HAVING served in the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) for almost four years, I must say that the default image the public has about government officers is that they are corrupt. It is hard not to be categorised as such when there are plenty of news articles that point towards impropriety in both conduct and use of government funds.
This default assumption that government officers are corrupt is reinforced by the manner in which the government operates, a process sometimes devoid of documented procedures. The public only has verbal assurances that these things would be done.
I will illustrate this point with two stories.
“You don’t need to know the reason.”
The first story starts with a man knocking on my office door asking for help in getting his pub license renewed. He had been operating his pub for 10 years without incident until the MBPJ Licensing Department decided that he could not renew his license.
“The licensing officers told me verbally that the police had instructed the council not to renew my license, but the officers won’t even tell me who gave the instruction or give me a letter to tell me exactly what it was I had done wrong,” said the pub operator.
“I have gone to the police station and enquired if there was a police report against my premises and met with senior police officers from one department to the next, but none of them seem to know anything about this.”
After listening to this man’s tale, we paid the licensing department a visit. The officer who met me said there was a letter from the cops stating that the pub was suspected of illegal activities and had instructed the council not to issue the business license.
I explained to the officer that it was the right of the person to know exactly what they did wrong so they could rectify the problem. I said the council should release the letter from the police to the pub owner so that he could take the matter to the cops. After all, if the person were truly guilty, the council should do more than just disallow his license renewal but charge him for the offence and fine him.
The officer, however, said the letter was protected under the Official Secrets Act and refused to release it. That prompted an official letter from me to the department in which I said I wanted the letter in question to prove that the council was not victimising the pub owner, failing which the council should renew the license. That seemed to do the trick, as a copy of the police letter reached my office a few weeks later.
The one-page letter, signed by a police officer, merely stated that the council was advised not to renew the operating license because the cops suspected that there were guest relations officers (GROs) operating in the pub. There was no mention of when the alleged offence occurred or any evidence that GROs were indeed caught on the pub’s premises.
When the pub owner found out, he was rather miffed. “Show me where the GROs in my pub are?” he said. “When did they come to raid my place? Where’s the police report that booked the GROs?”
“Please come back again (and again).”
The next story involves an architect who had gone to the council three times to get approval for her client’s house renovation plan. Each time, she was told that the plans were incomplete and that she had not complied with a particular requirement.
“How f***ing difficult is it to tell me the first time what the requirements are?” she asked, flabbergasted by the incompetence of the council. “If these officers want me to f***ing pay them, just say it! I’ll gladly pay. Don’t waste my time!”
I asked if she knew who the officers were and if she wanted to file a complaint, but she was not sure if she could identify the officers since different persons had met her each time.
To resolve her predicament, I told her that I would accompany her on her next visit to the council’s Building Control Department when she submitted the plans for the fourth time. I sat there and said nothing, and again the officer attending to her said there was something missing from the plans.
I stepped in and asked how the council could allow this to happen and make the architect come back four times to submit paperwork. The officer then quickly added that the requirement was minor and it could be handwritten on the plans and approval would be given.
Ignorance is not bliss
What both scenarios had in common was the difficulty the complainants had in obtaining the information they needed. They were always instructed verbally, with no black and white ever given to spell out explicitly how they should go about their business and receive a speedy response. The rules constantly change depending on who you ask.
These examples are by no means the only cases that I have dealt with and only illustrate why it will take more than just the simple passing of a Freedom of Information Enactment (FOIE) to make things all hunky dory.
In fact, the FOIE would not even come into play if the public doesn’t know what it is they need to ask for. The public will only end up turning to politicians for help.
Is it any wonder then, with the system being so inefficient, that the public perceive government officers to be corrupt by default?
KW Mak is a former MBPJ Councillor. He is now looking for a job. He is a decent investigative journalist, specialising in uncovering obscure government documents that people don’t want him to find.