PAIN is almost always expected when dealing with Malaysian government agencies. We are surprised by helpfulness and efficiency, sometimes to the point that people are thrilled enough to write happy letters to the editor.
More often than not, we expect bureaucratic feet-dragging, wildly inconsistent adherence to standard procedure, and no follow-up.
When we do choose to make a fuss, we might turn to the Public Complaints Bureau (PCB), an oversight body that monitors government services. Established under the Prime Minister’s Department in 1971, the PCB functions as a sort of national ombud. It represents the public’s interests by hearing and investigating cases of alleged misconduct by arms of the administration.
Thirty years on, the bureau has a well-maintained, frequently updated internet presence with nine state branches nationwide. It receives around 3,000 complaints annually, ranging from purported abuse of powers by the Royal Malaysian Police to grouses regarding public hospital fees.
The Nut Graph sat down with director-general Dr Chua Hong Teck to discuss the PCB’s aims and challenges, and how recent events — such as Seputeh Member of Parliament (MP) Teresa Kok’s complaints about the food she was given under police detention — have affected the bureau’s functions.
TNG: What is the function of the Public Complaints Bureau?
Chua: Our role is to assist people, to help them. They are already fed up with the department concerned. Where else would they turn to? I advise my staff in very simple terms: when complainants come to the PCB, we should treat them better than other agencies have treated them — or else, there is no point in them coming here.
(Courtesy of the Public Complaints Bureau)
We try to treat every case equally. Whether the rubbish is not collected in front of your house every day; or whether, if you have applied for a permanent residency, you don’t get it and you don’t know why — no issue is more important than another.
How does the PCB receive complaints from the public? What is it doing to be more accessible?
The PCB receives letters and telephone calls. I talk to certain complainants personally; sometimes people want the assurance. We hold programmes such as the Integrated Mobile Complaints Counter, which allows us to reach people in rural or remote areas.
Nowadays, however, more and more of the complaints we receive arrive through the PCB website. At the moment, the public may track the progress of their own complaint online. The website currently reproduces our annual statistics and reports for the past eight years, and we are currently looking into providing a live version that will track all the complaints we’ve received and our progress in resolving them.
What kind of complaints does the PCB hear, exactly?
Our website has a guide to the sort of complaints we hear. Additionally, in our online complaint form, we ask a complainant what he or she wants. Unless complainants tell us exactly what they want, it is very difficult for us to assist them.
We deal with maladministration. This can range from cases where no action is taken or there is a delay; when your application to a department is not approved, but they don’t tell you the reasons; or when there is favouritism.
We don’t deal with corruption, or issues that concern agencies such as the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA), Public Accounts Committee, or the Legal Aid Bureau. If an issue has gone to the courts, the PCB steps away.
The PCB differs from conventional ombuds by having no legislative authority: it is not appointed by, and does not report to, Parliament. How does the bureau actually work? How is it empowered to investigate complaints?
The PCB is an administrative arrangement. We report to the chief secretary to the government who chairs the Permanent Committee on Public Complaints (PCPC), a very high-powered committee.
The PCPC includes members like the director-general of the Public Services Department, the director-general of the Malaysian Administrative and Modernisation Planning Unit (Mampu, the organisation that deals with administrative reform), the director-general of the ACA, and the senior deputy secretary-general of the Prime Minister’s Department.
The PCB therefore has an implied power, derived from its position in the Prime Minister’s Department and the PCPC. Because the chief secretary to the government is also secretary to the cabinet, we effectively report to the cabinet. Every year, we publish a report that is tabled in cabinet.
Without legislation, the bureau does not have the ability to enforce its findings, and take action if government agencies fail to comply. Has there been a case where an agency has been recalcitrant?
If it is good for that department, I don’t see why they shouldn’t adopt our recommendations. Most of the time they will listen, because it is good for them. I’ve been here for slightly more than two years, and I have never seen any recommendation that we have made that the government department in question did not take into consideration.
We have to know how these departments work. We have to know the rules and regulations involved. We have a legal advisor in the bureau. We also have an advisory board that consists of public figures from the private and public sectors, and from non-governmental organisations.
How does the PCB make its recommendations? How do investigations and negotiations between the bureau and a government department take place?
We issue letters. It is an official correspondence between the bureau and the relevant department.
(© William Berry/Dreamstime)Maybe an example would illustrate the process better. About a year ago, we had the case of this woman who lost her husband. He was a firefighter. The Fire and Rescue Department has a welfare compensation fund. If you die in the line of duty, your spouse or next of kin may receive a certain amount from the government.
She made a complaint because she had been asking for this gratuity for several years. But, every time she approached the Fire and Rescue Department, they said that she wasn’t eligible because her husband had died while working voluntarily.
We clarified this with the Fire and Rescue Department, and we worked out that her husband had died while on official duty. Then the department brought up other reasons: the fact that this woman had remarried soon after her husband’s death, and that the mother of the deceased had also made a claim for the money.
We checked with the religious department as to who had priority in this case — obviously, it was the spouse. At the time of the incident, our complainant was still the spouse. We told them: it was none of their business whether this woman had remarried afterwards.
In the end, the Fire and Rescue Department had to agree with us. Our complainant received her compensation.
In late September 2008, Senator Murugiah Thopasamy, who is deputy minister in the prime minister’s department, said that the PCB would conduct a probe on the quality of food served to detainees in police lock-ups. This followed MP Teresa Kok’s widely-publicised complaint that the food she was served during her Internal Security Act detention was “slightly better than dog food.”
As a result, Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar accused the senator of interfering with the home ministry, saying that: “It was not his job.” Syed Hamid also compared Murugiah’s action as akin to being a spokesman for the opposition.
As far as I’m concerned — and I checked with Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Bernard Dompok — the home ministry cannot say that this is not our jurisdiction, that we cannot barge in.
Teresa Kok insulted the egg (© Alessandro Paiva/sxc.hu)We can investigate complaints lodged against any government department. Some people want us to be more proactive, and that is what deputy minister Murugiah is doing. The public does not need to make a complaint — they may do it in the press — for us to investigate.
Anybody can lodge a complaint with us. No matter, [even if] you are from the opposition; as long as you are a member of the public, you can make a complaint. We even take complaints by non-Malaysians.
How has this incident affected the PCB?
I look at it positively. The function of the PCB has not been interrupted; in fact, it has further enhanced our public profile. Because of this incident, more people came to know about us.
For us, we are civil servants. We just do our work.