30 November 2007

The broom blunder

The Sun
Radzuan Halim

To make punishments efficacious, two things are necessary; they must never be disproportioned to the offence, and they must be certain.Simms

The recent "award" of brooms to two local council heads had raised a right royal ruckus. The ordinary-looking brooms were handed over by Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo to two heads of district councils in Selangor which had failed to fulfil set financial targets.

The picture of Khir presenting a broom to the president of the Hulu Selangor District Council, an officer of the Malaysian Civil Service (MCS), created a furore. Public opinion was mostly against such awards. But there was a spirited defence of it as well.

Those against view the award as going against local traditions and beliefs. A broom supposedly symbolises a "sial" (accursed) instrument which can only bring bad luck and humiliation for the recipient. The contra view is that officers in government agencies had been getting the cushy treatment for too long, had not been performing to par and needed harsher treatment from their bosses.

The award apparently did not go down well with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who uncharacteristically stated his views in no uncertain terms. He was quoted as saying, "It should not have happened at all. Use more effective methods to enhance the performance of agencies." He also regarded such awards as "demeaning... undignified... humiliating... (and) should be scrapped". By the looks of it, that would be the first and the last of such broom awards in Malaysia. It may be noted that our prime minister was a senior MCS officer prior to his entry into full-time politics.

Some friends regarded the award as reflective of more important issues. A retired civil servant told me that he was deeply disturbed and had a sleepless night over it. He felt that such an award reflected the low status and esteem currently faced by the inner civil service, at least in the eyes of some senior politicians. According to him, in the old days MCS officers, even junior ones, were accorded great deference by the highest in the land.

Another friend, a Second World War buff, was of the view that dishing out such "punishment" to one’s own officers and men could spell trouble for the giver. He gave the example of General George S. Patton, commander of the US Third Army in France, a war hero and military strategist, who met his downfall after striking a combat-shocked soldier with his gloves.

Yet another friend, a lawyer with human-rights leanings regarded such awards to be contrary to the norms of common law. He asked me to look up the US Constitutional Amendment Article VIII, which reads, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Personally, I find describing the broom award as "cruel and unusual punishment" to be somewhat excessive.

From the above discussion, you can see that there is a lot more to the broom award than meets the eye. Let me share with you some of my research findings.

English: There are several expressions involving brooms. There’s the popularly used proverb "New brooms sweep clean". This is a somewhat sarcastic description of newly appointed office-holders who start off enthusiastically. In time they become no better than their predecessors. "Swept her off her feet" refers to those whirlwind romances in which the girl is thoroughly impressed with a beau she’s only just met. "To sweep under the carpet" is to hide problems while keeping up appearances. Which reminds you of Enron and the subprime debacles – two financial disasters which were successfully kept hidden for extended periods.

Apart from the broom being used by English witches to fly about, the broom does not signify any real taboo nor an object of condemnation for Englishmen. William Shakespeare made only one mention of broom in his plays. It was uttered by Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

"... not a mouse

Shall disturb this hallow’d house.

I am sent with broom before

To sweep the dust behind the door".

Chinese: I was told early in life that the Chinese do not sweep their houses on the first day of the Lunar New Year. This "pantang" is observed in order to avoid sweeping away the good luck coming with the onset of the new year.

One morning I accompanied a Chinese colleague, a senior executive, up the lift to his office. He was known to enjoy a flutter or two at the race course and this was a Saturday. At the lift, a cleaner was sweeping the floor and the broom ends just barely touched my friend’s well-polished shoes. His face turned slightly red and his steps became more brisk. When he reached the office he immediately called the building supervisor to issue a terse reprimand, "Why do you have to clean when people are walking in? Why do you not use vacuum cleaners? Out of date to use brooms!" It is clear that for the Chinese, the broom is not associated with good luck.

Malay: The controversial award involved Malays and so Malay cultural underpinnings are highly relevant here. It is common for Malays to refer to "broom" as a term of rebuke or worse. A married lady would confide to a female friend, Kalau dia berani kahwin lagi, aku kejar dengan penyapu! ("If that hubby of mine dares to take a young wife, I will chase him with the broom stick.") Or an unwanted visitor is forewarned, Jangan tunjok muka, nanti kena penyapu. ("Don’t come around, you’ll get the broom treatment.")

Given such invocation of "broom" in everyday language, it is not surprising for many Malays to regard the use of the broom as a source of humiliation and an affront to personal dignity for the recipient.

In looking up literary sources, I found many references to perahu (boats) but very little on penyapu. However, I managed to find a gem in MBRAS’ (Malaysia Branch Royal Asiatic Society) collection of Malay Proverbs and Sayings by E.S. Hose of the Malayan Civil Service (1933 ).

Penyapu diikat benang sutera (A broom tied up in silk). Explanation by author, "A beggar in finery."

There you have it. One does not present a symbol of beggary to one’s own officer, what more to a senior officer of the crown.

Radzuan Halim, a former banker, teaches MBA and law students.

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