On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Man in the mirror

A new government, a new political culture, and for Malaysians, a much more modest working practice by our national leaders – these are among the things that need to take shape.

However, no one expects our ministers to travel economy class, take selfies as branding exercises during their first days in office, like most do, and then sidle into business class when public scrutiny has worn off.

There isn’t anything wrong or extravagant with travelling business class, especially for long-haul flights. It’s ridiculous to begrudge them for travelling in comfort.

Surely, we expect our leaders to have sufficient rest, coupled with some privacy when they travel, so they can focus on their work when they arrive at their destinations, especially for international engagements.

But we must impress upon our newly-minted leaders to put a stop to the malaise of moving around in an entourage.

Ministers shouldn’t expect to have a battalion of ministry officials, party leaders, supporters and hangers-on awaiting them at airport arrival halls. This is nothing more than a display of self-importance and entitlement.

It’s also time our long-suffering diplomats in foreign missions are freed from the drudgery of playing tourist guides and chauffeurs to our Malaysian big shots and their wives.

It makes no sense for them to be waking up in the early hours and heading to Heathrow to wait for ministers to arrive. Pay for your own transport if you are not on official duties, please.

We must surely have better ways to while our time away than register our presence with these Yang Berhormat Mentri. Yet, this has frequently happened in the past.

Most of us know the humble ones, such as Datuk Seri Mustapha Mohamed and Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh. Mustapha is known for his simple, frugal and austere ways. He takes the ERL from KL Sentral to KLIA alone without fuss, and also patiently awaits his turn, like every ordinary Malaysian, at clinics or hospitals, without expecting preferential treatment.

When he makes his weekly visits to his constituency in Jeli, Kelantan, he cycles to the mosque near his home, an abode as average as those of other villagers. And when Mustapha visits Kota Baru, he stays at a modest hotel.

The other exemplary statesman is late Kelantan Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who lived in a simple wooden house with the family, minus the trappings of power preferred by some politicians.

In London, it isn’t out of the ordinary to see the Prime Minister or Cabinet ministers taking the Tube. It’s also well known how former London Mayor Boris Johnson would hop on his bicycle to events without fanfare and often arriving unannounced.

Of course, the cool weather helps, but the point is, they have no airs and don’t expect to be driven with outrider escort.

Privileges like these were only accorded to the Prime Minister and his deputy here, but of late, even high-ranking officials were enjoying these services of prestige.

It’s not like we expect them to lead spartan lifestyles, like that of Gandhi’s, but the days of wasted resources and extravagance should come to an end.

I have even seen deputy ministers and their aides boarding a plane before everyone else, on a routine 45-minute Firefly flight from Penang to Subang.

The aircraft doesn’t even come kitted with business class, and these VIPS have booked the best seats anyway, yet, there is a jostle for first dibs. These leaders seem oblivious to their disrespectful attitude, which isn’t lost on other passengers who find such cushy service in poor taste.

Malaysians hope the new government will summon a new political culture where informality can be the hallmark of our elected representatives to endear themselves to the people.

Can we also make our events attended by VVIPs short and simple? Do we really need to splurge on performances, which seem to be standard practice now?

And is the organiser responsible for providing a room for idle chatter, to enable the VVIP to then make a grand entrance into the hall?

Google reveals a holding room to be a space located in a licensed facility for the storage or holding of human bodies, prior to being disposed.

Well, that’s one interesting meaning, surely. Another definition is that it is a place for candidates sitting for an examination to wait in before the test begins.

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

In Malaysia, however, the holding room is where the VIP – who is the guest of honour for an event – spends barely 20 minutes before revealing himself in grand style.

As I wrote in a piece before, the holding room, naturally, must be paid by the organisers despite it being under-utilised. There have also been instances when the VIP had no need for the holding room because he was late, or simply had no inclination for such formalities. The time has come for Malaysian politicians to encourage organisers of such events to dispense with this profligate practice.

I’ve had the opportunity to see first hand how British Prime Minister David Cameron dismissed with such protocol by walking straight into the hall and making his presence unceremonious.

A couple of years back, I attended the launch of a sales gallery for a housing project in a suburb in Sydney. The Malaysian developer and his staff eagerly awaited the mayor’s arrival in an official car, but instead, he surprised everyone by walking to the event.

In Singapore, Cabinet ministers are not judged by the column inches they hog in the media, but by their performance. Their informal style, rid of the obligatory entourage, is common knowledge.

Let’s do away with protocol and focus more on the work at hand and the people’s needs. It’s time to end these “syok sendiri” (self -indulgence) routines. By and large, Malaysians are tired of the protocol for politicians.

Placing such elitist barriers doesn’t help them one bit because it gives the impression that they are special and must be treated so. The rakyat loathe this, and more so when these politicians constantly declare themselves the people’s representatives.

Ultimately, our politicians must decide if they wish to serve the rakyat or have the rakyat serve them.

It may be a Malaysian quirk to display hospitality and appreciation by presenting a gift or memento – as we call them here – at such events. But the fate of these items alternates between ending up collecting dust and being disposed of.

There is a dire need to relinquish other over-blown and over-hyped protocols, and instead, choose a way of attendance with greater humility.

And can we get straight to the point when speeches are made, without having to address every honorific such as Tan Sri, Puan Sri, Datuk Seri, Datin Seri, Datuk and Datin, and instead, settle on the ordinary mortals?

These time-consuming salutations, which are seemingly feudalistic of the speaker for having to address every important person present, need to be canned.

Naturally, overnight changes aren’t expected, despite growing anticipation and expectation. The new government will require a grace period to settle in, and certainly, the new ministers will need room to manoeuvre into their new posts.

They should expect to become government leaders and speak accordingly, and not as the opposition’s voice. Criticism is par for the course in this career choice, so preparation is key for them, especially where press freedom is touted, yet flouted. But everyone deserves a fair chance.

The Barisan leaders will also need time to adjust to their role as opposition figures. It is a position they surely don’t fancy, but they will need to hone their combative skills for future challenges.

A new Malaysia is dawning, and along with it needs to exist a change in the way we do things. Let’s keep the good and discard the bad. No doubt it’s a daunting task, but let’s at least try.