Anwar S Uneasy Truce With Malaysia S Powerful Civil Service
Anwar Ibrahim’s relationship with Malaysia’s powerful civil service is key to his government’s success and survival. He faces serious challenges in maintaining a positive relationship, but developments since 2018 help his chances.
Kai Ostwald, Fulcrum
Anwar Ibrahim faces no shortage of challenges as Malaysia’s tenth prime minister. His government’s high stakes relationship with the country’s vast and powerful civil service is among them. The experiences of the 2018-2020 Pakatan Harapan (PH) government demonstrate why: pockets of the civil service, uncomfortable with PH’s perceived progressive leanings and unaccustomed to taking orders from a non-UMNO government, were unresponsive to ministerial orders or outright obstructionist. That impeded PH’s ability to deliver on its agenda and eventually compounded the political crisis that led to its collapse.
Anwar clearly understands the importance of securing the civil service’s cooperation, noting that “there is no way I can succeed if the backbone of the civil service is not with me.” That conciliatory message, delivered with Anwar’s characteristic charm, may help his relationship with the 1.6 million-strong institution that has played a central role in driving Malaysia’s socioeconomic development. More importantly, there are several broader differences between 2018 and 2023 that give him a fighting chance.
First, Anwar has led the fourth new government since the defeat of UMNO’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in 2018. With each transition, the upper echelons of the civil service have become more accustomed to taking orders from new ministers. This is an important evolution for an institution that previously knew only UMNO governments for over six decades. During that period, ministerial transitions were often carefully coordinated and involved figures already familiar to the civil service.
Second, the political instability of the past five years has weakened the linkage between UMNO and the civil service. During UMNO’s long rule, the line between party and state frequently became blurred, resulting in pockets of the civil service acting as extensions of the party. Election results from the Putrajaya constituency, which is made up predominantly of civil servants and their families, are instructive. UMNO comfortably won above two-thirds of the vote in the 2004, 2008, and 2013 general elections. Its support slipped to 49 per cent in the 2018 general election as a three-cornered fight divided votes, but UMNO still won the seat by a safe margin. In 2022, following several years of political instability, UMNO took only 37 per cent of the vote, losing to a Perikatan Nasional (PN) candidate. The loyalty of the civil service, this suggests, has become more fluid and divided.
Third, the inclusion of UMNO and the East Malaysian coalitions Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) in Anwar’s unity government helps to counter the perception that it is “liberal” or otherwise hostile to Bumiputera interests. The unity government’s greater number of Bumiputera MPs and parties relative to its PH predecessor is important here. Equally so, however, is the fact that all symbolically meaningful positions are now helmed by Bumiputera, unlike in 2018 when Lim Guan Eng (as Finance Minister) and Tommy Thomas (as Attorney General) became focal points for attacks against PH.
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