08 June 2007

Smiles following pay the rise

The Star

The announcement of a huge pay increase for public servants was greeted with cheers, but government workers will now have to show that they deserved it.

LAST week was my annual pilgrimage to the Immigration Department to renew the working permit of my Filipina maid.

After my pleasant experience last year at the department’s headquarters at Putrajaya, I was naturally expecting red carpet treatment when I went there again, on a Thursday afternoon just after lunchtime.

If the previous year's experience was good, this year's was even better.

The total time taken – from getting the queue number to the work permit being pasted on her passport – was a mere 15 minutes. (I timed the process because I wanted to see if there was an improvement; it took about 30 minutes last year.)

This 15 minutes included the time I took to look around the new canteen next to the Foreign Maid section on the second floor of the department’s building behind the Boulevard.

From the moment I stepped onto the second floor, I sensed I was in for a “good time.”

Two chaps manning the inquiry and number issuing counter were happily chatting away when I approached them.

After getting my number, I asked if it would be a long wait. One of them (a big smile on his face) told me: “Sekejap je Encik, satu nombor lagi saja (It will only be a short wait as yours is the next number).”

Printed on the ticket was my number 1109 and below it was the information: Nombor yang sedang diuruskan: 1108 (The number being served: 1108).

The eight minutes of waiting gave me time to observe what was going on in the section.

Unlike last year, the staff of the department seemed chattier, and there were smiles everywhere.

When it came to my turn, I approached the counter with a bit of trepidation because the officer manning the counter was a stern looking middle-aged oversized man sporting half-rim glasses.

He looked like the kind of civil servant who would scold and chide anyone for the slightest mistake in filling up forms.

However, that could not be further from the truth. He was pleasant and even had a smile on his face.

Just as I was asking him about the procedure involved, two of his female colleagues came over to ask him about a passport they had. Instead of just ignoring me and dealing with their case first, the officer apologised to me immediately and said it would take just a couple of minutes.

The two women also quickly apologised to me and told the officer they would come back later, even after I had said I could wait.

As he was keying in the details of my maid’s passport, we chatted about things in general.

I teased him about the pay rise and how everything seemed cheerful in the office.

He just shrugged and gave me a knowing smile.

After giving me back the passport, he even offered me his hand and I took it and we gave each other a sincere handshake.

I then lined up at the payment counter and the female staff took my cash even though the signboard said bank drafts only.

She then told me to line up at the next available “sticker counter” where I had another chat with the man there.

He explained that his counter was the slowest one because the printer had to be slow.

“It's the ink we use. If it prints fast, it will smear. This is why each machine can only do 900 passports a day on two cartridges,” he said when I asked how long each cartridge lasted.

All done, I walked out feeling rather pleased, and somehow every Immigration staff I came across while walking to the car park that day seemed to have a smile on his or her face.

Talking about this to some friends, I found that I was not alone; and the Immigration Department staff were not the only ones wearing a smile.

Wah lau! Thirty-five per cent pay rise, I also will be smiling all day,” was the comment from my mate Sam.

But Chee, a high official of a public listed company, was not so kind in his comments. He believes the extra RM8bil in salaries and pensions could have been better used.

“I just hope service from government servants gets better after this,” he said.

However, all of us in the group immediately jumped in and said he was wrong.

“What can you build or do with RM8bil? Another highway or massive airport? Such a huge project will not benefit many people. Only the contractor and his couple of thousand workers will enjoy it,” said developer Tan.

He explained that in the past few years the Government’s wealth had increased tremendously – from rising commodities and fuel prices and better tax collection.

“If there was any way of sharing this wealth with a large number of people then a good pay rise for government servants is the best way of doing it,” he said.

“With the stroke of a pen, 1.2 million people got more disposable income. They will save most of it, but they will still spend quite a bit. The multiplier effect will be great. Now, I know my houses will sell.”

Sensing it was the time for me to put in my two cents' worth, I reminded them that the Government was the biggest employer in the country.

“Hopefully, the private sector will follow suit,” I said cheekily, because all my friends present that day were employers.

“Seriously, it is embarrassing that a substantial number of public workers were living below the poverty line because their take home pay was only about RM500, and the Government’s policy stated that those earning less than RM600 in the Klang Valley were considered hardcore poor.

“This includes policemen and soldiers. It will not do for the Government to pay its workers so little money.”

I am sure that every government worker would like to personally say a big thank you to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

However, to his 1.2 million subordinates, I would like to remind them that the rest of us will be watching them closely.

So keep up the smiles, like the ones I saw at the Immigration Department, and work harder to earn another pay rise.

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