WHEN the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) sent two officers to inspect the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM)’s premises in Damansara Kim, MBPJ deputy mayor Puasa Md Taib explained the visit by stating: “Given the controversy recently, we decided to be proactive and get full information regarding the building. It is our responsibility to know when the building approval was received, to check on its licence, etc.”
This justification was echoed by Pakatan Rakyat (PR) elected representatives, who said that the council was merely following standard operation procedures (SOPs) which had resulted in a misunderstanding.
Was the inspection of the BSM’s premises, right after it had been illegally raided by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais), justifiable? And what are the larger issues surrounding both the Jais raid and the city council’s action?
An apology and explanation for the visit were tendered on the same day of MBPJ’s site inspection. But was there really a need for the council to investigate in the first place?
Building plans are approved by the MBPJ Building Department. When a building is completed, an officer inspects the building. If the building was built according to specifications, a certificate of fitness or a certificate of completion and compliance is issued.
The building plans are then transferred to the MBPJ Valuation Department to enable the council to calculate the assessment charges and bill the building owner accordingly. These plans are then kept as a permanent record.
Meanwhile, the licensing department simply needs to cross reference its database to see if the business premise was properly licensed.
If we are to believe the deputy mayor about the information required by the council, there would actually have been no need to investigate the BSM’s premises. So was the council’s action harassment, as alleged by the BSM? Or has MBPJ indirectly admitted that it is really bad at record keeping — that it is incompetent?
Nevertheless, MBPJ did send officers to investigate the BSM and claimed that the exercise was in adherence with its SOP. This was subsequently verified by PR elected representatives. This has legal ramifications, as per Section 125 of the Local Government Act:
125. (1) No matter or thing done and no contract entered into by the Commissioner of the City of Kuala Lumpur or by the Mayor or President, Councillor, officer or employee of the local authority or by any person acting under the direction of a local authority shall, if the matter or thing was done or the contract was entered into bona fide for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this Act or of any by-laws, rules, or regulations subject him personally to any action, liability, claim or demand whatsoever.
(2) Any expense incurred by the Commissioner of the City of Kuala Lumpur, Mayor or President, Councillor, officer or employee or person under subsection (1) shall be borne and paid out of the Local Authority Fund.
With the council’s inspection of the BSM classified as SOP, the officers are indemnified from being personally liable. And if the council is sued, it would be able to pay for legal fees and damages, if any, with ratepayers’ money.
The law is meant to protect the government and officers who serve under it from malicious lawsuits. But it is also apparent that the SOP can be easily abused to cover up any ill intent or incompetence on the government’s part. For example, wasn’t Jais’s illegal raid of the BSM premises and the arrest of its staff also part of its SOP? Indeed, the PR-led Selangor government has confirmed it as such.
Who’s in charge?
The real question is, who is in charge of governance at the state level? And is the Selangor government capable of offering solutions that can protect the constitutional rights of citizens and bodies within the state?
Following the 2 Jan 2014 Jais raid of the BSM, Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim has attempted to introduce a new SOP for Jais — in the future, the religious authority must obtain the state exco’s permission before it conducts raids.
Unfortunately, these instructions are not solutions and are akin to sweeping problems under the carpet. It remains a fact that the Selangor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation among Muslims) Enactment 1988, which Jais relied on to raid the BSM, could still be enforced if the state government wished to.
Additionally, there’s already rebellion from within the ranks of Jais, not to mention objections from the Selangor Islamic Religious Council. Jais enforcement officer Salehuddin Saidin has declared that the Selangor state exco cannot change the agency’s SOPs.
For certain, this is only an opinion. Department heads can introduce new procedures to carry out the law. And since department heads can get transferred or sacked for insubordination if the state exco so orders, the menteri besar’s directive to change the SOP surely cannot be ignored.
Yet, many senior government officers are also under the federal-level Public Services Department, which can similarly transfer or freeze their promotion. This means that a conflicting set of orders can be given by both the state and federal governments.
The result is what we’ve seen happen in the past: an MBPJ mayor being transferred or a state secretary being appointed without the state government’s consent, creating a tussle over jurisdiction and providing no solution.
Passing the buck
With these uncertainties over who’s really in charge, the public outrage from Muslims and non-Muslims alike over Jais’s actions, and the crossing of legal boundaries, it has become easier for both the Barisan Nasional (BN) and the PR to keep passing the buck to each other.
When it comes to the Jais raid, the PR Selangor government cannot simply cast blame on the BN. Why? Because it is well within the state government’s right and jurisdiction to either amend the Selangor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Among Muslims) Enactment 1988, or declare and affirm that the law is valid.
Indeed, a proposal to amend the enactment has already been mooted by three DAP state assemblypersons. However, the PR leadership has taken the trio to task over their proposal.
Therein lies both a challenge and an opportunity for the Selangor government. It has the opportunity to take a clear position on what’s happening in the state, and to demonstrate who is in charge in Selangor. The challenge is whether it will take a clear position. If it doesn’t, it will only allow itself to be sabotaged, and to be seen as a weak, indecisive and ineffective government.
KW Mak believes the problem with most politicians is that they consider issues to be like a math equation: how many votes is an issue worth?