The problem with housing ‘online ambassadors’

Mustafa K. Anuar

Housing and Local Government Minister Nga Kor Ming assures that the ambassador initiative would not incur extra costs as these ambassadors are staff culled from various departments and agencies under his ministry. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, June 23, 2024.

PUAD Zarkashi’s recent criticism of the Housing and Local Government Ministry’s appointment of its “online ambassadors” to spread official information and fight so-called misinformation online is apt.

The former director-general of the now-defunct Special Affairs Department (Jasa) rightly pointed out that such government agencies as J-Kom and Komuniti Madani, which are under the Communications Ministry, perform similar tasks.

To be sure, Jasa, which had a budget of RM30 million in 2018, also used to do the work now undertaken by J-Kom.

In other words, these so-called online ambassadors, numbering 200, are presumably duplicating the work of the said agencies to inform people of government policies and official activities.

Of concern is that a few of these ambassadors might be working at cross-purposes in the cacophony, which would defeat the original objective.

In his defence, Housing and Local Government Minister Nga Kor Ming assured that the ambassador initiative would not incur extra costs as these ambassadors are staff culled from various departments and agencies under his ministry.

Nga added that his staff volunteered to convey information to the public about the programmes, products, and services offered by his ministry and its agencies.

While no extra costs are involved in this project, the “volunteering” staff have now, however, been diverted away from the tasks that they have been originally prescribed to do with dedication and professionalism. It’s not part of their job specifications. 

Besides, the use of the term ambassador rather loosely is misplaced. As it is, we’ve had in the recent past certain envoys at large getting fat salaries without doing much work, if at all (gaji buta).

The public expects the civil servants in the ministry to be well-versed in their work so that the various departments and agencies under the ministry are run efficiently and effectively.

To be sure, the ministry’s role is important as it covers vital sectors of firefighting and rescue, housing and local authorities.

In this regard, we do not anticipate the staff of various backgrounds and expertise in the ministry to serve as “firefighters” whenever controversies emerge that could, in turn, give rise to fire of criticisms and even unfair judgement.

That should be the function of a public relations (PR) officer placed in the ministry to inform or clarify its policies and work to the public.

Puad rightly argued that the work of imparting government information to the general public should be handled by J-Kom as well as Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil himself, who is also the spokesman of the unity government. 

As intimated above, J-Kom should also be able to deal with such challenging elements as cybertroopers, who are Nga’s concern. 

Besides, PR endeavours can only do so much in sugarcoating uncomfortable truths and hard facts. 

For instance, no amount of PR would help to counter effectively the criticism of, say, government goodies being dished out prior to a general election when sections of the public see it as a conscious attempt to lure the voters to favour the incumbent coalition, which is considered unethical. 

If a good public image is the ministry’s primary issue, then sterling services of the staff, particularly the frontliners, would go a long way towards instilling confidence and admiration in the general public.

Excellent work, dedication and transparency of the ministry as a whole – for that matter, other ministries as well – would speak for themselves most likely with no extra or large sums incurred. – June 23, 2024.


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