On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Time to cut the frills

Be it food, mementos or speeches, Malaysians need to learn to do away with unnecessary protocol and time-wasting practices.

A HOLDING room may not be familiar to many. But if you do a Google search, it can refer to a room that is located in a licensed facility for the storage or holding of dead human bodies prior to their being disposed. Well, that’s one meaning.

Another definition is that it is a place for candidates sitting for an examination to wait, before the test begins.

For hospitals, the holding room is where final preparations are made before the patient is wheeled into the operating theatre. Here is where he gets to meet the surgeon, the anaesthesia provider and other members of the surgical team.

Well, in Malaysia, the holding room is where the VIP – who is the guest of honour for an event – would spend barely 20 ­minutes before making the grand entrance into the hall.

The holding room, naturally, has to be paid by the organisers despite it being under-­utilised. There have also been instances when the VIP does not even want to be in the holding room because he is already late for the function or he does not care about such formality.

It is about time that Malaysian politicians encourage the organisers of such events to dispense with this silly practice.

I have had the opportunity to see first-hand how British Prime Minister David Cameron threw away such protocol by walking straight into the hall and making his presence simple.

London’s Mayor Boris Johnson is even better. He cycles to an event – without the fanfare and often arriving unannounced.

Last year, I attended the launch of a sales gallery of a housing project in a suburb in Sydney. The Malaysian developer and his staff waited respectfully for the mayor to arrive in an official car but he surprised them by walking to the function.

In Singapore, the Cabinet ministers are not judged by how many times their pictures or statements appear in the media but they are judged by their performances. Their informal style, without the need for the presence of an entourage of accompanying officers and party hangers-on, is well known.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, in his blog posting on Feb 10, said expenses for official visits and events involving him and his Cabinet colleagues should be reduced in line with the Government’s austerity drive.

He mentioned that the organisers should avoid, wherever possible, red carpet welcomes, special meals and so on.

“Our main focus is the people, not protocol,” he said on his blog, NajibRazak.com.

This reminder is seriously long overdue but Malaysians want to see real action and not mere lip service. It will not be wrong to say that most Malaysians are generally tired of having to put up with the protocol involving politicians.

Such barriers do not help these leaders a single bit as it gives the impression, which the rakyat loathe, that they are special and must be treated special. More so when they constantly declare themselves as the people’s representatives. But they have to decide whether they wish to serve the rakyat or they want the rakyat to serve them.

And, of course, when can we do away with our 15-minute salutation of the special breed of Malaysians called “Tan Sri, Tan Sri, Puan Sri, Datuk Seri, Datuk Seri, Datin Seri, Datin Seri, Datuk Datuk dan Datin Datin” before it reaches the people who matter – the “tuan tuan dan puan puan”.

It may be a very Malaysian thing to be seen to be hospitable and appreciative by presenting a gift or a memento, as we like to call them here, at such events. But we know that most of these items end up collecting dust and are eventually disposed.

In short, these are items that the ­organisers should not spend money on. At one time, it was suggested that fruits be given instead, but it never caught on.

Works Minister Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusof must be commended for saying that his ­ministry has made it clear that no goodies are to be given to his staff, his deputy minister and himself during ministerial events.

“Even for all my working tours, we minimise or optimise cost by limiting the number of officers travelling and wherever we can, we cut cost,” he said, adding that he was more than happy to do away with protocol.

“I gave the instructions to my ministry and agencies when I became minister. Old habits die hard but slowly people are adjusting.”

Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak said the people should be able to have access to their respective leaders without too much red tape and bureaucracy, but most times, protocol gets in the way.

And this is not even Putrajaya but working visits by government leaders to various parts of the country to connect them to the people.

As what the Prime Minister said in the blog, Salleh reiterated that such working ­visits across the country must be about the people and not about protocol, red carpets and special meals.

We have to admit that food often takes centrestage at many such events graced by VIPs, whether organised by the public or private sector.

Malaysians like to treat their guests well and every function, even if not held over lunch or dinner, has a wide array of food served. We eat more than we should, as a result.

Most time this food is left unfinished and wasted. We only need three meals a day and really, anything in between should just be coffee, tea or plain water.

While cutting these frills may not save much, given the financial leakages that take place, the message we want to send out is that we must do away with unnecessary protocol and time-wasting practices.

Then there is more time to truly connect with the common people and listen to them. Such trips do not bring much benefit if it is just a one-way monologue. There must be genuine dialogue as these are rare opportunities when the rakyat can be that close to these leaders whose policies can have such an impact on them.

As has been said many a time, there are many good policies that have turned bad because of poor implementation. And the people on the ground are the best to tell the government leaders if that be the case.

But they have very little time to do so if they have to listen to long-winded introductions, sit through presentations of cendera­hati (mementos), and try and finish off the food. Not to mention the preparations before and the cleaning up after the event is over.