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BN new brooms know only too well how to shoot their own foot

THE NEW HEALTH MINISTER, Dato' Chua Soi Lek, like every new office holder, is in a hurry. He has two tasks: one to show the world that he is indeed the boss; and he must cut his predecessor, Dato' Chua Jui Meng, down to size. He must also convince the ground, who had not heard of him until he entered the cabinet, that he can be trusted to serve them, and he will not violate the trust they have, he believes, in him. He visits the Univeristi Malaya medical faculty, and he is horrified: outpatients in government hospitals have to wait, would you believe, for "three hours" before they are seen by a doctor! Why is he horrified? As a wakil rakyat, he is allowed the best medical treatment in government hospitals on command, often forcing aside others with confirmed appointments made months earlier. "Sometimes, up to 30 patients are told to see the doctor at 9am. The doctor cannot see so many of them at once, and they end up wasting time waiting," he told reporters. (NST, 06 April 2004, p6).

He sees no reason why registration, consultation and filling prescriptions should take more than 90 minutes. Who is to blame for all this? Of course - could you not guess? - the "insensitive" staff. And on cue, hospital sources told the NST reporter that this blessed medical doctor is right: it "normally" takes ninety minutes to register an outpatient, an hour to fill prescriptions, ten minutes to consult the doctor. If it takes but three hours for an outpatient to see a doctor, what is the problem? Is he making a mountain out of a molehill? He wants all outpatients seen within three hours; and the hospital sources have confirmed that is the "normal" practice. But one should not deny the new health minister his Warholean 15 minutes of fame.

So let us hear what he plans to do: stagger the appointments not so the doctors would see fewer patients but to cut the waiting time; to help it along, patients must make sure they arrive on time. All the minister has shown is that he does not know what he talks about. More important, he did not first find out what is it like in the mad house called the outpatient clinic in government hospitals. Or if he did, the civil servants gave him a rosy picture of how well the hospitals are run, and it is the pesky clinic administrators who cause all the delay and the aggravation. Besides, whom do the outpatients complain to if they are made to wait for more than three hours? The health ministry? When it now admits it cannot take action against unlicenced private hospitals?

If he wants to get a feel of what it is like in specialists' clinics, like the one run by his alma mater, the Universiti Malaya medical centre, I would ask him to come with me on my next appointment with a cardialogist there. I have been a regular there for 18 months, the appointments are spaced three months apart, the time and date given in advance. The time given is usually 10 am, but if I do not come to the clinic before 8 am, I would be lucky to see the cardialogist by noon. On my last visit, it was almost 2pm before I saw her. The waiting room resembles the Pudu Raya bus station before the buses leave, patients often stand for all the seats are full. There are usually nine or more cardialogists in attendance, but the few who get treatment early are those who know the cardiologist, or other reasons. This clinic is not free for the public: you pay RM15 for the privilege. Most clinics I know of at the centre is as crowded. As for the prescriptions, it is another hour or two wait. In other words, your whole day is spent at the clinic. When you complain about the long wait, one cardialogist commisserated with me, but promised I would be attended to in a jiffy if I came to his private clinic there after hours. I never went back to see him.

This wide gulf between intention and reality is so far apart that one wonders why cabinet ministers bother to parade their ignorance so proudly. But BN cabinet ministers have a long tradition of this. They all come from the Marie "if they don't have bread, why don't they eat cake" Antoinettee school of public concern. The requires all in public office to belief in the utter rubbish they spout. We have a new prime minister. Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, on taking office, chartered a policy which promised an all-out war on corruption, full public accountability, a sterling call for people to work with him to turn this blessed country others would be proud of. He started well. Three prominent Malaysians, including a cabinet minister, were charged with corruption. His law minister promised action against 18 "big fish".

After the general election, the law minister is demoted. There is no talk of corruption. It is back to life as usual, when the government went its way, long on intent but little to show for it. Is it any wonder, that every cabinet minister, especially if he is a first timer, follows faithfully this practice of blowing one's own trumpet. It is not Dr Chua alone. Every one has a similar plan. The newspapers, especially in the mainstream, report it in such loving detail that it is automatically ignored. As a sample, here is how the NST reported Dr Chua: "Ninety minutes. That's all it may take Malaysians to be treated at government hospital outpatient clinics if health minister Dato' Dr Chua Soi Lek has his way. He is confident that three-hour waits, the norm at many such clinics, will be a thing of the past from June. Dr Chua plans to introduce staggered waiting hours to replace fixing of all appoints for the day at 9 am." You would notice it is taken as fact that it will be done. How does the new youth and sports minister, Datin Azalina Othman, deal with an outstanding scandal in her ministry - the still unresolved 1998 Commonwealth Games accounts, and missing tens of millions? The same way Pak Lah did when asked about the continued detention of his predecessor. Not my problem. Let those who want it resolved, find other means. Is that not how it should be?

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 12 April 2004

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