May 19 — Our passport renewal overseers prefer the electronic path with the application surge post-pandemic lockdowns — and manage issuance online. Immigration Malaysia announced recently.

It’s been in stages the clamber to digitalisation.

Certain citizens have taken umbrage over this, for their preference is to see their tax money in motion.

The column infers this as the eye test.

Typical of old. Applicant shows up at a physical facility, picks a queue number, waits and then eventually stands at a counter. Here immigration officer A picks up folder with said applicant’s documents, peruses and passes to officer B, who does the same.

Stamps are pulled from drawers, signatures affixed, carbon copies filed and then officer C to D to E till K do the same — as hours and days tick on — till a passport is physically handed over by officer L to the applicant.

It requires time and patience from said applicant. However, the elongated experience allows taxpayers to witness the process. Of half-paced movements of various uniformed people while other nondescript individuals lurk in the hallways — presumably fixers. And there are the random tea breaks to keep it legit.

Ignore the digression.

When citizens see bodies in motion, the manner taxes are spent becomes self-evident.

But here’s the rub.

Over these decades, the volume of digitalised data has crossed a threshold of no return, and things cease to be manual. It’s an electronic life now. Case in point, the two years of pandemic where most civil servants sat at home, government delivery did not crumble. Not in this Digital Age.

Which leads to the uncomfortable conclusion. If the government functions when most of its staff sit at home, how many of those civil servants are necessary for the country to continue? The column sneaks from immigration over-efficiency when compared historically to an election issue of “can the headcount go down”? It surely has to. The argument makes itself even when political courage to engage it goes amiss.

The column encouraged this before the pandemic and reminds again since the matter presses harder today. Government is too overwhelmed by operational expenditure, to have the capacity to grow the country effectively through capital expenditure Salaries for the sake of salaries — to keep families going — chokes the lifeblood of government and its ability to do good, regardless of party in charge.

The Immigration Department logo is seen at its headquarters in Putrajaya January 10, 2019. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
The Immigration Department logo is seen at its headquarters in Putrajaya January 10, 2019. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

How to manage a downsize of the civil service? The two things to remember. One, not all jobs have to go. Upgrade, pay strategic jobs more, reduce clerical roles.

Second, in light of automation, globalisation and the Information Age, change the way jobs are done and redistribute.

For instance, up trained teachers at the expense of clerks in schools and countless peripheral ministries. Though it does reduce headcount.

This is not unprecedented. In the 1990s, as the war with communists ended, police members in the redundant forest reserve units were retrained for other sections like traffic.

The communists had signed a peace treaty. A unit in Kuala Pilah will likelier spot a Malayan Tiger than dissidents in the jungle.

And yes, again, this column admits candidly, the restructure would lose hundreds of thousands of jobs over a lengthy period of perhaps a decade. However, no proposal would ask for overnight pink slips. The civil service members are people before voters, and they must not be abandoned.

Retraining and career changes through a careful voluntary separation scheme must occur with the intention not to leave anyone behind.

Whichever the method or period, that long march to rationalise the service must begin. Malaysia can only have the civil service it can afford to have in the medium term.

Abuse and fat Higher pay is critical in the passage to end wholesale corruption in the civil service. This is only possible by shedding the fat.

In addition, overcrowded ministries for the sake of headcount are petri dishes for graft. Too many people lead to unnecessary technocracy and confusion over responsibilities, which the unscrupulous leverage to generate illicit payments to navigate.

Digitalisation aids transparency, but it also reduces human elements in the work process.

Quality in the service as fat is dispensed increases the perceived and felt professionalism, as fewer able people perform with the assistance of technology.

The math is not difficult. Naturally, the politics is the opposite.

Election, election, election The service is large but not so much when factored as a percentage of the larger workforce.

Still, civil servants are always likelier to bloc vote. More than 10,000 voters on average in every parliamentary seat. They can be the difference between victory and defeat.

Which is why prime ministers would miss their spouses’ birthdays if that meant they attend a key civil service event. The votes are there if the prime minister remains the employer.

Which explains electoral defeats worldwide when civil servants are upsetted.

But how long can the gravy train go on, at least on a principle level.

Surely, the many who just fill spaces to collect paychecks realise they have the security those in the private sector lack. Over there, jobs must match actual needs.

As private sector jobs are lost in the years to come as companies maximise profits thanks to digitalised workplaces, the objections from those Malaysians to continued public service headcount will increase.

Couple that with the impending consumption taxes to pay for the government, upset can turn to enragement.

Still, leadership is absent on the matter.

Not the prime minister. Certainly not the leader of the Opposition.

This matter will fester in the background till conditions degrade to a point the leader who backed it before backs away. With the excuse his hands are tied by economic impossibilities.

At that juncture, the option of a soft landing, a planned reduction expires and choices are forced on the country. Not pleasant choices and the outcomes will be even less pleasant.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.