Civil servants are responsible too

AUG 3 — Support letters (or endorsement letters) are an indictment of a society driven by who you know rather than what you have to offer or qualify for. We live in such a society.

So before we all get high and mighty about elected or appointed political officials issuing support letters as a means to smoothen over applications, processes and access, you have to admit that the culture exists. Because to assume that any culture — something which is seamlessly present in our thinking and conditioning — is easily removed is as naive as to assume politicians are more responsible for change in society than the people who live in that society.

To me, the idea that change is the domain of political leaders is tacit acceptance of a feudal society, and support letters are an extension of such a society.

Civil servants are used to a system where they prioritise people based not on merit but on connection.

I wrote one introduction letter for a person applying for a business licence in my zone in Sepang during my tenure as local councillor.

The letter specified that the letter was only to confirm that the person was from the district — since I was informed that only persons residing in Sepang could apply for that type of business licence.

I took pains to stipulate in the letter that the objective of the letter was only to confirm the applicant’s residency and should not factor into whether he was any more eligible for the application above other potential applicants.

But then again I was just a minor official. I suppose letters from state assemblymen or even the Mentri Besar would open doors and hoist people to business opportunities mortals can only dream of.

And that is the real complaint here that some people are getting a strong hand up while those further from the reach of power are disadvantaged.

The problem here is process and our civil service has institutionalised discretionary powers as a means to decide. The issue here is not specifically about politicians issuing out letters, but also civil servants using them as a basis to distinguish applicants — reducing the merit of an applicant.

Since most things are decided by quiet conversations in corridors, relationships and makan events, then support letters are just in-line with that culture.

Because while the political revolution continues and the considerable strength on both sides of the political divide results in one side forcing the other to comply to be more transparent, reasonable and fair, the rakyat are still living their lives in the present.

They still need to get their Ramadan bazaar licence, get the health department to approve their cleanliness status, apply for rent of agricultural land and etc. And they believe that letters help.

Can then the new guys voted in and their appointed minor officials reprimand the rakyat who come for what they are used to? Give them 15-minute lectures on the system of government and tell them they should just rely on their merits when dealing with civil servants?

Change takes time, endorsed by visible difference not by speeches by holier than thou politicians.

The political officials are in the wrong if they accept payment for their letters, or are issuing them to financially benefit themselves, friends or family members.

But what do we do about letter issued as a means to assist an electorate convinced for now that it is the way to do things?

The situation is tricky, and you are entitled to your opinion that politicians have to stand by a higher standard.

But why is it that civil servants, the thousands who outnumber the 288 local councillors and 35 Pakatan Rakyat lawmakers in Selangor for instance, are not held accountable for using support letters to make their decisions?

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