Tribolum.com Making Light of Things

You Don't Demand Heart

I am no longer a public servant and it has been more than two years since I left the service, but I have always considered building the nation a duty I carry whether or not I am on payroll. I hope you’ll pardon me when I lapse between identifying myself as part of the service, and also part of the people whom they serve.

When I read that several Members of Parliament lamented that the Public Service has “lost its heart” and called for the service to show greater empathy when dealing with the needy, I felt the sting of those words like a slap across the face.

Not many people know what it is actually like to be on the frontlines of the public service. I am proud of the tradition we have: that we do not tolerate corruption and work hard to maintain the highest standards of integrity. We are by no measure infallible, but every breach is met with a burning fury and steely determination not to let mistakes repeat themselves.

We fall short of perfection, but it is a standard to which we believe the Singapore people deserve. It has also become the standard the Singapore people demand.

Every year the Auditor-General combs through how Ministries and Statutory Boards conduct their business and publishes a list of what it believes are infringements. This is a healthy process that keeps our public agencies accountable to the people, and provides a level of transparency rarely seen in governments around the world. Public servants put their feet to the fire, and are called to answer these lapses in processes. The alternative media has made it an annual event to jump into the fray to stoke the flames.

We’re fine with that. We’ve worked on making our processes more iron-clad. Nowhere in Singapore will you find it harder to host a lunch for stakeholders or even buy a pencil. Any public servant will tell you that we’ve had to spend our own money at work because the by-the-book processes would have taken too long and cost too much pain.

I cannot even imagine how much these stringent measures cost the nation; the most expensive of which are the many public servants who have left the service because it was getting too difficult to serve.

You cannot demand pinpoint precision from the public service and not expect the creation of automatons. Mr Louis Ng brings out the example of how the computer-generated letter was heartless - and he is correct - but would he support a judgement call made by a junior officer if and when it is scrutinised by the armchair critics? Would our MPs be there for the public servant who exercised their knowledge to say, buy good quality bicycles at a reasonable price, when there is public outcry from the non-cycling community about those decisions?

I do not disagree that our public service needs more heart and more empathy, but I’m calling it out that we all do. It’s easy to stand in a hall and berate the service, and constantly demand excellence like it were a naturally-occuring state of things, but we need a different approach.

We need to empower the public service, and it sometimes means not sweating the small stuff. If we want officers to show heart and empathy it means giving them the power to make judgement calls, and not kill every mistake, especially those that have no ill-intent. We need to stand up for them and defend them in public and in private, and acknowledge that the quality of public services we enjoy in Singapore is commendable.

The relationship between the public service and the people needs to change from a master-slave relationship for us to progress beyond precision in process. For any relationship to flourish, finger-pointing needs to stop.