Is there really a “deep state” in the Malaysian civil service?
- A deep state does exist, it is flexing its muscles because PH lacks leadership
- The deep state is those who have reaped a lot of benefits under BN and continue to support BN
- It is deeply entrenched, so it is not easy to uproot
- Some civil servants felt PH would not last more than a term because of the performance of some ministers
- Ministers and deputies who are inexperienced need to learn how to deal with their secretary-general
- They must develop good working relationships with department heads
- They should provide civil servants with a clear and consistent vision
- PH coalition must show cohesive leadership.
- Stop blaming a “deep state” in public, which will cause many civil servants to be unhappy
- Compared to more than a year ago, overall improvement by empowering civil servants and creating a positive work environment
Four government insiders The Malaysian Insight spoke to said there are indeed elements of resistance against Pakatan Harapan after 18 months in power.
But whether it is an organised body of resistance with a chain of command, or merely clusters of disgruntled and still pro-Barisan Nasional civil servants acting on their own accord, is still being debated.
The government sources, all speaking on condition of anonymity, said rebellious civil servants behaved as they did because, among other reasons, they are not convinced that PH would last beyond a term.
Other reasons include a lack of direction from their bosses, the ministers, and inability to adjust to an inexperienced minister and his or her working style.
Under the previous Barisan Nasional government, a particular work culture based on loyalty, sometimes at the expense of efficiency and quality, become deeply entrenched, the sources said.
The term “deep state” appears to have been first used by Federal Territories Minister Khalid Samad in April when explaining Putrajaya’s reversal on plans to ratify the Rome Statute, which would have made Malaysia a member of the International Criminal Court.
Khalid said the deep state exploited the issue and used it to attack PH by stirring up emotion on the positions of the Malays and the royalty.
Foreign Affairs Minister Saifuddin Abdullah also used the term in July, saying deep-state actors sabotaged Putrajaya’s efforts to ratify the treaty.
If the deep state or its actors do exist, Putrajaya has never identified them.
The four insiders told The Malaysian Insight it would not do well for government leaders to keep on blaming the deep state when things go wrong.
For one, its existence is difficult to prove and second, it is better to put more effort to build bridges and understand the workings of the civil service.
“If we keep blaming problems on the deep state, that too, will become a problem,” said a member of the administration, who is a political appointee.
“We need time to repair the situation. We also need to ask, if the PH government is being criticised everyday, what is actually happening?
“If it is only certain civil servants who are uncooperative, then there must be other reasons,” said the political appointee, stressing that there are also many civil servants who worked well under the new administration.
This source said some civil servants felt PH would not last more than a term because of the performance of some ministers.
“Many ministers and deputies have had no prior government experience. They don’t know the workings of a ministry, where the secretary-general is the highest-ranking and most powerful civil servant.
“A particular work system or culture in ministries was established under BN, where everything is referred to the secretary-general and civil servants who are pro-BN are still working according to this system.
“Ministers and deputies who are inexperienced, they need to learn how to deal with their secretary-general,” he said.
A deputy minister said contrary to the common perception that civil servants could not perform or were lazy, many of them had wide experience, good ideas and were knowledgeable. These civil servants must be encouraged and be empowered to perform, he said.
“It was the BN government that created a toxic work environment that did not encourage performance but preferred partisan loyalty. They only rewarded civil servants who were yes-men.
“As the administrative system eroded, the public delivery system became weak because loyalty instead of capability, was rewarded.
“When (BN) ministers wanted results, they would outsource a job to contractors and spend big amounts of money on outside expertise.
“When PH took over the ministries, we reduced the number of sub-contractors and got civil servants themselves to organise events.
“By getting civil servants to take over these tasks, we are encouraging them to get involved and feel empowered. The results have been good. At first there were some who wanted to sub-con jobs out again because they lacked confidence, but we urged them to give it a try, that we are willing to take the risk.”
The deputy minister believed that there has been overall improvement from when he first entered his ministry more than a year ago, and this came about by empowering civil servants and creating a positive work environment.
“We need to bridge the gap, train those with calibre, change their mindset and their work environment.
“If there are those who are disobedient, it’s not necessarily a huge mistake, it could just be that they are working in a way they have been used to all this while and need encouragement to change.”
Another political appointee who is an officer in a ministry, believes a deep state does exist, and says it is “flexing its muscles because PH lacks leadership”.
“If you don’t set clear directions for the civil service, the deep state will try to safeguard its interests.
“PH tries to hide its own weakness by blaming it on the deep state, but the deep state is also deeply entrenched so it is not easy to uproot them.
“The deep state and pro-BN bureaucrats are two different things. The deep state is those who have reaped a lot of benefits under BN and continue to support (BN).”
As part of solutions, ministers and deputies must develop good working relationships with department heads, while ministers should also provide civil servants with a clear and consistent vision.
“A person’s leadership style will be a decisive factor. As the ruling government, civil service training institutes, like Intan, should be activated to teach courses to help civil servants at all levels understand and implement the new government’s policies,” the political appointee said.
Ultimately, the PH coalition must show cohesive leadership, he added.
And ministers should also stop blaming a “deep state” in public, the first political appointee interviewed said.
“To keep repeating the same thing will cause many civil servants to be unhappy. Ministers and deputies should stop mentioning this.” – TMI