Sharon Ling, a former MP’s assistant, reflects on the complications and causes of having to ‘serve the people’.
“Wayang!” screamed Malaysian internet-users at a recent photo of Wee Ka Siong, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, caught in action after the Kelantan floods – or rather, caught awkwardly poking a broom at the same spot as his four kakis.
Like many others, I had a good laugh. But I suspect that despite the criticisms, there were probably as many praises for Wee Ka Siong’s show of service. “Wah, YB turun padang.” “YB is doing work.” “YB understands the rakyat!” and so on.
Today, “YBs must serve the people!” is a common cry amongst Malaysians. But what does ‘serving the people’ mean? What do Malaysians expect from their Members of Parliament and Ahli Dewan Undangan Negeris (State Assemblypersons) – and why?
Speaking from experience – what kind of ‘service’ do people expect?
In 2004, former Bandar Kuching MP Sim Kwang Yang lamented in his article ‘What do the voters want?’ that “in theory, members of parliament and the state legislative assemblies are supposed to vet government expenditure, deliberate on national political problems, and examine as well as vote on legislations.
“[However], serving public and national interest has been trivialised into serving individual voters during non-election years. Honourable YBs will not hesitate to look at longkang and garbage dumps, and are the first to appear at the scene of a fire. They fill forms for the people, to apply for all sorts of things… Most of all, they have to run errands on behalf of their constituents, in applying for development projects and such other things.”
Sim was MP from 1982 to 1995; this situation has not changed after 33 years. When I was an MP’s assistant, our office was flooded everyday with phone calls and emails on exactly what Sim described.
Over two years, we received complaints about stray dogs, potholes, illegal factories, flash floods and so on. A few constituents did ask about national issues that my boss raised in Parliament, such as GST, electoral redelineation, corruption and the Federal Budget – but this did not happen often. Instead, we often heard “YB, we voted for you – now solve this problem!”
So how did “YB, serve the people” become “YB is responsible for everything”? For me, there are two kinds of reasons for this – cultural and institutional.
Cultural causes of ‘YB culture’ – patron-clientalism and feudalism
A huge cause of ‘YB culture’ is the stubborn persistence of patron-clientalism and feudalism. In patron-clientalism, the patron (the YB) who has authority and status (and often wealth) gives or diverts resources and services to clients (rakyat), who give support (and votes) in return.
Najib’s blatant “You help me, I help you” offer during the 2010 Sibu by-elections shocked many – but it reflects how Malaysian politics has been for decades, and it is what many voters expect.
Clientalism includes direct vote-buying, such as cash handouts. But it can also mean promises, said or unsaid – to ‘bring development’ to a neglected community, to fix longstanding problems such as roads, to ensure that voters get tangible benefits.
Feudalism, which goes hand-in-hand with patron-clientalism, is alive and well in Malaysia, thanks to our social conditioning to defer to authority. Whoever holds the title of “YB” is usually treated as a VIP and someone of influence – whether or not he or she deserves this respect. This helps maintain public perceptions – and the sad reality – that “YB” usually has a better chance of being heard by government bureaucrats and mobilising government resources.
It is not surprising, therefore, that voters still approach YBs on this basis – even Opposition YBs, who historically have had less clout and funds to meet these demands.
Institutional causes – unresponsive government agencies and taking matters into one’s hands
But culture is only one cause; institutional problems are another. From my experience, the “YB culture” is reinforced by government agencies failing to solve problems efficiently – leading frustrated constituents to use YB as an emergency hotline. Rubbish lies uncollected for weeks (due to contractor negligence), flash floods run on for months (due to poor urban planning), illegal factories operate for years (due to poor enforcement or corruption), and so on.
Action may be slow – or there may be none at all. “We already complained to MPSJ/JKR/Syabas/TNB/the police/etc, and used all the official channels. But the problem is still there!” angry constituents pleaded to us.
In the end, it fell to “YB’s office” to make a call or write a letter, and ‘put pressure’ on the bureaucracy to ‘speed up the complaint’ process!
“YB culture” can also be encouraged by YBs themselves when they take matters into their own hands, out of necessity or frustration. When a local problem surfaces (or resurfaces), YBs often feel pressured to intervene instead of leaving constituents to sort it out directly with the relevant agencies.
Take, for example, the Selangor water crisis in early 2014 – which left thousands of angry Malaysians without water for weeks. Although Syabas supplied emergency tankers, it was unclear when full water supply would return, and there were gaps in delivery. In the end, Aduns and their teams rented their own tankers and drove all over their constituencies, delivering water to residents!
Rightly or wrongly, I do think that YBs feel gratified (and relieved!) when problems are fixed, and consituents thank them profusely, and they are therefore motivated to ‘work for the people’ in times of need. After all, happy voters are hard to resist.
Will ‘YB culture’ ever change?
Sadly, I do not think ‘YB culture’ will change soon. Many Malaysians feel powerless and disconnected from government and continue to demand out of desperation that their YBs personally ‘do something’ to improve their welfare.
Local emergencies, such as the water crisis, can drag on for long enough to force a YB’s attention. As long as bureaucracies are seen as slow, unresponsive and not accountable, Malaysians will have little faith in ‘using proper channels’ rather than running straight to YBs. And as long as YBs are seen as playing a part in solving those problems, history will repeat itself.
So despite the hilarity over Wee Ka Siong and his broom, I have some sympathy for the man. He probably felt he was doing nothing wrong. After all, he was acting his part as “YB” as he knew it – ‘doing something’ about the problem, serving the people, and saving the day. His only failure, perhaps, was looking like he had absolutely no idea what he was doing.
And truthfully, in a better Malaysia – with a better public understanding of YBs’ roles, a more responsive government, and a new people-centric politics which breaks away from ‘YB culture’ – someone like Wee Ka Siong should not have to hold that broom, in the first place.
She recently participated in Aliran’s Young Writers Workshop on Good Governance and Democracy and a second one on Federalism and Decentralisation, both supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.
She credits the workshops for kicking her longstanding writer’s block.