Citizens’ Low Expectations of Their Government

By M. Bakri Musa

 It is a sad reflection of the citizens’ low expectations of their government and public institutions that the recent collapse of the Perak State Park Corporation’s building in Tasik Banding, Gerik, no longer provokes an outrage. The general reaction seems to be, “What’s new?” At this rate, soon only the buildings that stand would make the headlines!

Yes, Works Minister Samy Vellu feigned shock and anger, while Mentri Besar Tajol Roslin promised a “full investigation” of this latest disaster. We have heard those promises and reassurances too often before. Yet these new buildings keep collapsing or leaking, and half-baked projects like the crooked bridge to replace the causeway have to be scrapped.

From yet another perspective, or to “spin” it differently, it was indeed a blessing that such government facilities as the new Kuching Prison were not completed. With such shoddy constructions, it would have been a massive and tragic human trap, not a prison.

Only a few years ago there was a serious breach of security at the nearby Grik Army Base. The heist was perpetrated not by a gang of superbly trained infiltrators rather a rag tag bunch of sarong-clad village bums. Then too there was the promise by Defense Minister Najib Razak of a White Paper to get to “the bottom of the issue.” There was only one problem: It was only a promise.

About the only redeeming feature is that thus far these collapsed buildings involved no casualties. One view is that these structures are so poorly built that they collapse literally after the last nail was hammered and before they could be occupied. I wished these buildings would last just a wee bit longer, at least until the official opening ceremony when they could take down with them some important personalities, like the Prime Minister. It would that kind of tragedy to knock some sense into those in charge.

When such disasters happen, whether it is a flyway collapsing or a building tumbling down, I yearn for someone in authority to take full charge and do something sensible like what I suggest below.

He should order all those responsible, including the officers involved in awarding the tender, the building inspectors who certified the various stages of the construction, the contractors and main sub-contractors, architects, and engineers to come to his office to hear their side of the story and to ask them some tough questions.

At the end of that private meeting and preferably at an open press conference, he should declare that an independent investigation would be initiated, and pending the outcome of that inquiry he would:

· Put all public officials responsible with the project on immediate administrative leave without pay;
· Freeze all current and withdraw all awarded but not started public projects involving any of the contractors, consultants, and professionals;
· Send an immediate team of engineers to inspect the structural integrity of all government projects in which these principals were involved during the past ten years;
· Publicly announce the names of the public officials suspended as well as all the contractors, consultants and professionals involved so members of the public would be appropriately apprised of potential problems.

At the same time he would set up an independent investigative committee of experts to analyze the failures. The committee should meet in the open and its reports released to the public upon its submission to the government.

Alternatively contract out the forensic investigations to an outside expert consulting firms that specialize in these “failure analyses.” Caution is needed however. These forensic experts are used to being paid for by their clients, usually insurance companies or defense lawyers. Thus their forte often is less with finding the truth and more with shifting liabilities away from their clients.

As most of the failed structures are public properties, the government would inevitably be a party to any subsequent dispute or lawsuit. At the same time the government would be funding these investigative firms. The only way to ensure the independence and integrity of the investigation and forestall any charges of conflict of interest would be to have the committee work in the open and thus subject to public scrutiny during their hearings.

Anything less, and we have seen too many of those, and our officials and leaders would be derelict in their duties to the public. So far we have seen only the red faces of these officials.; the next time it could be their dead bodies in the rubbles.

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