Unseen power of the administrative state


Murray Hunter

The government in Malaysia is traditionally looked at through the political paradigm, which focuses upon the prime minister and Cabinet. The executive is praised or blamed for what the government does or doesn’t do.

However, such a frame critically underrates the power and influence of the bureaucracy in national governance. The bureaucracy is viewed somewhat like a “black box”, which implements the decisions of the executive.

This is far from the case.

The public services comprises a force of some 1.7 million, which includes the bureaucrats of the civil service and those in the education and health services, police, and military. One could also argue that those employed by government-linked companies are quasi-civil servants, as their employers are owned by the government.

Based on the 2024 budget, the administrative state will be paid RM95.6 billion in salaries this year, plus RM32.4 billion in pensions, making up 41.6% of total budget outlays. All government spending, and tax collection for that matter, occurs through the administrative state.

The GLCs, which extend the will and influence of government into the marketplace, account for 54% of capitalisation on Bursa Malaysia. This is a massive source of power over the sphere of government and economy.

Policy making

In addition, given that the bulk of policy development comes through the civil service to the executive, which usually turns their recommendations into policies, the administrative state is even more important.

The administrative state works in two directions: a major influence on society and the economy through making regulations, spending and collecting taxes; and providing the executive with policies.

These administrative state institutions are the most powerful piece of government today, and this is rarely studied in depth by academics and political analysts.

The reality is that prime ministers and Cabinet ministers clearly rely upon the administrative state when in office to run the government. The executive doesn’t necessarily drive the government; most of it is on auto-pilot with the administrative state doing all the work.

Some ministers have been better than others in understanding and working with the administrative state.

Ministers with little understanding of their portfolio, who lack in-depth knowledge or experience of how their ministry actually works, will face an uphill battle to manage their ministry.

Each ministry is a separate mini empire within the administrative state, where working and cooperation dynamics may differ substantially.

A separate world

If one looks deeply into the matter, it can become scary to realise that Malaysia, like most governments in the world, is actually run by faceless, unelected, and unaccountable people, far from the public view.

These anonymous bureaucrats occupy buildings around Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and other urban centres. They are unaccountable to the people.

The prime minister and Cabinet are not the only influencers upon the administrative state. GLCs have political appointees on their boards of management, who may have their own agendas.

The top people within the administrative state regularly brief the rulers. The administrative state talks horizontally within itself in ways that are not transparent to outsiders. It also has its own corporate culture. This is a powerful set of assumptions, beliefs, and values that guide the thinking of those within the administrative state.

The Malay agenda

One aspect of the administrative state’s corporate culture is the importance of the Malay agenda.

Many within the administrative state see themselves as protectors of Malay rights, which may override any potential directive given to them. Bureaucrats have their own way to sway, ignore, stall, or disrupt ministers, if the bureaucrats believe it necessary to do so.

Over the last few decades, some previous prime ministers have tried to interdict the corporate culture of the administrative state.

Under Dr Mahathir Mohamad, it was the quality movement. Then came the ISO certification drive. Balance scorecards, and the government transformation initiative undertaken by former prime minister Najib Razak was the latest back around 2012.

Unfortunately, this reform agenda got lost after 2018, when Pakatan Harapan came into power under Mahathir.

The Covid-19 pandemic probably strengthened the power of the administrative state, under a period of emergency rule. Muhyiddin Yassin expanded the size of the administrative state as he expanded the number of ministries.

The Ismail Sabri Yaakob government re-emphasised the Malay-centric agenda of the administrative state. Under Anwar Ibrahim, agencies and GLCs have emphasised more on economic policy.

Warped by local education

Perhaps the biggest influence upon the administrative state has been the local education system. Prior to the 1990s, most senior bureaucrats studied in the UK, US, or Australia, and returned with a solid grounding in various technical fields and public administration.

The post Merdeka baby-boomers had a deep sense of passion towards doing their bit to assist national development.

However, local graduates who are now climbing the ranks of government have been strongly influenced by the local education system, which provides them with a completely different outlook towards governance and public administration.

In addition, decision-making within the administrative state has become heavily politicised over the last couple of decades. Many now play the game to satisfy and please their superiors with a strong sense of power-distance between superior-subordinate relationships.

Vanishing technocrats

Technical expertise within committees most often gives way to political consensus decision making. Technocrats are quickly disappearing.

Just like everywhere else in the world, there is a swamp that needs to be drained to rid the administrative state of the politicisation and internal agendas that have crept in over the years.

These influences are swaying decision-making. It narrows the potential diversity of thinking that should be around the administrative state.

Past prime ministers have used the civil service with various objectives in mind. However, all of them knew major reforms were needed to bring the administrative state into the 21st century. The major barrier was how to do this without losing votes.

The big reform issue that needs attention today is reforming the country’s administrative apparatus. Discussion must go far beyond trimming it down. There must be a comprehensive plan of what the administrative state should look like in the future.

This won’t happen until the next generation of politicians takes the reins of power. However, will this next generation have the drive and passion to have concern about reform of the nation’s public administration? - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

Unseen power of the administrative state