Angeline Loh describes a long overdue meeting between the Citizens for Public Transport (Cepat) and the chief of the Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board (CVLB) – a meeting which provided little hope and came 15 years too late for Penang’s bus system (or rather, bus chaos).
The date 5 January 2007 seemed historic, at least for members of the Citizens for Public Transport (Cepat). This band of Penang-based NGOs has been gnawing at the debacle of Penang’s public transport for nearly two years since the coalition was formed in 2005. The coalition has had to wrestle with a public transport problem that has grown to unmanageable and uncontrollable proportions over the past 10 to 15 years since the illegal “pajak” bus leasing system sneaked in along with the government’s privatisation scheme.
This was all due to the fact that neither Federal/State authorities nor the Commercial Vehicles Licensing Board (CVLB) took any responsibility to see to the proper implementation of such a privatization exercise according to the law. Mismanagement and illegal “pajak” ran rampant and still prevail in the State’s public bus system.
For months, Cepat had haggled with all these government agencies, attempting to bring home to them the fact that people, particularly the lower-income community, the aged and the disabled, were suffering because of the dismal public transport system in the State. Not only that, Penang itself suffers as traffic congestion and pollution worsens and tourism takes a plunge. Even taxi drivers are grumbling that they cannot get as many drives to hotels from the airport – ferrying tourists or business people – as they used to. This comes straight from the horse’s mouth!
Cepat had repeatedly requested to meet with the CVLB who are directly responsible for allowing the current chaotic and oppressive state of affairs to prevail. The CVLB and both local and Federal authorities were evasive and assumed a fault-finding attitude towards Cepat’s requests. Cepat persisted in haggling with the State government, represented by Dr Teng Hock Nan, and were very frequently led on a wild goose chase or to a dead-end. Promises have been made, but all these appear characteristically as merely so much hot air billowing from government mouthpieces.
In mid-2006, the CVLB saw a change of leadership, with Markiman Kobiran stepping into the driver’s seat. He is the MP for Ulu Langgat, Selangor, and operates from Putrajaya. Cepat’s requests for a meeting continued with this change-over. There seemed a certain reluctance by Markiman, at first, to meet representatives of this apparently troublesome civil society coalition who demanded radical changes in the state’s public transport system and in the government’s attitude and mentality towards public crises. It took months and many excuses by this CVLB chief to finally consent to a meeting in Penang, where the reality of the problems are manifest. Cepat had turned down his request to meet in Putrjaya in December last year.
On 5 January 2007, seven Cepat representatives from various Penang-based NGOs gathered in the lobby of the Penang Municipal Council (MPPP) in Komtar for a 9.30am meeting with the CVLB at Teng’s office. They were well prepared with a Power-point presentation on CD-Rpm illustrating the steadily deteriorating state of Penang’s public transport system. The record of shortcomings in the system was well documented. Dr Choong Sim Poey of the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) and Joachim Xavier of the Penang Office for Human Development (POHD) also brought a laptop and LCD equipment, as back-up, in case none was supplied.
In the conference room on the 53rd Floor of Komtar, the Cepat seven took their places on the right of the conference table, where audio-visual equipment and a laptop had been set up. A few minutes later, Markiman and his CVLB entourage of ten, filed in and occupied seats on the left of the conference table. After the ritual hand-shaking, there was a long pause, as Teng, who was to chair the session was delayed. About eight minutes later, Teng finally appeared.
This was a closed-door meeting, at the request of Markiman and Teng. It is perhaps to the government’s credit that Cepat was allowed to present their case, before any comment was made by the government side. Nevertheless, there were ugly moments during the discussion where false accusations of rude language and usage of “four-letter” words was made by former councillor Shah Headan against Joachim Xavier, with reference to past meetings with the local authority. B K Ong (Bus Users Group), in defence of Joachim Xavier, reminded Shah Headan that Cepat had proof in its recordings of those meetings that this was not so.
At this point, there was a brief stand-off, which threatened to abort further discussion. This was hastily resolved by Teng. The accusations of the ex-councillor were baseless and obviously intended to disrupt civilised discussion. Hopefully, the YB will make a mental note to exclude from his future negotiating team members of Shah Headan’s disposition.
The YB himself started off by labelling the statement of the problems as “grandfather and grandmother stories”. In response, Joachim Xavier reminded him that due to these problems that continued to this day, “our grandfathers and grandmothers” were stuck at home.
The manner adopted by some government ministers and civil servants, whether high- or low- ranking, in negotiations and discussions with civil society organisations seems to be less than civil. It is a wonder that this should be so, as the government frequently preaches ‘sikap berbudi bahasa’ (courtesy) all over the media and on large posters and advertisements displayed in every public place.
NGOs also have the distinct impression that these discussions are meant to be monologues rather than dialogues, where government representatives take the attitude of “we talk and you listen” and that there is only one perspective to an issue, the government’s perspective. Whether the usage of such tactics is deliberate or simply thoughtless reveals the authorities’ reluctance and lack of professionalism to sit down and discuss in good faith and in a civilized manner the complex problems faced by the electorate.
Civil society groups have become familiar with the common tactic used to stop questions raised regarding opinions given by government representatives. These government representatives demand to be heard first before they entertain any questions or they treat civil society representatives like children and rudely reproach them for being uncivilised. It is amazing that this kind of accusatory rhetoric can come from the government’s side, which frequently interrupts when any civil society representative is talking or cuts them short without paying any attention to what is being said. This discredits the assumption that the government is serious in wanting to look into and resolve the problems faced by Malaysians. How can such problems be resolved when officials cannot demonstrate sufficient patience and interest, let alone courtesy, by giving their attention to civil society representatives who have first-hand knowledge of these problems.
Such less than courteous behaviour from people of whom more is expected by the electorate reveals a lack of interest and concern for pressing local needs. The need to shroud such discussions on public problems in secrecy, behind closed doors, along with the apparent fear of public criticism and query, means that such meetings amount to little more than an unavoidable evil for the government and a mere public relations exercise to give the electorate the false impression that the administration cares about their problems.
Despite this, Cepat has done well to create a “talking space” between civil society and the government on this protracted issue of Penang’s public transport woes. The meeting closed after two hours on an apparently amicable note with the anticipation of future meetings, although Cepat members politely declined Teng’s invitation to an early lunch at 11.30 am.
In hindsight… Too little and 15 years late?
It is the timing of this meeting that raises the question, Why now? Next year could be an election year and from March 2004 to the close of 2006, citizens and non-citizens resident in the country have seen too many ill-conceived policies and government actions creating more discrepancy and inequality – politically, economically, socially and even along religious lines. Penang’s public transport is one of these important issues. The rumbles of dissatisfaction with the government’s apathetic and half-hearted responses to public complaints have begun to seemingly cause discomfort to the ruling coalition.
Yet, the disappointing result of Cepat’s hard-won meeting with the CVLB was again another unsubstantial promise by the CVLB and the Penang State government. The introduction of the “Bas Negeri Pulau Pinang” plan is acceptable for a start, with the anticipation of more improvement as time goes by. Yet there is no real assurance by the authorities of putting this plan into action or of ensuring enforcement of legal requirements in bus operators’ permits. The solution is clear and waiting to be enforced, either bus operators get their act together or be put off the road, having their licences withdrawn. Penangites have waited 15 years for the authorities to act – and are still waiting, giving them chance after nauseating chance. And all the assurance the government can give is another airy promise of implementation of new plans, without a definite time frame, and no promise at all as to when it will seriously consider enforcing the law!
It appears that the private bus operators and companies are ruling the country’s public transport system using the illegal “pajak” system to control the mobility of citizens and their spending power. Penang is a test case; the government also admits that public transport services in other parts of the country are in a dismal state and that it is private-company controlled. The government has no power to deal with the situation nor has it any idea of how to gain control over public transport services through law enforcement. Markiman wanted Cepat to understand this. That was one of the government’s last requests at the closure of the meeting with Cepat.
The public should not wait with bated breath for the government to act as we will surely die of suffocation before our interests are given a thought by the powers-that-be!
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