Louis Ng gets to the heart of his public service speech
By Louis Ng
MR LOUIS Ng, an MP for Nee Soon GRC, received some flak for suggesting that the public service had lost its heart when he spoke up in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 1). TMG asked him to respond to various comments.
I’m not sure how, but my speech in Parliament about having a system without a heart became about having a civil servant without a heart. My exact words were: “In our pursuit to automate most things, we now have a system without a heart.”
But I’m glad it’s started a debate about this. That is the first step towards change.
This speech has generated response about how public servants actually do serve with a heart. And I completely agree. In fact, in my speech, I stated that “I have worked with many outstanding public servants in the last 16 years of my life as a civil society activist and the last year and a half as an MP. These are a rare breed who devote their lives towards serving Singapore…”
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Beyond the headlines, here is the gist of the points I made in my speech. You can view my full speech here.
1. A system without a heart.
In the example I shared, the HDB officer had a heart and agreed to help the resident but his actions were overridden by a computer, which generated a letter demanding payment. That is the problem we need to urgently tackle.
2. Ensuring we can think out of the box
In another example I shared, the AVA officer knew the solution used to address the human-monkey conflict didn’t work. However, the officer’s hands were tied as the instruction to use this method came from the director.
3. We need to listen rather than explain
This is not a new point and one raised by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam back in 2015. The question is, have we done what DPM suggested?
DPM said, “We also have to stay open to ideas from others, and co-develop solutions with the community, the private sector and civil society and people from all walks of life… We must be close to the ground, listening to feedback, sensing the deeper concerns that often underlie that feedback, and spotting the gaps in policy delivery that should not be there… Developing and coordinating solutions together… must be second nature to public servants.”
4. I made suggestions on how we can improve
I made eight suggestions, starting with this one about helping our frontline public servants: “For a start, we need to cut some slack for our ground officers, our frontline staff members who will be the first to detect people who have fallen through the cracks, who can alert us.
Many I’ve spoken to feel that when they bring such cases to their superiors, they are scolded for not following the books. We need to develop a culture where they are not penalised for being different and where they are giving some flexibility when processing cases.”
I have received many comments about my speech. Here’s a sampling.
“Well said Mr Ng, thank you for speaking the mind of many in SG.”
“It is sad that people have not truly understood the message behind your speech, and that you’ve gotten flak when you had nothing but good intentions. Nevertheless, thanks for speaking out, and for this very timely reminder!”
“Public servants serve their best under trying conditions. We serve the ppl under the directions of the Government of the day. It pains me to be “lacquered in honey and staked out to an ant farm” by the very ppl we work for.”
There have also been different views published by The Middle Ground and by Lucian Teo, which I’ve shared on my Facebook page. Some have asked me why I shared those posts and my reply is simple. Everyone has a different view and we should embrace this diversity of views. And so people who are following my page should not only read my views but the opposing views too.
Again, I’m glad our speeches have sparked this much-needed debate. I’m glad it has sparked a wave of appreciation for our public servants, which is also needed and lacking.
But what worries me about this whole debate thus far is that we have not debated nor discussed the solutions offered. Not in the public arena nor in Parliament.
This speech isn’t about pointing fingers. It is about how we can make things better. Isn’t this what PM wished for? In his National Day Rally 2016, he said: “But what I would like to have is that we be blessed with a ‘divine discontent’ – always not quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better.”
There is always room to improve and the examples I have highlighted point to a systemic issue and not isolated cases. We need to address this and I hope the next chapter of this debate is about that. About discussing how we can improve the system, the bureaucracy, how we can develop and coordinate solutions together, how we can improve our system so that public servants can work in an environment where they can speak up and can question.
And we need to address this comment from a public servant which was shared with me:
“You think I don’t want to go the extra mile for my countrymen? I got heart, but I got time boh? MOF every year cut budget, we always kena headcount freeze or worse headcount cut. Work is ever-increasing, manpower is decreasing. Sustainable? My foot lah. Keep telling me to exercise compassion and empathy, you think I don’t know? Legislate more support for public officers first then we talk”
I read this out in Parliament (I took out three words “My foot lah”) and I urged DPM Teo Chee Hean to consider this feedback and hope that as we cut budgets, we can also consider the impact this has on individual public servants.
There is one last group of comments I’ve received which is about how I’m going to get into trouble for speaking up. I’d better “take care”. This worries me the most.
At a recent dialogue session, panellist and behavioural scientist David Chan jokingly addressed civil servants in the audience, saying: “You talk so much to me but when the minister is present, in front of him, you’re absolutely silent.” This habit stems partly from a fear of looking bad in front of others and of failing.
We need to make sure we don’t develop this culture of fear. Did I take some flak for speaking up? I don’t think so. I got to hear the views from fellow Singaporeans who might not have otherwise shared their views. And to answer many people, nope, PM didn’t call me after the speech and tell me to keep quiet.
I started my journey as an MP saying that I’m here to speak up, to speak my mind and to help shape policies. I have done so and will continue to do so. But most of all I’m here to listen. As I’ve said in my maiden speech in Parliament “we are not just there just to explain policies to people, to throw them facts and figures but we are there to truly listen and understand.”
Everyone needs to speak up if we care about Singapore. Remember this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Thank you, everyone, for sharing your thoughts, your frustrations, and your suggestions with me over the past few days. Thank you to our public servants for serving Singapore and Singaporeans. Much appreciated too!
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