PM Anwar pleads for support from Malaysia's powerful civil service

Winning over the 1.2 million civil servants will be crucial to Mr Anwar Ibrahim’s political longevity as they execute policies and form a key vote bank. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR – Mr Anwar Ibrahim on Tuesday implored Malaysia’s civil service to cooperate with him, as the reformist Prime Minister faces an uphill task to win over the traditionally pro-establishment workforce.

The 75-year-old leader was named prime minister last week after an inconclusive vote resulted in a hung Parliament and led to rival leaders rushing to muster support. Now, as head of a unity government, winning over the 1.2 million civil servants will be crucial to Mr Anwar’s political longevity, as they execute policies and form a key vote bank.

“I am taking this chance to invite you, to plead for all of you to be with me, to give your interest and support in bringing change,” said Mr Anwar in his maiden address to the civil servants in the Prime Minister’s Department in the administrative capital of Putrajaya. 

“There is no way I can succeed if the backbone of the civil service is not with me,” added Mr Anwar, who was speaking in soft tones that were a marked departure from his fiery campaign speeches.

The civil service in Malaysia is one of the most bloated in the world relative to its population and has been regarded as a career of choice for the majority ethnic Malays. Most civil servants live in Putrajaya, about 40km from the capital, and in the recent elections, they voted overwhelmingly in favour of candidates from pro-Malay coalitions.

Over the years, governments have sought to retain public servants’ loyalty through pledges to increase their salaries and make cash payouts – often straining the budget. The budget deficit is expected to hit 5.8 per cent of gross domestic product in 2022 and narrow further to 5.5 per cent in 2023, the Ministry of Finance said in October.

In his address on Tuesday, Mr Anwar switched between tones of reconciliation and humour.

He drew chuckles from the audience as he shared how he had been ignoring a lot of slander since becoming prime minister, including that he was an “Israeli agent” – an often-used political accusation.  

“I want to focus on work, besides, you know I’m an agent of many countries – the US, Israel, India, now Turkey, so I have surpassed 007 in many ways,” he quipped in reference to the fictional British secret agent.

“So I hope we can focus on work.” BLOOMBERG

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