Nobody would work as a civil servant now, I understand. The pay is too low, and it’s seen as a low-status job. “He joined the government because he couldn’t go anywhere else,” they say.
I immediately shake my head. Everybody in my family has been involved in public service or something akin to it at some point in our lives. My grandfathers and parents were civil servants, while my brother and I have worked for government-linked corporations (GLCs).
So when I hear Donald Trump, the president of the United States, question why anybody would want to work for the government, I get quite annoyed. A passage from Fire And Fury, the book on the Trump administration written by Michael Wolff, reads as follows:
“‘Why would they, or anyone, be a permanent government employee?
“‘They max out at what? Two hundred grand? Tops,’ he said, expressing something like wonder.”
To be fair, the Orange One is not completely wrong. Nobody really works for the government because of the money.
Even Singapore, which has the reputation of being a good paymaster of the civil service, recognises that it’s more than just the money. For example, they determine the base salaries of their ministers by taking the median income of the top 1,000 earners in Singapore – and then lop off 40%. (tinyurl.com/Star2-salary.)
Allegedly this is “to signify the sacrifice that comes with the ethos of political service”.
This “ethos” is based on the principle that you are working for the good of the public. Also, national pride is a thing.
When I worked for Talent Corp, a GLC, our objective was to make sure that talent could be somehow channelled to key Malaysian industries, whatever their country of origin. One of the many initiatives was to give permanent residence (PR) status to foreigners who had been here for decades and were holding high-level positions in Malaysian companies, including CEOs and company directors.
Some cynics argued that these foreigners were only here because they couldn’t make it elsewhere. But if these naysayers spent some time and effort to talk to those they maligned, they would have found out that not only were these people very capable in their own right, they also felt a sense of loyalty and belonging to the country and hadn’t left despite better offers elsewhere. Money isn’t everything, you see.
The interesting thing is that this sense of civic duty, this belief in “trying to make things better for your country” exists in the Trumpian White House too. Again, from Fire And Fury, an e-mail snippet was circulated among White House staffers early last year:
“It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns,” it said. I don’t have to explain who the “idiot” was in this case.
But what was interesting to me was a line later in the e-mail: “I hate the work, but feel I need to stay because I’m the only person there with a clue what he’s doing.” (The book suggests the author of this e-mail is Gary Cohn, the former president of financial multinational Goldman Sachs and current chief economic advisor to Trump.)
This sentiment of not quitting your job because you fear what will happen if you leave is a familiar sentiment.
I have friends who are still working with various ministries and GLCs, and they have people who ask them, “Why are you working for such-and-such politician? Don’t you know he did this horrible thing?”
What they know is that there is work to be done whomever is above them (remember that in politics, these perches are temporary). What they care about are the projects they are working on, be it to raise the standard of education or to eradicate poverty.
And I admit, they also complain about whatever laziness and corruption they see around them (both in the public and private sector).
What perhaps is impressive is that despite this, I truly believe that good people still manage to do good work at the end of the day. But it is not sustainable if they don’t have support from the leadership.
According to Fire And Fury, that is what is so dangerous about the Trump administration. It alleges the president is not capable of understanding the issues before him, but also is too proud to accept the advice of experts around him.
My take is that Trump doesn’t even care about people in general. The public service work he engages in always has to be “the best” and he has to be given credit for it all. Ultimately, it is in service to himself.
Don’t get me wrong. Politicians in governments everywhere take credit for work ultimately done by civil servants. They worry about the image they project (the contemporary jargon is “optics”). And image these days, unfortunately, can be worth so much more than reality.
Recently, I heard about one of the people who we gave PR status to. A mutual friend asked one of them when they would be returning to their country of birth. The recipient insisted that Malaysia is their home now, and they won’t be going elsewhere. And then he proudly pulled out his PR card and said, this is proof he belongs here, for better or worse.
Yes. Some things are worth doing for the sake of doing it.