In most countries, the public service is the largest spender and employer and it sets the policy environment for the rest of the economy. The effectiveness and efficiency of a country's public sector is vital to its success of development activities. For over 60 years, the public service in Malaysia has carved an admirable track record, as evidenced by the country’s level of development today.
When we do the benchmarking, findings show that Malaysia performs above or at par on most governance indicators when compared to its peers in East Asia. Many governments with similar development aspirations look at the Malaysian public service as a useful case study. Today, we have many members of the public service contributing to knowledge exchange initiatives with other emerging economies.
Looking forward, however, this emerging group of countries may no longer be the right comparator as Malaysia looks toward progressing further in the near future. Malaysia is now edging closer to achieving high-income and developed nation status. As a country progresses toward higher levels of development, it will require increasingly sophisticated and specialized skills to deliver better public services whereby the public sector is in competition with the private sector to attract the right people.
As such, the debate needs to shift from a focus on the numbers and definitions of the public service to a consideration of the quality of people and services provided by the public service as well as the long-term sustainability of the wage bill.
Therefore, the time is right for Malaysia to benchmark among the best in the world. Taking this point of view of comparing Malaysia with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) can help set better standards for public service delivery and governance. Naturally, under these new circumstances, the gap between Malaysia and OECD countries on several governance indicators may seem large. However, we should not be disheartened, but rather be re-energized when looking at the dividends the country stands to earn when the public service makes improvements to close this gap.
There is a well-established connection between quality of institutions and growth and it is thus important to focus on the people, policies and institutional and legal framework that contribute to the strength of these public institutions. It is also heartening to see that the Government has taken on a proactive agenda as issues of good governance and integrity within the public sector have been placed center-stage in the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020), complemented by strategies, measures and an action plan to ensure that reforms would be able to bear fruit.
In the World Bank’s latest Malaysia Economic Monitor report, published on July 1, we looked at three focus areas in positioning the public service among its new OECD peers.
First, the human resource management system of the public service can be strengthened to be more transparent, flexible and competency-based. The guiding principles should focus on whether the entrants into the public service are the right people for the right job. For example, do they have the highest levels of integrity; do they represent the entire population of Malaysia and exemplify diversity; and finally, are they recruited and managed transparently?
Second, enhancing transparency in government operations, sharing of data and engaging citizens can go a long way in facilitating an open environment within the public service. To achieve this, it is necessary to not just build an institutional and legal framework but also important to foster a stronger culture of sharing and collaboration across government departments, and even beyond. It is ultimately a combination of technical, financial and behavioral change - all of which are equally important and must come with committed leadership at the top.
Third, as Malaysia deals with some of the traditional challenges of efficient service delivery, it must factor in megatrends related to digitalization and automation which are changing the way services are delivered to people. It is also important to manage the impact of this change on people in the public service. While some skills may become redundant, others will receive higher demand, and this has implications for future hiring as well as re-skilling and redeploying the current staff in the public service.
Good governance is not something that can be picked off the shelf or simply adopted. It must be made an integral part of all streams and functions. The most difficult part of change is usually changing behaviors – a process which takes time. Commitment at the top and having the right leadership are key to this change, in efforts to bring about a clean, transparent and trusted government to usher in a new era of shared prosperity for Malaysia.