Monday, April 21, 2008

To be a councilor

PETALING JAYA: Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak yesterday voiced his support for a proposal to have members of the Institute of Engineers Malaysia serving as local councillors.

That is an excerpt from NST yesterday 20th April 2008.

I couldn’t help but smile. At least I can now say proudly, I have been there, done that.

In that same report, IEM President said that his members are willing to serve all states. That means the opposition (now Pakatan Rakyat) states too. Maybe that’s because an engineer is now a state Menteri Besar in Perak.

I had been there as a councilor in Kuala Terengganu once for a short while during the tail end of PAS rules, for about four months. It was out of sincere desire to help and against my better judgement. Come 2004, it was all over. Making up for the ‘punishment’ I had to endure afterward when the state goes back to Barisan, was the exposure to the system, fathoming the depth of problems, learning first hand why things simply can’t get done and more than anything else making friends with the top to the bottom of the municipal power rung. What I could not understand to these days was the blind hatred from the other side of the political divide.

I must say now that I accepted the councilor post innocently, thinking that it was nothing more than a professional seat as allocated in the Local Government Act. The first sign of trouble was when friends started to desert me, saying things like I was being groomed for the higher position in the party. What party? I had not been a member of any party. I was later informed that PAS Youth objected to my appointment saying that I had been an UMNO man. Yes and no. I was quite visible during Dato Seri Wan Mokhtar’s administration, doing some visible projects for the state. No I was not a party member. My father did however without fail paid my UMNO membership subscription but that was in the old UMNO. Post 1988, I was told my application to UMNO Baru was not entertained. Well, I never get my membership card to say the least but it never bothers me. When PAS rule was over I was in turn branded a PAS man. So I was both an UMNO and PAS ‘member’ without even being in membership. That was cool. Anyway that story would be reserved for my autobiography.

This blog article is for me to share my experience.

As a practicing professional, an architect or an engineer can’t be an effective councilor. At least, me. Too often I had to excuse myself from the meeting because it is legally and morally wrong to be involved and worse to decide in meetings where my projects were being discussed. I could participate in technical meetings and seek to be excused when any of my project was up for deliberation. But technical meeting was only at the third level in importance. The way it was structured, I almost couldn’t participate at all in the full council meeting because that one project I was doing is lumped with the rest of the papers and I could not be involved at all. So the few of us professional councilor ended having tea when the full council was in session, practically leaving it to the quasi-politicians.

The councilor post however was powerful enough to move something. I believe I had successfully introduced the compulsory requirement for architects to have an appointment letter from the client before his plan could be accepted. I did that because many architects had complained of clients running away with the approved plan without paying the fee. At least that appointment letter can be used to take them to court later if need be. I too was part of the effort to implement (or was it to continue implementing?) the one day building plan approval and to rightly reinterpret the term temporary building much to the chagrin of the legal advisor. Temporary building could then be built better. Again this is not about self promotion and the fun ended so soon. I will keep the story to another day.

What kind of people were in the council?
The strongest voice I would say was the government appointee by way of their post, District Officer for instance. The Yang Di Pertua normally was the political appointee and in my time the state assemblymen himself. So was the majority of the seats - filled with Ketua Cawangan, Ketua Wanita (or was it Muslimah) and Ketua Pemuda. I was jolted when someone interjected with ‘Yang Di Pertua, ini kawasan saya. Rumah ni rumah orang kita.' (This is my area. The house belong to our people.) The meeting in general was sombre. Few actually raise their voices except when it was about ‘kawasan saya’ or ‘orang kita’. Fewer bother to read the Act and By-Laws depending in turn on every words of the legal advisor, happy waiting for a deadlock and vote by show of hand. That’s power mind you. Agitated, I at least forced the Majlis to provide them with a set of the by-laws and got a nice attache to go with it. And then there were the few loud professionals – us.

How much can you achieve?
How much depended on three things. One, the political willingness. Two, the council’s money and three, the capacity of the officer. Four if I would add is trust. In general, councils are poor and running on tight budget. Majlis in our time could not even afford laptop and projector, much less equip the officer with digital camera and transport. We even had to move a motion in the council meeting for the officers to be well equipped and the budget be found for it. (Fortunately or unfortunately power change happened so soon and we could not see the result. Anyway the Majlis under the new Barisan government seems flushed with new four wheelers it could have been attributed to us too (wink). The lack of fund forced us to be flexible. We introduced a system whereby applicants had to invite and drive the officers from the office to the project site for inspection. This system was almost shot down for fear of corruption. The liberal among us interjected that given our capacity we can’t afford to be choosy at the expense of efficiency. We too had to stress that the law is hard enough and anyone if corrupted can be brought down legally. That was the issue of trust. Trust is also about empowerment. More power could actually be delegated to the technical officers, reducing the load on the council and in the final count tremendously improve the delivery.

What I found heartening was the sincerity and sacrifice of the officers, working within a limiting environment, poorly equipped, badly understaffed and worse, distrusted. The few had to attend the so many meetings and functions leaving them with little time to work effectively. The time is also consumed by the systems of meetings, deliberation of minutes and approval. Some quarters complained that the council is being used to deliberately delay or reject applications despite obtaining technical support and approvals. I must state that I did not find so despite the system working exactly that way. The officers if given trust and empowered could achieve much more. I was very sure of that.

To be continued.

To be branded.
Do I want to do it again?
How professionals can contribute.

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