INCREDULOUS. That’s how a journalist feels when a senior civil servant responds to a request for information with a flat refusal to answer.
Following the commentary on the need for a Freedom of Information Act, it is timely to relate another story about failed attempts to get answers on matters of public interest from the government.
On 15 June 2009, The Nut Graph published a story on how Members of Parliament (MPs) are funded. We highlighted allegations of discrimination and selective approvals that were experienced by MPs on both sides of the political divide.
The funding in question was a special development fund for all parliamentary constituencies called Peruntukan Khas Perdana Menteri. This is an annual allocation. The maximum amount an MP can apply for varies from year to year.
MPs apply for funds on behalf of projects in their constituencies, but they don’t receive the actual funds themselves. Instead, upon approval by the government, the funds are channelled to the state and district level at the constituency for projects to be implemented.
The agency that approves MPs’ applications, and directs disbursement of the funds, is the Implementation Coordination Unit (ICU) under the Prime Minister’s Department.
In the course of writing the story, The Nut Graph compiled the MPs experiences, explained the situation in brief, and posed some questions in an email to the ICU director-general, and the agency’s public relations officer. Follow-up with the public relations officer over the next few days revealed that the director-general had received the questions and had tasked his special officer to draft the replies.
Finally, however, the public relations officer told The Nut Graph that the director-general would not reply. Not “could not” reply, but a wilful “would not” reply.
Incredulous. That the head of the said agency, a civil servant entrusted to manage taxpayers’ money with regards to how it is used to support the work of MPs elected by the people, would not answer. That on a matter which was totally under his jurisdiction, he would not reply.
On one hand, this reaction wasn’t too surprising because from past experience, it is not uncommon for civil servants to decline comment or speak off the record, since it is the practice to leave comments on policy to ministers. At the very least, the ICU director-general could have conveyed that to the public relations officer instead of issuing a blanket refusal without explanation.
The ICU’s response to a legitimate question also betrays a lack of awareness about what good public relations really is. Ever tried talking to a wall? Doesn’t take too much to imagine what that feels like. Plus, didn’t it occur to the ICU that it could be embarrassing not to answer a question, especially when the information should be public to begin with? Does the ICU not care about its public image as a government agency under the Barisan Nasional administration?
Additionally, the information The Nut Graph asked for should surely exist in some form of policy statement or minutes of meetings. Why not cut and paste? And if the replies do not exist in some documented form already, then we should be really concerned about whether certain policies are decided ad hoc and arbitrarily.
Turning to the minister
We, of course, didn’t give up just because the ICU director-general refused to answer our questions.
The Nut Graph turned to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop whose portfolio includes finance and the ICU. Going by civil service logic, only he could answer a nosy reporter’s questions.
The questions for Nor Mohamed were the same as those sent to the ICU director-general. A week after sending the queries by e-mail to his aide, there was still no reply.
To be fair, his aide did respond to reminders throughout the week to explain that the minister was busy in meetings. The minister was preparing for the government’s announcement on scrapping the 30% bumiputra quota on equity for companies seeking listing on the stock market. Other major changes to liberalise Malaysia’s capital markets were also made.
These are indeed momentous adjustments which understandably would keep any minister busy. But that begs the question about the way government is run. Is there to be a bottleneck of queries every time the minister in charge is occupied? Are other issues to be put on the back burner until he or she is available? What is a whole department of government officers hired for? Why are we paying taxes to the government to finance the salaries of civil servants if not even one of them can draft answers for the minister to approve and release to the media, and by extension, the public?
If nothing else, this experience with a federal department and a federal minister lends weight to the argument that our public sector is too politicised. Civil servants, the people who turn the wheels of government administration, hide behind politicians who are left to decide on “sensitive” matters. In the case of funding MPs, what seems “sensitive” and hence unanswerable are how requests by opposition MPs or for non-Muslims houses of worship are handled.
And if policies don’t exist in black and white to which they can be referred for speedy responses to queries, we have to wonder how these policies are decided, who determines them and in whose interest, with the use of tax payers money, they are implemented.
Consider the admission by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz in The Nut Graph‘s report about funding for MPs. In response to questions about the MPs’ complaints, Nazri said that “it is easier” for BN MPs to obtain approvals.
It won’t go away
The ICU director-general and Nor Mohamed’s office are not the only ones guilty of trying to evade public accountability.
When, in a rare article on the subject, the New Straits Times broached the allegation that racism and ethnic segregation were taught in Biro Tatanegara (BTN) orientation courses under the guise of patriotism, guess who kept silent?
Almost unsurprisingly, it was the BTN director-general who declined to comment even though he was in the best position to set the picture straight.
BTN courses are meant for civil servants and government scholars. It would be troubling if they, through the BTN, were being taught ethnocentrism and the notion that non-Malay Malaysians are “second class” citizens. If these allegations are true, it would hardly be surprising that MPs are complaining that approvals for projects related to non-Muslim houses of worship are being rejected.
One wonders if the current administration believes that not answering a question will make it go away, or that people will eventually forget.
Pledges and efforts made to improve efficiency and delivery, and to make the public sector more service-orientated, will come to naught if partisan and ethnocentric politics are not taken out of the civil service.