Merdeka checkpoint: Service, corruption, reward, volunteerism

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Where have we gone wrong since Merdeka?

Let’s not lose our focus and let’s do our part by always giving the best service – whether private, public or voluntary – living up to the maturity our 60th merdeka anniversary suggests, writes Mary Chin.

Malaysia on the world map

Low, low-middle, upper-middle, high – these are the four income groups the World Bank assigns to the world’s economies.

Scan the list of low-income economies (GNI per capita of ≤ $1,005) for countries with a name beginning with M: we find Madagascar, Malawi, Mali and Mozambique. Malaysia isn’t there.

Move on to the list of low-middle-income economies (GNI per capita of $1,006-$3,955): we find 53 entries. Among them, those with a name starting with M are Mauritania, Micronesia, Moldova, Mongolia, Morocco and Myanmar. Malaysia isn’t there either.

So, where is Malaysia? We are in the upper-middle group (GNI per capita of $3,956-$12,235), as assigned by the World Bank. In fact, Malaysia has been in this group since 1992. No new kid on the block here; we ought to be able to show some maturity.

If we plot the Human Development Index (HDI) against the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), we find ourselves not outlying awkwardly in the least glorious corner (Figure 1 – click on graph below to enlarge).

We can take this as either a relief or a motivation – acknowledging that there are countries of similar HDI but much better CPI.

As we celebrate our 60th year of merdeka (independence), this is a timely checkpoint: do we behave like citizens of a low-income, a low-middle-income or an upper-middle-income country?

Consider what the word, ‘service’ means to ourselves. (I really mean ourselves, not that corrupt guy next door.)

Evolving notions of ‘service’

As a kid, my earliest notion of the word ‘service’ was paired with the word ‘government’. Being in government service meant:

  • transfers, sometimes against the family’s preference, sometimes reversible on request;
  • an alternative less ambitious (if not less greedy) option instead of joining the private sector or starting up a business;
  • (in return) job security, pension and minimal risks.

That’s about receiving, not giving – quite contrary to the word ‘service’. I am delighted to acknowledge that we have since moved on quite a bit. Recall the times when nurses in government hospitals had such ultimate supremacy over patients that some were free to be unreasonable. They shouted at patients at will. For them, the phrase ‘duty of care’ did not exist. There was nothing we could do about it. Today, our nurses are not like that.

Among struggling nations, it is understandable (and somewhat forgiveable) that people would have that longing for a government job to secure a better life, a better future for the family. Along this spectrum of glittering opportunities, an innocent stretch may gradually slide towards grey; a grey stretch may gradually slide towards corruption.

Patronage, lobbying, clientelism, embezzlement, bribery – it’s a slippery slope

Once a nation is no longer struggling for basic needs, individuals should then be able to put themselves in the context of a bigger whole. When we are no longer hungry, don’t let that memory of hunger haunt and dictate the rest of our lives. When it is time to shake it off, shake it off; kick it all behind us; stop hoarding; move on.

Here are some signs of a progressive people:

  • seeing one’s job as a vocation rather than an income revenue;
  • being able to serve with a duty of care;
  • pursuing a passion or a cause rather than social status and recognition;
  • being able to embrace others with a sense of solidarity;
  • treasuring time and possessions independent of monetary values;
  • looking for authenticity rather than glamour.

Here are some symptoms of the contrary:

  • wanting goyang-kaki (laid-back) jobs in grand offices;
  • creativity always taking shape as income-generating revenues;
  • lacking passion and values;
  • focusing on one’s self and family;
  • feeling the need to impress;
  • believing that there is no free lunch;
  • needing to be differentiated from the others.

This syndrome have already been discussed at length in a previous article.

As a young adult, I encountered my second notion of the word ‘service’ as part of a religious teaching stubbornly insisting on servanthood – that we must serve rather than be served.

My third notion of ‘service’ came in the form of an expression as a civil servant myself — accountability, justifiability and solidarity. Every step I took and every decision I made had to be justifiable, and I was ready to answer for it as long as I lived. Being ordinary was always the preferred option eg the preference to walk wherever it was walkable and the preference for public transport and the economy cabin.

I take pride in having drunk tap water for the past 14 years, not in owning a RM30,000 water filter system. Call it a habit, belief or lifestyle, it has become an integral part of me even as I am out of civil service. It is a matter of principle, not money.

Have I ever flown first-class? Yes – only when invited by the airline: the airline offered me complimentary upgrades as a frequent flyer. Have I ever booked first class? Never, even when I had back-to-back long hauls, which I do find a bit of a stretch.

Why should I, when the director of European Spallation Source didn’t? He was EasyJet’s most frequent flyer at the time he was my boss. And he didn’t get any reporter to photograph him and splash it the newspapers that he was more bersih (clean of corruption) than so-and-so. Note: EasyJet, a low-cost airline. Not Lufthansa. That is a belief and a way of life.

Friends ask, “This airline and that, how good is their service?”

My answer would be, “If you need something, ask and you shall be given.” What do we expect as good service? People on bended knees serving us like royalty? Why such a need? Yet another symptom of some behaving as if we were less than an upper-middle economy.

All those hotel ratings about the ‘poor service’ by that woman at the front desk – how many more plastic smiles and compliments do we want to expect?

Likewise, “we have a maid at home” is often announced with such confidence. Sometimes even two maids or three. Pride does not get misplaced this way in civilised societies, where people take pride in cleaning after themselves until and unless they are unable to. And that is not for saving money, for goodness sake, Malaysians; it is a matter of principle.

Failing our service

Services whether private, public, or voluntary should all strive for excellence. In recent years, propaganda and social media have thrown many Malaysians out of balance and objectivity – zooming in to just one tiny corner, getting completely absorbed, and forgetting all the rest.

If we tag every service by the ringgit and lower our expectations of voluntary services, if we lower the bar and condone failed services just because they are voluntary, we continue to fail those we claim to serve. We stoop low. We have got too used to offering goods and services which are better than nothing.

Some charities try to discipline donors against donating used (and over-used) clothes. It is now time to scrutinise non-material donations in the form of voluntary service.

It is easy and convenient to see volunteerism and corruption as opposite extremes of the monetary rewards of labour. The angelic against the demonic end. Volunteers, however, shouldn’t be too quick to give themselves a pat on the back.

On the one hand, throughout our merdeka history we have seen many noble voluntary efforts that have borne fruit.

On the other hand, many voluntary efforts have fallen short. Many bad volunteers escaped screening, scrutiny and accountability. One doesn’t need to commit a crime to be held responsible; offering diluted services is a failing. Some religious traditions specifically warn against wrongs by both action and omission (inaction).

A good analogy is investment – storing cash (instead of investing) is not seen as zero-gain, but as a loss (of the returns which could have been). By the same token, offering services – whether public, paid for or voluntary – that are anything less than excellent is a loss which has to be answered for.

Take education, for example. Under-privileged children who cannot attend school can in fact be excellent candidates for quality home education – like what many locals and expats provide for their chilldren as an alternative to schooling.

Yet, how many of these under-privileged children in fact receive quality education? Ever so often we give them scraps, crumbs and leftovers. ‘Better than nothing’ – that is the typical, local mentality of seeing a beggar in every receiving soul. Beggars have no choice.

We set a lower baseline for others, that they deserve less, that they must be eternally grateful for any bits offered. Do we think those kids can’t tell who is a good, knowing teacher and who isn’t? Think about it. Of course they do! By providing low-quality services, we make fools of all parties.

Palpate our nation – we find ourselves so divided. The biggest division of this day is self-righteousness – that we are more noble than the guy next door, more noble by all sorts of criteria ranging from dietary to political beliefs.

Let’s not lose our focus and let’s do our part by always giving the best service – whether private, public or voluntary – living up to the maturity our 60th merdeka anniversary suggests.

As we aim for greater progress, let’s be a role model for our neighbours. In addition to good roads, trains, healthcare and quality banknotes that can withstand circulation and handling, we should have some Asian values to bear testimony to – hopefully not too kiasu and not too confused.

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