IF there is one thing that is lacking in our government officers, it is pride, which should not to be confused with arrogance. When people have no pride in their work, everything is done in a half-hearted manner.
Restoring self-respect to the civil service is important to me because good governance and service can only be provided to the public when those who provide the service believe in what they are doing.
But it is easier said than done, however, as years of indoctrination that political patronage is the only way things can get done is still prevalent and deeply rooted in the psyche of the civil servant and the person on the street.
They call me Tuan
At the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ), officers who have not dealt with me before sometimes greet me with fear, a reflection of the past where threats and intimidation were the tools politicians used to control civil servants.
Stories of politicians who bark orders and give directives that are contrary to the laws of the land, rewarding those who comply and punishing those who refuse, are aplenty among the staff.
Proof that the previous administration did not respect the law are seen in the existence of numerous illegal hawker stalls located along road reserves, illegal building extensions for restaurants and the large number of illegal billboards within Petaling Jaya, to name a few.
The officers blame the previous administration’s interference for the proliferation of illegalities.
“We were scolded in public for not doing our jobs, but behind closed doors, we were told not to take action because these illegal acts were done by those who are simply trying to earn a living,” said one officer.
Officers at the bottom of the chain unleash their frustration on the
rakyat for voting in certain political masters (© Mark Daniel / sxc.hu)
“There were times when the politicians would fight among themselves. We would get one who would tell us to take action and when we are on the ground to do it, a phone call from another politician would tell us to stop,” said another officer.
As this culture was propagated through the rank and file, the officers who are at the bottom of the chain unleash their frustration out on the rakyat for giving them such political masters. Threatening the public with fines, demanding bribes and such is all part of a twisted cycle that starts from the ballot box.
The council’s inaction on these illegalities provides more opportunities for officers to be corrupt. When the public turns to greed as the motivating factor for ignoring the law, they in turn have to pay bribes to ensure the illegality is overlooked.
One of the best illustrations of this opportunity is the illegal extensions done by many restaurateurs. Go to the back lane of any restaurant in PJ and chances are you will see extensions that house gas tanks and wash basins. These illegal extensions allow corrupt officers to go to the restaurants and demand a payoff in return for not closing down the premise.
The irony of this whole situation is that some of these restaurateurs come to the councillors complaining of having to pay bribes to the officers during these tough economic times.
Making it right
Certainly, if you are operating within the ambit of the law, bribes would not need to be paid. But many people are not willing to undergo the painful exercise of legalising their businesses, simply because, restaurateurs argue, the laws do not take into account the economics of doing business.
Taking the example of the restaurants again, the Streets, Drainage and Building Act 1974 strictly prohibits any obstruction of the road (see Section 33, 34 and 46 of the Act). This means that you cannot legally place tables and chairs on the road, as they constitute an obstruction in the eyes of the law.
Coupled with the fact that all illegal extensions must be dismantled and renovation must be done to ensure that the facilities are all located indoors, the space left within the premise to house tables and chairs would be very limited indeed. For many Chinese coffee shops and mamak shops, this means that they may as well close shop if they are to be completely legalised.
What of the livelihoods of the restaurant workers? What about the office worker who works nearby and depends on these restaurants for a cheap, decent meal?
And what if the council chooses to recognise the right to place tables and chairs on the road? For the public who have to navigate narrow roads because of the obstruction and for those who are deprived of a legitimate parking lot, this recognition would undermine their right to use the road. Drivers have rights too, since they pay road tax.
There are many considerations to take into account before the council can just say we would strictly enforce the law. The answers to the problems caused by years of inaction against these illegalities will not come overnight.
After all that is said and done, I return full circle to the fact that council officers need to be proud of their jobs. One way this can be achieved is by empowering these officers.
The creation of specific guidelines for the officers to follow, all done with input from the officers — who are the ones on the ground doing enforcement — themselves and with the various stakeholders who will be governed by these guidelines, is but a small step towards achieving this.
Such consultative methods do take time however, and some policies may not be perfect from the onset as many of the parties being consulted will need time to get used to such new methods of formulating policy.
MBPJ councillor KW Mak hopes that this story achieves the aim of giving the public a glimpse of what local governance is like and the considerations that the councillors go through when deliberating on issues.