In defence of the public service

Mar 02, 2017 12.00PM |

by Alvin Pang

WE PUBLISH here a reply to MPs who suggested that the public service has lost its heart, which was reported in TODAY.

Public service is hard work. I should know. I’ve worked alongside (and lived with) public officers my whole life. I have relatives who were teachers, counter officers, cleaning staff, and I’ve been in the service myself. I’ve manned hotlines. Written papers. Sat in meetings. Put together events, both public and closed door. I’ve analysed, deliberated, drafted, vetted, edited, planned, soothed, cajoled, compromised, stayed back to finish. I still work with many public sector clients today. I’ve spoken with or interviewed folks from all across the Service. So I should know. But the fact is, I don’t.

Because while I have had the privilege to study, behind the scenes, everything public servants do to carry out their duties with integrity, excellence, and a sense of service to Singapore – all the little things within their mandate and control to make life run smoothly for the rest of us, often even before we realise a need – while I have seen these things firsthand as a beneficiary and as an observer, it isn’t in the end my head on the chopping block, every day, out in the frontlines or in front of the auditor’s panel.

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It isn’t me, in the end, who has to implement, in good faith and to the best of my professional judgement, policies that delimit what should and should not be done. Policies that include precisely the sort of checks and balances and constraints on jurisdiction and action that the public has called for to head off potential abuse. I am not the one who has to deal with increasingly demanding and sometimes churlish behaviour from members of the public, often asking to be excepted from the established guidelines.

Think about it: most of us only interact with government services when we have to, and it’s not always for a pleasant task. There’s a bill to be paid, a tax to be declared, a summons to answer, or a rule to be complied with. We may be facing some sort of loss, or a loved one may be in distress and we’re not exactly in our best mood. We want things our way. It’s public servants who have to address our concerns, smile, stay calm and shepherd the process to a reasonable conclusion that is satisfactory, yet at the same time legitimate and fair, according to rules they didn’t make – and now some of the ones who did help make the rules are suggesting they may have lost their compassion. Well, where’s the compassion for the hard-working public servant, who are also Singaporeans, also our loved ones: our parents, spouses, aunts and uncles, children, friends – who labour over things most of us don’t even know needed to be done, so that we can go about our lives and not get in one another’s way too much?

The Public Service hasn’t lost its heart. It is the heart of government. It’s the part of the state that plays an active, hands-on role in improving people’s lives; that translates policy theory into practice. I am not saying public servants are saints. I am saying they are human, and are trying to do their jobs. I am saying they are vulnerable to being made the strawmen and scapegoats when their hands are tied, albeit often for sound reasons.

The Public Service has not lost its heart. But I worry it may lose heart. So I suggest we go talk to someone we know who works in the sector. Find out how they operate and make decisions. What their day is like. What they care about. And worry about. Then think again about who exactly in Singapore is lacking in compassion. Let’s make sure it isn’t ourselves.


Alvin Pang is a poet, editor, and former teacher and civil servant.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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