New Motorcycle Owners Yearn for Old Days of Efficient Graft

Among the crowds standing in the sweltering sun and sitting on the dirty steps outside Phnom Penh’s Central Post Office on Wednesday, Nev Butheng was furious that after four days of trying to register his new motorcycle, he was still waiting—evidence, he said, of the inefficiency and bloated bureaucracy surrounding the government’s entire registration process.

People wait outside the Central Post office in Phnom Penh to submit vehicle registration applications. The government has tried to stamp out corruption in the sector, but those waiting said the new process was inefficient and frustrating. (Siv Channa)
People wait outside the Central Post office in Phnom Penh to submit vehicle registration applications. The government has tried to stamp out corruption in the sector, but those waiting said the new process was inefficient and frustrating. (Siv Channa)

“I’ve spent four days here,” the 41-year-old complained, explaining that during the first three days of his wait he was not served. There were just too many people, Mr. Butheng said, and too few officials working in the customs and excise office at the post office, where all motorcycle riders must submit documentation to prove import tax has been paid on their new bikes.

“There is only one person do­ing everything here and there are so many hundreds and hundreds of people waiting outside. It’s slow and I’m wasting a lot of time,” Mr. Butheng said as the crowds milled around on the sidewalk in the withering morning sun.

With no waiting room or even chairs, the customs and excise staff deal with hundreds of people each day through a barred, partly open window that faces the street outside the post office.

Mr. Butheng fondly recounted how in the past, for a little bribe money, he could have a professional broker look after the motorcycle registration for him.

Paying that bribe was a lot more preferable to the current hassle and mind-numbing inefficiency, he added. “I used to buy a motorbike and I didn’t have to come here my­self. I had it done, I spent $30 [to register the motorcycle] and I think it was acceptable,” he said.

The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation re­formed the motorbike registration process in February.

But in its attempt to stamp out brokers and clean up corruption, the resulting delays and befuddling layers of bureaucracy are leaving people like Mr. Butheng yearning for the old way of doing business.

With the brokers cut out of the equation, the cost to register a motorcycle is now about $20.

In the past, people wishing to register a new motorcycle went to the municipal department of transportation in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district.

At the department, they were approached by brokers offering their services to expedite the registration process, which could take about a month, to only two days.

With the brokers and staff at the registration office working in efficient unison, an applicant’s registration documents and necessary tax forms were sent directly to the customs and excise office at the post office, saving customers time and stress for a little extra money. Now, the process takes long days waiting in the sun.

“The ministry had to reform,” said Chea Bunthoeun, bureau chief of the municipal department of public works and transportation. “It started in February to reduce corruption.”

Mr. Bunthoeun admitted, however, that since the brokers have been pushed out, the pro­cess is far from streamlined.

Te Manyrong, director of the customs and excise office at the post office, said there is a method to the apparent madness and a team of six was tackling the mounting applications behind the barred, partly open window where the public are served on the street.

“We need one person to ac­cept the applications, one to check and verify them, and so on,” Ms. Manyrong said. “It’s like a system, an assemblyline. Otherwise it’s a mess and we could lose documents. When you stand outside, you see only one person working, but it’s not. Our team is working so hard, we hardly have time to have a lunch break,” she said.

“We’re trying to prevent bribery” by having the motorbike owners come personally to the post office directly, she added.

“Before, it used to be that the transportation department did everything and issued the number plates before sending the doc­uments to us for verification —that was quicker and easier,” she admitted.

Now, new motorcycle owners must first go to the transportation office in Prampi Makara to register the vehicle identification number, which they then have to bring to the customs and excise office along with an import tax invoice, proving that the import tax has been paid, and an ID card and family book.                         After those documents are sub­mitted to the customs office, they are to be picked up a day later—in theory—when they have been processed. Then it is back to the registration office in Prampi Makara district to buy a motorcycle registration application form for 3,500 riel, or about 90 cents, then a payment for the actual registration fee is made, a photograph is taken and, finally, a customer gets a number plate.

Top Rithy, 45, who was waiting to get a number plate for his newly purchased motorcycle, said on Monday that the “re­form” only seemed to have slowed everything down and made it less efficient.

“It is to reduce corruption, but it’s actually making things harder for the people; we have to spend time and money,” Mr. Rithy said.

What is not helping matters, he added, is the presence of only one server manning the one window at the customs office and accepting the hundreds of registration requests submitted each day.

Mr. Rithy said it would have made more sense to locate the customs and excise office near the municipal transport department in Prampi Makara, and to also have more tellers processing applications to make the process efficient.

Another complaint made by the waiting crowds standing in the searing sun outside the Central Post Office on Monday was the total lack of information at the customs officer as to how people go about having their vehicles registered.

“There’s not enough information; it slows down the process. I had to ask people what to do,” said Nuth Sokly.

Over at the transportation department, customers fair better as information is posted outside the waiting rooms telling applicants how much plates cost and how long they should take to process.  There is also a sign that warns: “Do not contact brokers outside the unit.”

Despite the warning, Sok Pisan, 48, bemoaned the new system and pined for the days when a simple monetary exchange meant she would not have to wait in line for four days in a row.

“I have been coming since Friday, but they weren’t working. I came again on Monday, but there were too many people,” she said on Wednesday.

“When I bought a motorcycle before; it wasn’t this difficult. I’d pay $30 and just wait for my number plate. Now it’s more difficult—there’s no corruption.”

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