Murray Hunter: ‘Bodek’ culture and the civil service

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Deep within Malaysia’s bodek culture is the imperative that it’s wrong to criticise or contradict a superior, particularly senior ones.

Malaysia’s brain drain is twice as high as the world average, costing the country academics, medical practitioners, engineers, and research scientists who are tired of the corrupt political system, lack of fair and rules-based organisational environments and the absence of meritocracy.

While racism plays a role in a culture dominated by ethnic Malays, at the heart of the problem is the practice of excessive servility to gain favour from superiors, known by its Malay-language word bodek.

It was identified by former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his successor Najib Razak, who vainly attempted to fix it through the government’s transformation programme.

In 2018, Mohd Shukri Abdull, then head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, warned that it “was ruining the country”.

In that year, the World Bank in a report criticised the Malaysian civil service for its lack of accountability, impartiality, transparency and openness.

Inelegantly known as brown-nosing, bodeking is the greatest single organisational dysfunction within Malaysia’s civil service, compromising the quality and integrity of management along with protection against corruption.

The Dutch cultural anthropologist Geert Hofstede ranks Malaysia the top country in his Power Distance Index, which measures the extent to which the less powerful members of societies and organisations within them accept, expect that power is distributed unevenly, and accept it.

This has deep cultural roots with Malays over hundreds of years living in and accepting a hierarchical/feudal structure headed by sultans or rajas.

Throughout recorded history, Malay society has not only accepted authority but gone to great lengths to seek acceptance from those at the top of the social hierarchy.

Malaysia is only one of two countries where monarchs award titles to citizens, which are highly sought after.

The British during Malay colonial times knew of the prestige and power of the monarchs and incorporated the Malay Royal class into the government and constitution.

Society today generally accepts royal, political and administrative authority positions as the top of the social totem pole.

Those who revere and respect will seek to gain acceptance, seek favours and identify with their leader. Those who dislike their leaders will covertly disrupt and undermine their leaders through clandestine actions and sabotaging their authority.

Possibly the ultimate example occurred when those around former prime minister Najib Razak before he called the general election in 2018, including his own ministry and the police Special Branch, predicted he would win.

This time, Najib was caught out. However, the bodek culture protected Najib earlier during the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial misappropriation scandal, with those in the know keeping quiet to keep favour.

Senior civil servants become so dominating and powerful that they are able to shape their departments and agencies into their own private empires.

Many departments follow the agendas of their heads, rather than organisational missions.

They implement their own ideas, procedures, systems and programmes, only to see them dismantled when a new person takes over. This leads to the discontinuity of programmes, procedures, and systems within the civil service.

The rules-based environment within the civil service is subject to the interpretation of the head, rather than institution norms.

Cover for corruption

Loyal employees under the patronage of superiors usually follow directions unquestioning.

This enables tenders to be manipulated, purchasing procedures skilfully by-passed, and using budget allocations at the leader’s prerogative without accountability.

These errant practices usually stay out of the notice of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, simply because no one is willing to report them.

Even though the MACC may be aware of some corrupt practices, they cannot get any insider evidence for investigations, charges, or prosecutions.

Gaining favour and patronage from senior officials allows junior officers and clerks to establish their own intra-agency domains where they can personally benefit financially, without hindrance.

These corrupt activities may be small, such as exaggerating or even making up expense claims. Other means of corruption include getting commissions off contractors and suppliers or even setting up their own proxy supply companies.

Many infrastructure, development, and welfare projects are proposed, planned, and developed not to fill infrastructure gaps, make rural areas more amenable for local inhabitants, or assist the vulnerable.

Through subservient officers only too willing to please superiors, senior bureaucrats are able to push these white elephant projects through the civil service programme system at the Economic Planning Unit.

There are thousands of white elephant projects abandoned around the country, with planners and their groups having profited and moved on.

Misinformation

Government reports, presentations and proposals are prepared and written to put issues in the most positive light.

Most reports and presentations now focus on providing glossy projections to hide reality. Statistics are routinely skewed, with the national poverty rate grossly under-estimated by bureaucrats for many years to make the government look good at eradicating poverty.

Deep within Malaysia’s bodek culture is the imperative that it’s wrong to criticise or contradict a superior, particularly senior ones.

Peers within the civil service would also see any disagreements or contradictions as selling out the group. Those who correct or disagree will be ostracised by their work colleagues.

Thus, there is strong peer pressure to sit in a meeting, agree, or be silent, so as not to show up others.

Ministries and agencies are locked in a Groupthink siege, filtering information to include only what subordinates believe the boss wants to hear.

Wastage of time and resources

Too much time and too many resources are put into creating events, programme launches and openings to glorify and please superiors.

These events take teams a long time to plan for no other reason than pleasing a senior civil servant. Premises rental, equipment hiring, food catering, printing, and buying special uniforms are all drains on public money.

This is part of the practice of glorifying senior officers such as the prime minister, cabinet ministers, ministry directors-general, public university vice-chancellors, agency heads, and police or military chiefs.

This bodek culture can be seen in agency, department, and faculty WhatsApp groups, with responses to superiors overfilled with words like tahniah (congratulations) and hebat (fantastic).

Destroying productivity and creativity

The energy and emotion put into continually placating superiors is draining.

The cultural norm that officers won’t contradict their superiors, and the difficulty in putting up new ideas when superiors already have an agenda, suppresses the diversity of ideas within the civil service.

The culture of silence is embedded in students at schools, where they are deterred from asking questions.

Destroying the notion of team building

Such practices destroy morale and motivation within many departments and agencies within the civil service.

Placating superiors leads to internal stress which manifests in ulcers, stomach complaints, and even cancers. This is an area that has been gravely neglected in research and treatment.

The inherent causes

This is what makes Malaysian administrative leaders powerful, above criticism, and influential over those who they have direct authority over.

Some, who Badawi called little Napoleons, are able to create and develop loyal followings throughout their careers, only to instantly lose them upon retirement.

It’s not uncommon to see many ex-top bureaucrats wandering very much alone during their retirement years.

The civil service is one of the nation’s most important resources, one that manages the country, rather than the executive.

Consequently, the culture and resulting health, effectiveness, and is of vital national importance.

The practice of bodeking needs to be eradicated. It’s a cultural cancer that needs immediate attention.

It’s a necessary reform that even the so-called Pakatan Harapan reform government didn’t recognise. None of the last three short-lived governments have mentioned a single word about it. – TMI