The tabloid Malay Mail, and particularly Malay publications such as Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian, seem to dedicate their Letters section solely for disgruntled citizens to lodge and publicise their complaints. The page is constantly awash with grievances ranging from bad Astro reception, faulty electricity lines, leaking water pipes, uncollected garbage and a myriad of nasty experiences by ordinary Malaysians who hide under such pseudonyms as ‘Pelanggan Tertipu’, ‘Mak Cik Marah’, ‘Pengguna Kecewa’, ‘Warga Tertindas’ and many others. This phenomenon highlights at least two important issues. One is that Malaysians are still not confident in the extent of freedom of speech in this country, and resort to concealing their identity for fear of reprisals by the authorities. The second, and more important issue, pertains to the lack of proper channels to which citizens and consumers can air their grievances. They are left with no choice but to highlight their problem to the media in the hope that it will raise enough attention to warrant action by the authorities or companies involved.
The problem could perhaps be solved by implementing the ‘ombudsman’ system initiated by Sweden. An ombudsman is an official appointed by the government to represent the interests of the public by investigating grievances and preparing a report which addresses the complaint at hand. Although the ombudsman is selected by the government, he or she is absolutely independent of executive pressure or interference. In the Swedish government, there is an ombudsman for Equal Opportunities, Children, Disability, Discrimination on Grounds of Sexual Orientation, Ethnic Discrimination and Public Press, as well as a Consumer Ombudsman. Recently a complaint was lodged to the Ethnic Discrimination Ombudsman when it was discovered that Muslim tenants were snubbed by landlords specifically due to their religious background.
In Malaysia, areas in which an ombudsman could play a major role, besides those already existing in Sweden, include Utilities such as Water, Electricity and Communications, Postal Services, Public Transportation, Migrant Workers and Law Enforcement. Hopefully, the establishment of on Ombudsman system will reduce the number of domestic complaints aired to the media, and the Letters section of newspapers will be able to become the public forum of diverse and high-quality opinions that it was intended to be.