that keep them in their jobs. And if they are not doing it, then shaming them will perhaps keep them on their toes.

  9. D Evil says:

    The answer is simple. The level of capability senior civil servants have has dropped significantly over the years. Today, we have incompetents sitting in the chairs.

  10. Azizi Khan says:

    The problem is due to years of brainwashing from BN that the civil service “government” is actually BN. Every head of department is assured to be a BN runner. Why do you think that when BN says jump, the police force, health organisations, immigrations, customs all go “how high sir?”.

    Not only that, in many of these services, the “top guy” is usually some unskilled person who owes his sole purpose for living to BN if not he cannot “cari makan” elsewhere.

    So when faced with this – where are we going to squeeze out efficiency ? No amount of technological advancements can match an unwilling civil service. Again, BN has made sure of a lifetime of servitude for them.

    To ensure the brainwashing lasts, we have Biro TataNegara to promote BN’s ideologies to their servants. BTN ensures the Little Nepoleons exist in every corner to “promote” the Islamization of the civil service while stepping over other races.

    But think about it this way – what would be the use of replacing all the civil service leaders with the ones aligned to PKR, DAP or PAS ? Would we be solving anything ?

    In countries like Australia, we can see that civil service are non politically aligned. That is why when the evil John Howard left and Kevin Rudd came in, the entire system didn’t fall apart.

    No, Malaysian civil service is too self centered and enjoyes too much of an incestious relationship with BN to even aspire to reach to that level.


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