Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The “Bloated” Malaysian Civil Service

I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject for a couple of years now, but somehow never got around to it. Now DS Idris Jala has beaten me to the punch (excerpt):

Transforming public service delivery

It’s not bloated and we are looking at ways to improve.

Before I start talking about how we can and are doing things differently in the civil service, let me clear up this common misconception that the civil service is bloated.

Many comparisons have been made with other countries by simply taking the number of people who are termed public servants and comparing them as a proportion of the population. However, the problem is that no account is taken of who are considered to be civil servants.

In Malaysia there are 1.4 million civil servants in 28 schemes of service under the Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam or the Public Services Department. They include the federal public service, the state public services, the joint public services, the education service, the judiciary, the legal service, the police and armed forces.

Critics argue that our civil service is bloated compared with the United Kingdom. They point out that the UK lists its number of civil servants at a paltry 450,000 , less than a third of ours. This in a country whose population at 64 million is more than two times our population of nearly 30 million.

With this, the Malaysian civil service appears extremely bloated, doesn’t it? But the fact is, it isn’t. Because the UK defines its civil service rather narrowly as those who work for government departments that report to ministers. The UK’s National Health Service alone employs nearly 1.3 million people, quite close to our total number of civil servants of 1.4 million.

The UK does not count all these staff as part of their civil service whereas Malaysia includes all doctors, nurses and support staff in our public health system as part of civil service manpower numbers. Malaysia also includes all teachers in our public schools in our civil service figures but the UK does not.

And this is another big difference because teachers alone make up more than 400,000 of our 1.4 million civil servants....

...This article however is not about increasing the numbers of our civil service but to point out that we can and should do more with them. Indeed for the sake of being sustainable and maintaining its relevance, the civil service must re-invent itself....

...And we need to do this while still keeping the numbers down by improving the processes that are important in the delivery of public service. We can’t afford to have a bloated civil service not only because salaries pose a heavy burden but future pension and health-care obligations can cripple the government.

We must make the most of what we have and the focus is simply the delivery process – making the civil service more efficient so that more processes can be completed in a shorter time.

There are a few more points apart from the above that really should be mentioned. Most of the comparisons I’ve seen actually look at regional economies, not against the West. The OECD average is 15.0% of the labour force, topped by Norway’s 29.3% (the UK, by the way, is at 17.4%). But many European countries have full-fledged welfare states, which obviously absorb a substantial portion of their labour force.

The numbers compared to other East Asian economies however isn’t too flattering – for instance, Korea at about 5.7% of the labour force and Japan at 6.7%, compared to Malaysia’s (approximate) 10%.

However, as the article suggests, this isn’t necessarily an apples to apples comparison. Many of the major countries in East Asia have conscription, including Korea, Taiwan, China and Singapore – both Korea and Taiwan are technically still in a state of war. That means that the bulk of the armed forces (and most of the police in the case of Singapore), are not included as part of the public sector employment statistics.

Malaysia’s armed forces are however fully voluntary and are included. The figure, as far as I can tell, is something like 10% of the civil service.

With respect to the number of teachers (the current figure is 419,940), which form another 30% of the civil service, there are two particular measurement problems – typical class sizes (which impacts manpower requirements), and demographics.

Malaysia’s class sizes are relatively high at roughly 28 per class, compared to the OECD average of a hair over 20. But compared to other countries in East Asia, Malaysia actually looks progressive – both Korea and Japan report average class sizes above 30 (I’m told that its common to find urban school class sizes exceeding 50). The student-teacher ratio for Malaysia is about 13, but is around 18 for Japan and around 20 for Korea. If you think that this means Japan and Korea are more efficient in teaching their children, please read this. Class sizes and student-teacher ratios are of course not the only determinant of education, but in both cases, the lower the better.

The other factor that needs to be mentioned is demographics. Most of the other middle income and high income economies in the region are relatively mature in terms of age – Japan is famously “old” (an inverted population pyramid), while most of the others are ageing.

The implication here is that the proportion of teachers required relative to the population is comparatively less than would be required in a “younger” country, which will have a bigger proportion of its population of schooling age, even holding class sizes constant. A “young” country needs a greater proportion of teachers per capita, than one that is “old”, which helps explain the preponderance of teachers in Malaysia’s civil service.

Taking all the above, the lesson here is that cross country comparisons of public sector employment is fraught with measurement problems. More fundamentally, public sector labour force requirements really devolve on a philosophical question – what is the role of government in society?

If the answer is a socialist, cradle-to-grave welfare state, you would expect a completely different result from that required by a laissez-faire, hands-off capitalist society. Claims over a bloated Malaysian civil service paper over this vital distinction.

Could we do more with less? Oh my, yes. I was told by one senior official that he is required to have two personal assistants by virtue of his position, when all he needed was his secretary. The two excess bodies assigned to him had nothing to do.

Anybody waiting in line in certain government departments and agencies (who shall remain nameless), can certainly subscribe to the argument that too many civil servants appear to have too much time on their hands. There’s also the plethora of agencies and government departments who appear to have overlapping roles and functions. Also, while we might need 420k teachers, the distribution of those teachers could be better – some schools are over-manned, while others are understaffed. As against that, LHDN, JPJ and Immigration are about as efficient as you could wish.

So the right answer is – it depends. It depends on Malaysians’ consensus view on the role of government in society. It depends on what public goods we government should be responsible for providing, and how these should be delivered. It depends on the level of efficiency we demand from public services. Focusing on the numbers alone doesn’t provide an answer.

Technical Notes:

  1. Public Employment: Key Figures (OECD)
  2. Education at a Glance (OECD 2011)
  3. Quick Facts: Malaysian Education Statistics (MOE 2013)


  1. Thank you for writing this. Clarified a lot of things, it did.

  2. Simple fact like this is not known to most Malaysian.

    In fact perception or disinformation as such, deliberate or otherwise has taken political dimension. Generally it gave rise to dissatisfaction and anger among the people towards the govt that allow the bloating.

    Other impact being the negative public perception on the civil service and by extension the ability and talent of majority race that make it up.

  3. Mampu is an example of a bloated agency. Should undergo overhaul and a portion of the staffs should be distributed to other agencies. Currently most of the tasks are and roles are redundant and man hours are spent for servicing the agency itself.

    1. Probably because it seems to be a dumping ground for those being "demoted".

  4. Kudos to jaite. Straight to the point! Quantity or quality? Quantity goes up to the OECD, quality goes down to the drain.

  5. Ministry of education 500k+-
    Ministry of health 200k+-
    Ministry of internal security 200k+-
    Ministry of defense200k+-

    And these four ministries are offering essential services because malaysian are kind of people who demand everything to be provided by government. Just because the country is rich, it doesn't mean the wealth will come to us running by itself without being worked on. Too much politicking kind of people, too much talk but less thinking and work.

    The government on the other hand really loves this kind of very dependant people so that government will have the reason to ask for allocation to be spent to meet people needs or much of the times wants. Who are these people? Guess yourself.

    And could you just imagine how the remaining of civil service work to meet malaysian expectations? Again, guess yourself. Hint, some of them works like there is no tomorrow and affect their private life.

    Malaysian, please think carefully what you ask for and dont simply demand everything under the sky. Greedy malaysian wants everything good from west to east and north to south.

    Perhaps thats all for now.