Anwar pleads for support from Malaysia's powerful civil service

Anwar pleads for support from Malaysia's powerful civil service

Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (centre) leaves Putra Mosque after prayers in Putrajaya, on Nov 25, 2020. (AFP photo)
Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (centre) leaves Putra Mosque after prayers in Putrajaya, on Nov 25, 2020. (AFP photo)

Anwar Ibrahim implored Malaysia’s civil service to cooperate with him on Tuesday, 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 a head of a unity government, winning over the 1.2 million civil servants will be crucial to 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 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 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 of the civil servants live in Putrajaya, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the capital, and in the recent elections they voted overwhelmingly in favor 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 pay outs -- often straining the budget.  The budget deficit this year is expected to hit 5.8% of GDP and narrow further to 5.5% next year, according to the finance ministry last month. 

Anwar in his address to the government servants on Tuesday switched between tones of reconciliation to humour. He drew chuckles from the audience as he shared how he’d 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.”

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