June 26, 2017

Authors Posts by Alvin Pang

Alvin Pang

Alvin Pang

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.

You, our readers, are the reason we exist. Your contributions allow us to bring fair and balanced news to everyone, regardless of the ability to donate. Support us by being our patron.

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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by Alvin Pang

“As poet Lee Tzu Pheng mentioned at the festival’s opening night in July, poetry tends to scare the general reading public because it is often incomprehensible, impenetrable and thus avoided,” he adds.

“Painted in oil or about experiences that echo those of the public, poetry need not spook the heartlanders. From there, they can go on to more challenging verse.”

The Straits Times, September 30, 2016


NOW, I didn’t hear the speech, and I am not sure if ST misquoted or miscast what was said, but really, now:

I was raised by my grandparents in a two-bedroom Circuit Road HDB flat, and then stayed with my parents in a three-bedroom Toa Payoh North flat when I hit secondary school.

I went to “neighbourhood” primary schools and had no idea you had to get your boy into posh places like St Michael’s to have a shot at RI.

I spent a lot of time reading because that’s what kids in the 1970s and 1980s did between homework and episodes of Sesame Street, Electric Company, M.A.S.K., He-man, Scooby-Doo, or whatever was allowed to baby-sit us on TV.

I don’t know if that’s enough to qualify me as a heartlander, but I can tell you this:

We LIKE to be spooked. We PAY to be spooked.

Just look at Haw Par Villa. Train to Busan. Hotel/Saw/The Ring I through XXI. Twilight (the horror, the horror).

Just look at who we think fit to call our heroes.

My father, who used to be a school Discipline Master, once told me about how he would close an eye to some of the more raucous boys who’d sneak home early (or skipped school) to prepare for, and then recover from, carrying the sacred kavadi at Thaipusam.

Dad had been a rough kid in his day and he understood, without saying as much, that whoever you are in life, sometimes you need to go off and do some extraordinary thing, something that will blow your mind and shake you out of your comfort zone and flush you from the inside out.

And then you come back to real life, spooked. Challenged. Changed.

It could be anything. For some of us, it was books, literature, poetry. Words so *outside* our daily experience that they pulled us a little out of ourselves, instead of assuring us that the way things were was all the way things would ever be.

The strange can rearrange us. That’s kind of the idea.

My point is, I don’t believe we should be too quick to assume what the “general reading public” wants or needs (or that we should therefore serve it up, for that matter).

My point is, yes it’s important to be more plural in our ideas and methods and approaches and stories and the way we tell them, because life is complex and heterogeneous and scary and strange. And people do need to listen to different voices in order to one day hear something that speaks to them.

My point is, echoing what comforts is not the same as echoing how things are.

My point is, we don’t actually know what people need to read at any particular moment in their lives, and neither do they. I turned off from the stuff that was supposed to be “suitable” for me at my level. I think many kids do.

Maybe the problem is trying to simplify the menu, instead of opening up the buffet.

And maybe there is never something that is going to be right for entire categories (of age, culture, language, background, ability) of people. As if poetry can or should even engage people as categories in the first place.

My point is, some young person in a HDB flat somewhere in Sengkang may want and need to encounter something that gets their pulse (and only their pulse) racing but which they don’t fully understand.

It may give them permission to read, think and imagine beyond what they’ve been told to. And that can be scary, for everyone, sure. Growth often is.


Alvin Pang was Singapore’s Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2005. As a poet, writer and editor, has been published worldwide in over 15 languages, and is one of a handful of Singaporean poets listed in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English. A former teacher, journalist, civil servant and IT developer, he is currently pursuing doctoral studies in creative practice.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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God save the Key
Illustration by Natassya Diana

by Alvin Pang

DO WE sing the national anthem to the President? In a recent interview with The Straits Times about his views on the presidency, former President S R Nathan likened the role to the Queen of England, apart from holding the key to the nation’s reserves:

“Unlike the United States, where the President has executive powers, Singapore practises a system akin to the United Kingdom’s, where the Queen is the head of state but has little power. So I often get asked why I keep quiet when everybody is singing Majulah Singapura on National Day. Yes, they are singing to me. I’m standing there! This is symbolic of the country. I don’t expect to sing to myself!”

Actually, most of us probably sing to no one in particular (or maybe to the nation) rather to our head of state – no matter what the former president thinks. But if we did (as the Brits do), how about this localised version of “God save the Queen”?


God save our Second Key!
Long live our chosen Key!
God save the Key!
Send you victorious,
Most meritorious,
Long to Preside o’er us:
God save the Key!

All rivalry shall cease;
Scatter your enemies,
And make them fall:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their audit tricks,
The competition fix:
To save us all.

Our choicest funds in store,
Are yours to guard or pour,
May you defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing you with one voice,
God save the Key!


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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