Sharifah, 22, suffers from Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD, and can neither read nor write. Because she has the mental age of a nine-year-old, she is unsuited for most jobs. She cannot even move around on her own.
Her mother, who is 64 years old, takes care of both her and her brother who is also a slow learner. He does odd jobs like cutting grass and watching over cars.
All three members of the family are illiterate. They live in a village in Langkawi, in a house mostly devoid of furniture.
Sharifah’s mother is reluctant to send her for occupational therapy sessions at the local hospital because this would put her under the care of a psychiatrist. Like many others in her village, she does not believe that difficulties with learning warrant psychiatric help.
Until recently, Sharifah’s father was the family’s sole breadwinner. He died in November of diabetes and a heart-related illness.
Sharifah’s application for welfare aid was recently rejected, and not for the first time. But her story is nothing new as many people like her slip through the cracks in the welfare system.
How many other Sharifahs are there in the country, whom the welfare department has let down? And who advises potential applicants on the full extent of their rights? If the potential applicant cannot read or write, and is not aware of her rights, how will she get help?
Sharifah’s family is presently surviving on handouts and provisions paid for by another Langkawi resident, Tunku Sherie.
Tunku Sherie, who formed an NGO with other concerned citizens in 2016 called Networking Action for Disabled Youths, heard about Sharifah from a special needs teacher. After the death of Sharifah’s father, she became determined to ensure that the girl and her mother could qualify for aid.
Applications for welfare aid must be made by a member of the family, but as none of Sharifah’s family members can read or write, Tunku Sherie had to step in. She found that Sharifah’s previous applications were rejected for a variety of reasons, including the fact that she does not hold a full-time job.
Each application must be signed by the village head, a member of the village body or the local assemblyman. Tunku Sherie made many trips to the office of the Kuah assemblyman but was unable to secure an appointment with him. She finally managed to obtain the necessary signature at Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s service centre and presented the application forms for Sharifah and her mother to the welfare office on Nov 26 last year.
However, she found that things were moving too slowly. Finally though, Tunku Sherie did manage to get an officer to visit the family.
So what happens to applicants who are at the mercy of recalcitrant civil servants?
Most rural and illiterate folk do not dare question civil servants and demand for accountability. To many, civil servants appear immune from action even if they are incompetent or inefficient.
Pakatan Harapan’s promise of providing a clean, efficient and transparent government appears hampered by Barisan Nasional’s legacy of a mammoth, lumbering civil service.
Every general election, the leaders promise to reform the civil service. So will they remove unproductive civil servants and provide the people with an efficient and effective civil service?
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.