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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Polytechnic canteen issue: So many questions left unanswered

Starting with the lack of basic information, despite Politeknik Seberang Perai having three public relations officers, the whole issue has been a PR disaster.
politeknik-canteenThe issue involving a former food stall operator at a polytechnic canteen in Penang could be a case study in Public Relations 101 for any authority on how not to handle a crisis.
Simply put, if you have damning allegations against you, a defence must be put up immediately, especially when it involves a public place of interest.
But in the case of Politeknik Seberang Perai, it took them a solid week to come to grips with the situation involving the non-Muslim man, who was one of the food stall operators at the polytechnic’s canteen until June this year.
The question that lingered in the minds of the Penang press corps was likely the same as many readers — why was the polytechnic NOT speaking up on the issue?
Denials are standard fare in public relations but in this case, it was not exercised.
Instead, FMT was told by one of its officers that investigations were taking place, but the official had said: “you cannot quote me, you will have to wait until Thursday”.
But, of course, with the advent of WhatsApp and Facebook, news spreads fast, fake or real. And a quick response is key to controlling the future outbursts of comments in a matter that could become sensitive, especially with the general election to be held soon.
But instead of hearing from the horse’s mouth, two wildcard deputy ministers P Kamalanathan and Reezal Merican Naina Merican had to step in to explain in detail on the issue.
What was more shocking was how three Penang MIC politicians were granted an audience with the director of the polytechnic while the media were denied a chance to speak to him to clarify the issue and whatever the reasons were behind the polytechnic’s actions.
The best way to have handled the situation would simply have been to hold a press conference. Being silent on the issue, without a single denial, only made things worse.
On Friday, a solid seven days after the WhatsApp message started spreading, the “Jabatan Pendidikan Politeknik”, a department under the higher education minister which is in charge of 34 polytechnics and 900,000 students in the country, sent out a statement on how food stalls are allocated at government institutions.
The pertinent question after all this had happened was the role of the public relations officers (PROs) in these institutions, especially the polytechnic in the spotlight and those in the upper levels of management?
If you are to say you cannot make any statement because you are not the “pengarah” (director), then why are there PROs?
Yes, we all know it happened over the Hari Raya holidays, but all that was needed was just a few words from the top leadership.
Perhaps Kamalanathan, who is an accredited public relations practitioner should advise government officials on how to react when things like this happen.
Many questions are still left unanswered.
The story of Gobi Krishnan Gopal, a food stall operator at the polytechnic canteen, is an intriguing story.
He claims to have been let go due to an implementation of a new “ISO Shariah code”.
This was allegedly based on a recorded conversation Gobi had with a person in the polytechnic’s management.
On the other hand, the polytechnic in question claims he was let go for not having a halal certification.
They also claimed he did not have necessary finance ministry codes to serve Muslim food. Three other Malay food stall operators were also let go for this very reason, the polytechnic had said.
Deputy Minister Reezal Merican had explained they need not be Muslims in order to get that “code”.
(Basically, the code is an accreditation the ministry requires from anyone who wants to do business or receive monies from the government.)
Why weren’t these rules explained or followed in Gobi’s case? How did he get the permit in the first place?
What is this ISO shariah code? Why is there no explanation from the ministry on this?
What are the criteria for obtaining a finance ministry code bearing “Muslim Cooked Food” or “Field No 040103”, or to be more clear, what are the guidelines set forth?
And the bigger and more pertinent question should be: Is it possible for a non-Muslim to sell food at canteens at any government educational institution, that is, schools, polytechnics, colleges, universities?
How are the dietary needs of the non-Muslims at the polytechnics going to be satisfied? Some of them only eat vegetarian food.
And how are non-Muslim canteen operators to obtain halal certification, when current Jakim guidelines require operators to have two permanent Muslim workers in their kitchen? (Jakim Malaysia Halal Certification-Third Revision, 2015)
Answering these questions would put an end to the bickering and unnecessary stirring of religious sensitivities.
Poor handling and crisis management have been exposed through this episode.

Predeep Nambiar is the northern region bureau chief of FMT.

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