They have been at it again. Hot on the heels of the Malaysian education minister’s resignation, some bright spark in the ministry felt a sudden rush of blood to the head, pressed fingers to keyboard, then one memo to civil servants later and the country is yet again up in arms.
Given Malaysian hair-trigger sensitivities — it usually doesn’t take much — this one was a real gem.
Barely a week ago, an Education Ministry circular was leaked to the press, in which it instructed Muslim civil servants to shun the Tamil harvest festival of Ponggal.
Uproar coupled with derision followed. Tamil leaders said the festival had very little, if any, religious significance, while pointing out that no such instruction had been issued before, so why now?
Beating a hasty retreat, the ministry pointed their finger at the federal Islamic Affairs Department, more commonly known by its much-reviled Malay abbreviation Jakim, from which senior ministry officials, in a desperate attempt to shove someone else into the firing line and save their own worthless hides, said they were acting on advice.
This then incensed the minister in charge of Islamic affairs, who called for heads to roll.
Curiously, even the more conservative clerics — who will normally leap to Jakim’s defence in any religious controversy — were hesitant to commit themselves to the row, which led the public to believe that the education ministry had added two and two, and got 17.64.
Taken in isolation and in any normal democracy, such a matter would quickly blow over, the offending civil servant would be given an administrative clip round the earhole and life would return to normal.
But this is Malaysia and, alas, incidents like this are not isolated.
They occur with monotonous and no less irritating regularity, and more often than not involve either the Education Ministry, Jakim, or both.
It would take too much time to detail each and every faux pas, so let us forego the complete playlist and skip to the greatest hits.
In 2012, the Education Ministry issued a circular instructing teachers and parents to be on the lookout for homosexual behaviour in children.
Before you cringe at the possibility of young boys and girls being turfed out of school for their perceived sexuality, this is the 21st century and a 21st-century Education Ministry would not entertain such medieval behavior, not even in Malaysia.
However, it did say that it wanted to curtail the spread of homosexuality, particularly among teenagers, as if it was a communicable disease or even a fad.
What was that about the 21st century, again?
The Education Ministry did not specify how it planned to solve the riddle to this supposed disease, but it did come up with some nice guidelines on what defines homosexual behavior:
- Boys wearing a V-neck pull-over, or either sex wearing tight clothes
- Boys spending too much time with boys
- Girls spending too much time with girls
Bearing in mind, of course, that this sublime work of literature was to cover pre-pubescent children.
While you try to digest how the minds of senior Education Ministry officials work, Jakim is not to be outdone.
In 2014, a local human rights activist Syed Azmi organized an event for Muslims to quite literally touch dogs, moreover, pet them and stroke them if desired (touching dogs is a religious grey area for Muslims in Malaysia).
Syed said he had received approval from the sultan of Selangor’s religious office, supposedly the highest religious authority in the state.
Conservative Muslims disagreed, as did Jakim, behind the scenes.
Bombarded with a slew of death threats, Syed apologized for causing offence and, like an admonishing parent, Jakim instructed him never to hold a similar event again.
While Jakim’s involvement was seemingly innocuous, it wasn’t finished there.
In 2016, it tried to ban the term hot dog from food outlets, which even members of the then-government lambasted, saying it had “turned Malaysia into a laughing stock.”
This all might sound like a relatively harmless afternoon’s reading, but there are more sinister undertones at play, undertones that have not changed despite a new, clean government.
Over the years, Jakim has developed notoriety for its raids and, in carrying them out, its complete disregard for the law.
Jakim officers would patrol public areas looking for couples committing khalwat or close proximity (unmarried Muslim men and women are not allowed to touch).
Aside from the embarrassment for young Muslim couples, there were allegations from the expat community of law enforcement using this as an excuse to solicit bribes when an unsuspecting foreigner was seen to be too close to a local girl, regardless of race.
During Valentine’s Day, Jakim officers would target hotels, yanking young couples out of rooms and hauling them before the shariah court for obscenity.
In 2014, Jakim raided a Bible Society bookshop, confiscating bibles written in Malay, because they contained the word Allah (the word for God in Malay, regardless of religion).
Subsequently, there were a spate of incidents where churches were ordered to remove any religious symbology that could be seen from the street.
This was despite the bureaucratic hoops these organizations had to jump through with the religious authorities to obtain the correct operating licences, not least the violation of constitutional rights in terms of freedom of worship.
Jakim also periodically raided weddings and funerals of non-Muslims on dubious pretexts, with opponents alleging simple intimidation tactics.
You see, while some of these antics seemed comical to educated, middle-class urbanites, local journalist and editor Jahabar Sadiq astutely observed that former prime minister Najib Razak was using Jakim to drive a wedge between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities as part of his divide and rule philosophy.
His United Malays National Organisation (Umno) party led the government coalition at the time and styled itself as the defender of Islam in Malaysia.
His message, to the rural less-educated and more populous working class, was simple: As a Muslim, you’re either with us or against us.
Meanwhile, the press has been liberally peppered with reports of abusive teachers administering excessive physical or psychological punishment to children over the years.
For a country that refuses to sign the U.N. convention on the rights of the child, these were serious accusations.
Yet, many of these teachers are not even disciplined, let alone required to face the criminal justice system for what are, in some cases, serious offences.
They are simply transferred, after which the ministry considers the matter closed.
These two areas of the civil service highlight a major problem the Malaysian government is unable or unwilling to get to grips with, because they have not simply gone away.
As mentioned previously, Malaysia’s civil service is bloated, distended even, with 1.3 million civil servants for a nation of 30 million inhabitants.
By comparison, there are 400,000 people serving 66.4 million British citizens and 1 million people serving 126.8 million Japanese.
Governments around the world know they need the best and the brightest to help run the country, and recruitment is a gruelling exercise for candidates.
Yet, Malaysia is a country still reeling from six decades of corruption and cronyism, coupled with its racist Bumiputera agenda, which favours Malays regardless of competence.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the civil service, which has become a haven for yes-men, the corrupt and the downright lazy, safe in the knowledge they have a job for life with great benefits and a nice pension.
It would be wrong and even unfair to say every civil servant is like this. There are some bright, dynamic idealists in there somewhere, but finding their voice is like whistling into a hurricane.
Crucial to this discourse is the job for life, because U.S. President Donald Trump is more likely to hop on Air Force One to Beijing and goosestep up and down Tiananmen Square with the Chinese army than a Malaysian civil servant is to get fired.
State employees know and indeed wallow in the comfort of the fact that there are no repercussions for poor performance.
It is a system that seems to whitewash incompetence, indifference and just plain criminality as a matter of routine, all at the expense of the people who pay them to serve.
This is not a case of upper management closing ranks to cover up misdeeds, it is an endemic problem throughout the civil service.
It is a problem that will continue to act like weight round Malaysia’s legs as it tries to swim to the shore of a more transparent, equal society.
That is until it can learn to lose those shackles.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.