June 26, 2017

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by Bertha Henson

WE’LL all be hearing more from Mr Peter Ho, the former head of Civil Service, because he’s been picked to give the Institute of Policy Studies series of lectures. TODAY ran an interview with him on aspects of the civil service. Perhaps, he could expand on some points he made in his interview when he gives his lectures.
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1. Mr Ho said that increasing complexity of policies and higher order needs of the populace means coming up with new ways, such as more risk management, to solve problems.

”It’s not that traditional tools are no longer important; tools like cost-benefit analysis are still relevant. But cost-benefit analysis in a complex environment, in and of itself, may not provide you with the complete answer. Cost-benefit analysis is quite linear, and traditional tools don’t help you get your arms completely around complex problems.”

(What traditional tools are less important then? Can he cite instances when the solution did not address the problem because traditional tools were used? Was there a moment of epiphany for him?)

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2. We don’t know when the interview was conducted, whether before or after the Prime Minister said that he didn’t want to be surrounded by naysayers. But clearly, he agrees that the rules-bound culture has to change, going by his message to the younger generation of civil servants.

”Your job is to find ways to improve Singapore’s position and the lot of Singaporeans in a period of accelerating change and uncertainty. Of course, you’re not going to be criticised for following the rules, but if you want to lift the quality of your policies and plans, and raise the level of good governance practised in Singapore, then it cannot be just about saying: “I followed the rules.” Instead, it should be that “I tried to make things better.” The basic misconception some younger civil servants may have is that what worked well in the past will be what propels you into the future successfully. Our civil servants must be able to keep up with the pace of change. You have to ask yourself if the rules, plans and policies still serve the purpose for which they were designed, or if we need to change them in order to do things better. ”

(There’s no point speaking in generalities. Can he enlighten with examples when sticking to the rules is to the detriment of policy outcomes? Or when rules work against the desire of the public service to be emphatic or to “have a heart’’. Can he also tell what rules have been changed because they are no longer relevant. Would policies on single mothers be one of them?)
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3. Mr Ho talked about the need to be bold which is more difficult now because the basics have been achieved and Singapore is now “competing at the top’’.

”Today, of course, you still want that spark — that ability to think boldly about the future. But the big challenge now is, how much risk are you prepared to take? These are serious risks because we’ve achieved so much, that a bad miscalculation can mean losing it all. The stakes are much higher.”

(Can he give examples of what areas require bold but risky changes? Would the report of the Committee of the Future Economy or the reserved Presidential Election be among them? If so, what are the risks involved? Also, the general perception is the G prefers to make “tweaks’’ rather than take bold steps – or is this the wrong perception?)
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4. Mr Ho talks about how many ingredients go into making a judgment call.

“…every major decision and every major policy are not an exercise to find the right answers. They are always an exercise in making the right judgment — not a hard right or hard wrong — but a balanced one that serves the best interests of the majority and the country. You cannot make everybody happy. Also, judgments always have to be revisited now and then — to go back to my point that things are changing. What seems to be sensible now may in a few years’ time no longer be sensible. You have to be prepared to constantly change.”

(Again, examples are needed. But there’s another point to consider: The public service shouldn’t think that a change is an acknowledgment of a mistake and therefore paper over the “change’’ as something that is a natural follow through of the old policy. When policies make a sharp turn, the people must be brought on board in understanding the changed circumstances or even objectives. Would he consider that enough explanation was given for the sudden announcement of the increase in the water price? Could Hong Kong’s seizure of the Singapore’s Terrexes be better explained to the people as an example of the changed geo-political realities that Singapore faces?)
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5. This wasn’t touched upon but hopefully, Mr Ho will pick up the subject in one of his lectures. The civil service has always been accused of “group think’’ with its top echelons being a closed circle of like-minded individuals. That so many top civil servants cross into the political sphere doesn’t add to people’s confidence that radical or bold ideas can surface from the G. One example is how the Committee for the Future Economy is stuffed with Old Economy members. Singapore’s Establishment seems to be a closed rank of people who went to the same schools and move in the same circles with very few gaps allowing for “mavericks’’. Please do not use the sole example of Mr Philip Yeo. He’s just one man.

 

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by Daniel Yap

IT USED to define a person, this “graduate” label. Especially so in the civil service, which until Jan 1 classified all staff under Divisions I, II, III and IV, with Division I being graduates, and the other divisions being lesser mortals without degrees and with stunted pay scales, promotion prospects and a clearly numbered class divide.

When I finished my diploma, I knew that I could not take to joining the civil service as a second-class employee, and I had no intention of pursuing a degree course that simply repeated what I learned in polytechnic, albeit with expanded theory. If I had graduated today, I would have seriously considered the civil service: I had confidence that my skills and potential were at least equal to a uni grad’s.

Now that system has been done away with and civil servants will only be classified according to their grade, which reflects their responsibilities and remuneration. This dismantling of an outmoded system was announced in 2014 and was put into practice gradually since 2015, with uniformed services and the civil service beginning the practice of hiring non-graduates into graduate career schemes.

What will these changes bring about in reality?

 

A different way to get ahead

Now, a polytechnic diploma holder will typically have a two or three-year career head start over a degree holder. This is a huge boost for those pursuing non-specialist management roles.

Although there’s still practically no way for someone to “become” an accountant or maritime engineer just by plugging away at work, some management roles can be trained up easily on the job. Employees should ask their supervisors which skills they need to work on and take the feedback seriously by asking about short courses that would help.

With the glass ceiling removed, everyone is incentivised to perform better and even innovate, if no other bureaucratic constraints come in to squash new ideas.

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Slow mindset change?

Today, those with the will and the skills need not feel that there is a bureaucratic barrier holding them back from rising up the ranks. But certainly some vestige of the old way of thinking will still be left inside and certainly outside the civil service. Some people do cherish their often hard-earned status as a “graduate”, even if it means little in practice.

Habits die hard and worldviews die even harder. If someone has spent their life preaching (and hearing mother preach) that a degree is THE path to success, they will be loathe to change their bearing, even when the tide is against them.

It will be the middle and top managers with this dated mindset that will be a drag on culture change. They could potentially hold back thousands of capable individuals and trigger a loss of confidence that the civil service really wants to change. The organization will be accused of hypocrisy and reform will be grindingly slow.

 

Private sector change

Surely, one of the hoped-for effects of the civil service change will be for the private sector to embrace a skills-based future and tone down on paper-chase hiring practices.

But Singapore’s largest employer will probably have a more robust assessment and review system and good HR practices, compared to many smaller companies. Their promoting managers are going to be guess-timating level of performance and, sad to say, guess-timation often regresses to the lowest common denominator – that piece of paper earned 10 years ago.

But for small companies, simple solutions like having an annual or bi-annual review checklist will help greatly. Ask questions such as whether the employee enhances his team’s performance, whether his attitude is positive and productive, and make a list of skills that he has and a list of skills that he needs to improve on. Then plan what new responsibilities he will have to take on in the coming year and when (and how) you expect him to pick up the skills for the new responsibility.

When hiring, look for a culture fit, chat about the industry and administer a simple (and practical) knowledge test. Even outsourcing part of the hiring process can be financially prudent, relative to the cost of hiring (and the cost of hiring a poor fit for the job). If you have no HR experience, there are short courses that are available via ASME, SNEF and public and private institutions. You could search the SkillsFuture course directory too.

 

Education must offer more

I’m not talking about the fact that the salary structures for grad and non-grad teachers have merged since October 2015. If and when skills, knowledge and gumption become the hardest currency in the career game, then education will have no choice but to evolve to produce students with exactly those characteristics.

Education and career guidance will help sharpen students’ skills development pathways even when they are still in school, and with such centres already in every polytechnic and ITE, students will be better equipped to meet employer and industry skill demand right out of the box.

Universities, both private and public, would have to justify that two or three year delay to starting a career by imparting skills and knowledge that puts their students four years ahead of the curve. Is it even possible?

Let’s answer the question with another question: do graduates succeed because they are intrinsically talented, or because they used their talents to earn a degree?

 

From flipping burgers to the corner office

I’d love to see the day when some gutsy post-secondary school dropout climbs from an operations support role into management (like they sometimes do at companies like McDonald’s). It would signal that on the job training is very strong in the civil service and that any person in the system has a chance of realising their full potential, even if they had a bad start.

Can a dropout beat a scholar? In Silicon Valley they can. Will a “nobody” rise through the ranks and join the Admin Service? Become a Perm Sec? Or are the paths of PSC scholars still closely guarded, and excluded to everyone else?

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

 

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by Bertha Henson

THE Prime Minister gave an interesting speech last night about the role of civil servants. You can read it here.

PM Lee Hsien Loong tried to tackle that hoary old chestnut: the impartiality of civil servants. In a, well, nutshell, he’s making it clear that civil servants carry out the political agenda of the G of the day, but stay above the fray. It’s a tall order for civil servants, who have always been attacked for being an arm of the G (which they are – and must be, actually).

He tried to set the civil service in the context of a unique Singapore system, detailing how the role has morphed from not even being allowed to shadow politicians to serving at the frontlines. The civil service and politicians were one in the nation-building days when politics was on hold because of the total dominance of the People’s Action Party. But things have changed.

Here are some quotes and some things to think about:

PM on the current political climate:

“Elections are fiercely contested and it is not clear on Nomination Day who will form the government. The political leadership and the civil service have to work hand in hand in this new environment, with each understanding its respective role.
What is it that enables our system to work under these circumstances? The basics have not changed, the political leadership and the civil service must still share major beliefs, values and ideals. These are fundamentals and if a civil servant disagrees and does not accept them, it would be very hard for him or her to be effective. But we have to now be clearer about the different roles of the Ministers and the civil service.”

So if the G shifts to the left, the civil service moves along with it to carry out new policies. If the civil servant doesn’t think the G is doing right, then it is better that he goes. This adds a new dimension to anyone who wants to climb the public service ranks. You need to identify with the G’s agenda. Then again, given that top civil servants have spent some time in the civil service system already, it’s likely that they would have imbibed the values along the way. It’s not like they are mid-career entrants.

PM on people who think nothing will change if the G changes:

” They imagine that with a system in place, all we need is to do is to hold elections. Some party will win the elections, it will form the Government and those who are elected will automatically be able to lead and run the country. After all, we have a good civil service and the civil service will always be there to make things work. So, we do not really need to worry about stabilisers, safeguards, checks and balances or a good government. The system will work and produce a good outcome, automatically and forever.
This is a complacent and a mistaken view. No system is fail-safe, and impossible to crash.”

This is what opposition political parties have been saying to those who worry about the system breaking down should there be a change of G. But those political stabilisers need not be institutionalized structures like elected presidency or NCMPs or NMPs, no? It may well be just more opposition politicians in Parliament who are a reflection of the will of the people.

PM on ministers in their ministries:

“At the same time, the Minister must also master his Ministry, and the policies he is responsible for. He is not a non-executive chairman, this is a double negative, so listen carefully. He is not a non-executive chairman, one presiding passively over an organisation that runs fine without him, while he busies himself with political affairs. He has to be hands on, articulating a clear strategy for his Ministry to serve the needs and aspirations of the people, making sure his PS does a good job in implementing policy and operating the ministry, helping the PS to do that.”

Which is why there are some people who think that the place will break down – because the minister is a super PS. It’s no wonder that opposition parties try so hard to counter the view by saying it will be business as usual whoever is in charge. The Singapore system has politics and policies so intertwined that they can’t be divorced. It’s okay if the G has a strong mandate, but not if a huge segment of the population doesn’t give its support.

PM on how civil servants should relate to their political masters:

“You must be equipped and able to translate political goals into workable policies, or if it is not possible or absolutely impossible, you must have the tact and the skill to explain to your Minister why it cannot be done. The civil service is not independent of the elected government, unlike the judiciary, which is a different branch of government. Under our system of government, the civil service must serve the elected government of the day. Therefore, the civil service must understand the political context, and the thinking of the political leadership so that it will not come up with policies that are non-starters, so that it can design policies that are not only sound, but are well-supported and can be well implemented. Civil servants have to be politically impartial.”

The civil service here is not like the American system, where a new President sweeps in with a new set of advisors. Even in the United Kingdom, the civil service has found itself having to prepare a shadow team in case there is a change of leadership. Nor is it like the Chinese system, whether politicians rule the roost and the roots. PM is calling on civil servants to make some fine distinctions on their role rather than look to other role models which have simply led to fraying and incoherent pendulum-like policies.

PM on detachment:

“There will always be a fine balance – between the civil service being neutral and non-political, and the civil service being politically sensitive and responsive. It is inherent in the role of the civil service, to work with and for political leaders, in a political environment, and yet maintain a certain detachment from politics. It is a fine balance which has always been required, and which we must continue to maintain.

There is a third angle no? A civil service that has been politically co-opted to prolong the longevity of a political party. Besides barring key officers from being political party members, how else are civil servants detached from politics? It’s a bit hard to envisage when top civil servants are catapulted into politics every GE.

PM on an abnormal country:

“Sometimes I read people saying that, arguing that they want Singapore to become a “normal” country, I think that is most unwise. If we ever lose it and become “normal”, like any other country, where the politics of division takes hold, and policies oscillate from one end to another with the political winds, we will have lost a precious competitive advantage and it will be very difficult for us ever to become special again.”

So, in the end, it’s about giving one party a strong mandate to lead. PM cited European countries with coalition governments trying out consensus politics which turn out wishy washy policies. This is why some extreme groups can take root because of the people’s dissatisfaction with the political system.

Pity the poor civil servants. They need a new political philosophy for these changing times and perhaps, a new instruction manual that goes with it…

 

Featured illustration by Natassya Diana.

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Black clock showing 8.30

ELECTION watchers will learn today (April 27) whether it will be a straight fight between the PAP’s Murali Pillai and SDP’s Chee Soon Juan in the Bukit Batok by-election; both parties are expected to hand in their nomination papers at Keming Primary School in Bukit Batok East Avenue 6 this morning.

In the General Election last year, the single-seat constituency was in a three-way fight between PAP, SDP, and independent candidate Samir Salim Neji. Mr David Ong from PAP handily won the seat with 73 per cent of the votes, but bid a hasty farewell last month after news of an affair leaked in the press.

Once nominated, Mr Murali and Dr Chee will head into nine days of campaigning before Bukit Batok residents vote on May 7 – a day before Mother’s Day. Both men have so far avoided confronting each other directly but their parties clashed this week over a proposed $1.9 million Neighbourhood Renewal Programme that Mr Murali had earlier appeared to suggest would go forward only if he won the election.

Read about the argument here – and for more news and analysis about the by-election, here are our top stories:

Whether the rules should make sure a minority candidate can be elected President again dominated the ongoing review of the Elected Presidency yesterday. People against it argued Singapore was past voting along racial lines, and that such a restriction would undermine its legitimacy. Our report on the third public hearing by the Constitutional Commission is coming up.

More on politics: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday at a dinner for senior civil servants that the civil service was NOT independent of the G, but “politically impartial”. Here’s a transcript of what he said. Bertha takes a closer look at the speech in a report coming later today. Here’s an excerpt:

“Which is why there are some people who think that the place will break down – because the minister is a super PS. It’s no wonder that opposition parties try so hard to counter the view by saying it will be business as usual whoever is in charge. The Singapore system has politics and policies so intertwined that they can’t be divorced. It’s okay if the G has a strong mandate, but not if a huge segment of the population doesn’t give its support.”

 

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by Kwan Jin Yao

TWO years ago in July 2013, nearing the end of the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) endeavour, the organising committee brought four of us – participants and facilitators – together to share our experiences and thoughts on continuing these conversations into the future.

During this sharing session, which was also published in the OSC reflections report, three suggestions were teased out:

1. Reaching out to more individuals – the marginalised communities or those active on the Internet, for instance – beyond the 47,000 participants

2. Striking a better balance between broader conversations on aspirations and more focused ones on policy recommendations

3. Detailing useful perspectives from these conversations, so as to engender further discourse or even criticisms online. I suggested that the ideal is to have discussions run by citizens. “We come together, and once we produce a report, we can just submit it to a government agency,” I concluded.

Reviewing these suggestions seems like a good starting point to evaluate the new SGfuture initiative. After all, Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth Grace Fu acknowledged that the year-long OSC in 2012 and 2013 provided a “very good idea” of the aspirations of Singaporeans, and SGfuture could hence galvanise them “to step forward to put the values that they have envisioned in the OSC into action.”

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing also added that the initiative can “build consensus about the future [Singaporeans] wish to have, and to commit these aspirations to action.”

Yet – beyond such ambitious rhetoric – how different will SGfuture be from its predecessor, and will the shortcomings be addressed? Details are scant right now. When asked by TODAY for the timeline and scope of the series, Ms Fu said more time was needed, and that it was “a bit early” to talk about “concrete numbers” for now.

On the contrary, one would think that this initial phase is perhaps the best opportunity for the government to explain – more specifically – how the OSC exercise segues into SGfuture, and even to describe how the OSC might have benefited the civil service or the policymaking process. Otherwise, why bother with these undertakings? In fact, without a coherent strategy for the SGfuture sessions, which will be held until mid-next year, how will the facilitators be briefed, and what end-goals should the participants work towards?

It might be good to look at the three suggestions listed above to make the SGfuture exercise a more fruitful one.

1. How will more Singaporeans – not only in terms of the the numbers, but also their diversity, be engaged, or would SGfuture end up involving the same OSC participants, rehashing familiar refrains? The OSC was organised by a secretariat with the support of community groups and G agencies, and it is not clear if SGfuture intends to broaden the target audience. Is it, for example, only for “young” people? To accommodate those with familial or work obligations, changes to the format and availability of the sessions should also be made.

It is one thing to talk about marginalised communities, and another to involve them in discourse.

And will opposition parties – who were not part of the OSC two years ago – be involved this time, assuming they are keen to get on board in the first place? “We will take views from the opposition, we will take views from civil society, we will take views from people from different walks of life,” was the commitment made by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in September this year, following his party’s landslide victory in the general elections. Political hustings in that period – from substantive manifestos to rousing rally speeches – generated insights which have translated into nothing meaningful since then.

2. Is this a series premised upon grander aspirations for the future, specific policy recommendations, or both? And for which socio-economic or political areas of interest? The present dialogues lined up – from “The Future of Collaboration” to “Matchbox Mayhem: The Social Canvas” and “Community Building through the Arts” – appear haphazard, unanchored by an overarching vision for the national initiative.

One of the main weaknesses of the OSC series, which the Secretariat conceded, was that initial contributions in the first phase were too broad. This was rectified, somewhat, in the second phase which included the ministries, though even facilitators at the sessions organised by the Ministry of Education – which I attended – found it difficult to zoom in on specific topics or pathways. On the other hand, I thought the Committee to Strengthen National Service (NS) in 2014 was so fixated on crafting implementable recommendations, that it did not give participants the chance to challenge the premises for NS, or to think deeper about the corresponding principles of defence and deterrence.

Different ministries or issues, in this vein, would require sessions to be organised differently.

3. What is expected of participants, and how will the organising committee of SGfuture consolidate perspectives from these dialogues? Throughout the next six or seven months, will they also leverage upon the Internet and its communities? Because if the outcomes from the first dialogue series organised by the National Youth Council is any indication, more has to be done to ensure that outcome of SGfuture is not a hotch-potch of proposals which may lack rigour or feasibility.

While well-intentioned, discussions on how to encourage less consumerism will yield little unless they are matched by commitments or community projects. A new volunteer hub sounds great in an SGfuture setting, yet in the past few years the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre as well as the Youthbank online community, for example, have already implemented such a proposal in Singapore. In this regard, assessing their effectiveness and areas for improvement will be far more fruitful.

And as the G provides a more coherent vision for SGfuture, perhaps like-minded Singaporeans – besides the convenience of the ubiquitous petition – should find ways to initiate their own conversations too. Feedback may not necessarily be considered, but most will agree that questioning and sceptical mind-sets are necessary to keep the G constructively in check.

 

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Shoes Off SVP - Jasper Youth Hostel - Alberta, Canada - Summer 1990

by Yoong Ren Yan

AT A speech last night, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told public servants to walk in the shoes of Singaporeans of different backgrounds. As problems get more complex and views become more diverse, the public service needs “strategic vision, deep capabilities as well as close and continuous connections to the ground.”

We had a bit of a déjà vu – haven’t we heard this before? It’s fairly common to hear commuters, for one, tell off our political and public service leaders for not taking the trains themselves. But as DPM Tharman’s speech shows, this sentiment is already being echoed by those leaders. And some changes have been made: more public service leaders are rolling up their sleeves in operational postings.

We’ve dug up a brief recent history of grounding the public service: for your necessary action, please.

 

Who? DPM Tharman

When and where? October 2015 – six weeks after GE2015, at the Public Service Leadership dinner, to 600 public servants

Grounding moment? “We must walk in the shoes of citizens from different walks of life whenever we can, both in the course of the public officer’s work and when we get a chance to volunteer on the ground. 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.”

Example of choice? The Housing and Development Board gathered feedback door-to-door from residents affected by en bloc redevelopment, and appointed a ‘Journey Manager’ for each homeowner as a single point of contact to the G.

 

Who? Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, former Permanent Secretary, Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

When and where? July 2015 – a month before SG50, at the DBS Asian Insights Conference, to 900 leaders from the public and private sectors

Grounding moment? “When a young scholar comes back, he should not be sent to the Ministry of Finance’s Treasury division and be the regulator. He should really be sent to the EDB (Economic Development Board), or the Housing and Development Board, and serve an internship of maybe a year to learn the problems on the ground. Unless the civil servant knows the problems on the ground, he would become just a regulator. And regulators, there are too many (of them) in Singapore.”

 

Who? DPM Teo Chee Hean

When and where? April 2015 – three days after Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, at the Administrative Service dinner, to top civil servants

Grounding moment? “Mr Lee believed that public officers needed to understand the ground, in order to hold the trust of Singaporeans. In 1960, he told public officers that he expected them to know the problems facing citizens, whether they were city-dwellers, farmers, or fishermen. He wanted a Government that grows ‘from the ground up’, putting Singaporeans at the centre of all that they do.”

 

Who? Mr Peter Ong, Head of the Civil Service

When and where? March 2014 – after the conclusion of Our Singapore Conversation, at the Administrative Service dinner, to top civil servants

Grounding moment? “We also need to keep our ears to the ground to understand Singaporeans’ moods and sentiments and see the impact of our policies on their lives. Being closer to where actual public services are delivered will allow us to more credibly craft the right features into policies to benefit Singaporeans.”

Example of choice? A multi-agency team found that installing grab bars would minimise falls for elderly residents – about 24,000 residents have benefited. Moreover, top civil servants have more operational postings, “from overseeing career centres, to increasing the number of buses on our roads”.

 

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A stack of 50 cent coins

by Bertha Henson

Something unhealthy is happening in Singapore – and it has to do with SG50. The G has done such a great job hyping it up that everybody now wants to know what’s in it for them, rather than how they can take part in it.

And so you hear again the usual “what about me?’’ cries when a segment of the population gets something for free or at a discount and they don’t. It was the case when benefits for the Pioneer Generation were announced, with huge cuts in medical fees for those 65 and older. Some people didn’t seem to understand that “pioneer’’ is not a label that can be attached to everyone or every generation. That debate appears to have died down.

I guess it looks tasteless to ask for same thing that your father or grandfather got from the G. Or maybe there is a dawning realisation that lower medical costs and discounts for the elderly means that there is less need for the younger lot to worry about their seniors’ financial healthcare needs. That is, there is less need to dip into your own Medisave or worry if your health insurance will cover them. In fact, there’s now Medishield Life as well which will go on …forever.

But what to make of this fuss over the $500 one-time cash bonus for Singapore 82,000 civil servants? (By the way, civil servants refer to those working in the 16 ministries and nine organs of state. So statutory board employees don’t count as civil servants, but “public servants’’.)

You can see some of the comments flying around.

They go along these lines:

“Wah! That’s $41 million leh. So much money ah. Where did this come from? Taxpayers?’’

“Hmmmph. What did the civil service ever do to deserve the bonus?’’

“If the G can give out so much money, why can’t it spread it out so every citizen gets a share?’’

“See lah! This PAP is buying votes from civil servants…’’

Then there are those who ask if ministers also get $500 bonus (I don’t think they are considered part of the civil service although their pay is linked to civil service grades), whether civil servants who are permanent residents are also entitled to the bonus (yes) and why the money isn’t spread out such that more goes to the lower ranks.

Actually, besides the $500, the lowest-ranked Division 4 workers are getting a $30 jump in monthly pay, and that’s permanent. If you’re wondering why it’s not $60 because you vaguely recall that that was what the National Wages Council, comprising unions, employers and the G, recommended, it’s because these 2,500 workers already earn beyond the benchmark $1,100 a month. So the Civil Service is leading the way to up wages at the lower end – and nobody should quarrel with that unless you want to go into technicalities like productivity measures and whether doing so will deplete the state coffers…

I happen to think that the civil servants are pretty under-appreciated by the public it serves, never mind the accolades it receives from admiring quarters elsewhere. It gets jumped on for mistakes, even though 95 per cent of the time (and I am being conservative here), it gets things right. Singapore’s much-vaunted efficiency puts pressure on civil servants to achieve excellence at all times. They are not seen as fellow workers or even employees. Civil servants are faceless people who are just supposed to be “there’’ to do the things that need to be done.

Then there are also those who see civil servants as the arms and legs of the ruling party, rather than as a neutral institution – a perception I strongly feel should be fixed. This means that those who are not enamoured of the PAP will naturally feel the same towards the service.

Do they deserve the $500 bonus? Who is to say? It is a gift, an ang pow given to someone on his/her birthday. How big or small an ang pow is also depends on whether it is a “big’’ birthday or tua seh jit, as the Hokkiens would put it.

More likely, it depends on whether the giver can afford it at that time. Can we? Put in perspective, $41 million is approximately 0.0105% of Singapore’s nominal GDP in 2014.

As for those who think the size should be differentiated by merit or seniority, well, I think we’re going to get into another tangle about who deserves what and why.

The thing to remember is that civil servants are themselves employees, who pay taxes too. So if their employer, the G, decides to give them a bonus, it is merely acting like any employer who has been exhorted to give an SG bonus and thinks that it has deep enough pockets to do so. Those who say that $41 million should be shared out among all citizens are, in fact, asking that civil servants should not be treated as workers. (What they should be asking for is a separate SG50 bonus for all citizens!)

I pity civil servants because the main measure of their bonus and increments is how the economy performs. Their salaries move in a narrow band compared to private sector people who can expect six months bonus or more when their companies turn in super profits. The flip side, of course, is that the civil service doesn’t retrench people, or relocate, so job security is a factor in their salary computations.

I also pity them because their bonus and increment details are made available to all and sundry. The logic is that because civil servants serve the public and are paid by the state, then the public must know how much they are being paid. In the private sector, it’s the shareholders who deserve that right to be told. I can just imagine people who know civil servants going up to them and saying “Wah, so good ah! Got $500 extra. Can blanjah or not?’’

Of course, in the era of SG50, it is to the private sector’s benefit to go public about paying SG50 bonuses. It looks good for them and in the national scheme of things, it puts pressure on rival companies and those in the same industries to do the same.

The civil service bonus should be looked at in the same way: it puts pressure on every boss in the private sector, especially companies which are doing well. In fact it seems that NTUC Secretary General Chan Chun Sing is urging just that outcome.

 

And NTUC Social Enterprises has already committed to giving their staff SG50 rewards, in the same way that DBS will give $1,000 to all staff under the rank of vice-president and how SMRT gave $500 of vouchers to its staff.

The upshot of it all is this: We live in a time of heightened expectations. We’re waiting for more money from employers. We’re waiting for more goodies from the G. In fact, we are waiting for much more than usual because the general election is in the offing. We’re thinking that SG50 and the GE must be linked because electoral carrots can be camouflaged as SG50 gifts.

And, as usual, we’ll be toting up numbers, who got what and wonder why we’re not entitled to the same or more. We will say “too small”, “too late”, “too little for me” or “why so much for him”.

Carping sort of takes the fizz out of SG50, don’t you think?

 

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Photo By Shawn Danker
(from L-R) Dr Ang Yong Guan, Tan Jee Say, David Foo, Tan Peng Ann and Leow Pei Shan of SingFirst

by Daniel Yap

Do you suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome? That’s what retired army Colonel and SingFirst chairman Dr Ang Yong Guan would have you believe, among other things, in a forum held by the Singaporeans First (SingFirst) Central Executive Committee this past weekend, on June 13.

The Stockholm Syndrome describes a psychological tendency for hostages to identify and bond with their captors. In this case, Dr Ang doesn’t mean this literally, of course, but he is using it to describe Singaporeans whom he says have been “brainwashed” into supporting those who “oppressed” them – the PAP, who else – partly out of fear and partly in response to “carrots” such as the Pioneer Generation Package, among others.

The 4-hour forum, Can Singapore Succeed without PAP?, held at Hotel Royal at Novena, was attended by about 50 members of the public and aimed at discussing the Singapore Civil Service. SingFirst’s Central Executive Committee members, which included Tan Jee Say (Secretary-General), David Foo (Treasurer) and Tan Peng Ann (Vice-Chairman), said that they expected the Singapore Civil Service to continue functioning “without fear or favour” should the government change hands.

Photo By Shawn Danker
(from L-R) Dr Ang Yong Guan, Tan Jee Say, David Foo, Tan Peng Ann and Leow Pei Shan of SingFirst

There might be a “little” disruption, as was the case with the handover of town councils to the Workers’ Party, but the politicians said that it would be quickly ironed out.

The fact remains that the Workers’ Party town council is still short of S$14 million in grants which had never been tied to any management standards preconditions in the past. In addition, 15 of Singapore’s current 19 cabinet ministers were civil servants. Even Public Service Commission Chairman Eddie Teo voiced concerns about the lines between politicians and civil service becoming blurred.

SingFirst also highlighted the late Lee Kuan Yew’s infamous threat to send in the army to prevent a freak election result from getting out of hand, but pooh-poohed it as more fearmongering. Nevertheless, the PAP’s parliamentary dominance means that it can change the constitution easily and embed all sorts of minefields into the law.

Threat or no threat, it was clear that the SingFirst leaders had strong views on the subject. SingFirst Secretary-General Tan Jee Say, himself a former civil servant, said that any political party that would dare sabotage the civil service to spite an incoming government should not deserve the vote of the people in the first place.

When asked about its plans to forestall any sabotage, SingFirst said that it did not have any specific plan and did not need one because it “trusted civil servants to do what is right” and that it “respected the professional integrity of the civil service”.

Moreover, Mr Tan added that any such action would be considered criminal and would be punishable by law. He also mentioned the possible use of the ISA against persons who would sabotage the civil service, although he later dismissed the use of the ISA as “a joke”. SingFirst had spoken critically against the use of the ISA by past prime ministers.

Mr Tan also took the opportunity to recap SingFirst’s Nordic-inspired plan to add S$14 billion a year to government spending on free education, child allowances, old age pensions, transport subsidies and more. This is supposed to be funded by the government’s net investment returns – money from investments made by GIC, Temasek and MAS.

When asked for details on the budgeted amounts and how realistic they were, Mr Tan could only say that those details would be explained at their next event in August.

With so many of the details up in the air, and however accurate or inaccurate their assumptions may be, SingFirst appears to be in a fairly good position to make such arguments about the behaviour of the civil service. At least eight out its 12 Central Executive Committee members as well as all five of its office holders were civil servants at some point in their careers, including SingFirst Vice-Chairman Mr Tan Peng Ann, who is also a retired army Colonel.

The two Colonels and ex-senior civil servant Mr Tan Jee Say said they hoped to break this climate of fear, and concluded their forum by urging more generals to step forward in future, once they had shown that it was perfectly safe to oppose the PAP politically.

 

For a look at the small fracas that took place during question and answer time at the SingFirst forum, click here.

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long speaking at a PAP election rally during the Punggol East By Election.

Everybody is reading tea leaves again. You can be sure that every time the Prime Minister opens his mouth from now, people will speculate on whether it would be an early election held way before January 2017. I have given up guessing dates but my tea leaves, or rather coffee grounds, tell me that all seats will be contested and eyes will be on wards bordering the Workers’ Party cluster in the east. At least, I sure hope so….I live there!

So what can be gleaned from PM Lee Hsien Loong’s speech on May Day? It was all about exceptional leadership, like the sort his father and the first generation of ministers provided. And the difficulty of recruiting good men and women into leadership positions. He didn’t say that they would be for the People’s Action Party – presumably because it’s a given. In fact, he hardly mentioned his party at all except when he reminisced about the late Lee Kuan Yew’s early days with the NTUC.

He has set the agenda for the next election: “..leadership renewal is the most important issue. It is not doing more or spending more as some would like you to think. It is who will lead Singapore into the future and it is our future at stake and our children’s future. Because if this government fails, what is going to happen to you, to all of us to Singapore?’’

The thing about leadership renewal as a mantra is that it has been the case for nearly every general election that I can remember save the years when the PAP put the elected presidency and the need for MPs who can run town councils centre-stage. Of course, there were plenty of other issues the PAP threw in, like vote for upgrading and deny racial politics ecetera.  But the theme of getting a team in place for the future is like listening to a tape recorder after re-winding.

Is it going to get any traction? Can it compare with the WP’s theme of needing a check in Parliament? Remember that Singapore lost a Foreign Minister in George Yeo. That’s a high profile job that is responsible for Singapore’s high profile on the international stage. Despite expressions of Mr Yeo’s exceptional ability, the PAP couldn’t fight the WP tide.

I suppose one reason leadership renewal might resonate now is that PM Lee isn’t getting younger. He’s 63. Leadership renewal was less of an issue during PM Goh Chok Tong’s time was because we all knew who was going to take over his job when he stepped down. Now the guessing game isn’t just about when the GE will be held, but who is going to step up to the PM’s plate. (You realise that we no longer have a First or Second DPM? Both Mr Tharman and Mr Teo are equal players although it is Mr Teo who steps up in the PM’s absence.)

The other issue is what it means to have an exceptional team.

PM Lee said this of the outpouring of emotion from the people when his father died: “I think his passing reminded people that exceptional leadership made a big difference to us and I think it has caused many people to pause and to ask ourselves are we sure we don’t need that kind of leadership any more, that quality of leadership anymore. Ofcourse Mr Lee did not do it alone. Part of his greatness was that he brought together exceptional people to form an outstanding team.’’

As evidence, he also cited the numerous foreign leaders who came for the funeral and even flying their own national flags at half-mast.

So is PM Lee talking about “tough love’’? Hard truths and no holds barred kind of leadership that the late Mr Lee epitomized? He was after all, not a “gentle father figure’’ but a hardnosed mobiliser and, some might even say, hardboiled mobster.

I don’t think the late Mr Lee was the right leader for the turn of the century but I have sometimes wished that he had come out to lay out the law of the land and just point the waaaay. This is especially so when discussion gets too fractious.

I really want to know, for example, what was it that the late Mr Lee wanted to say in Parliament post-GE which his son didn’t allow him too. My guess is that it’s some kind of harangue about navel-gazing and going on about COEs and property prices when the world is out there ready to eat our lunch. The PM told his father that he and his team would handle it by themselves.

This is pure guesswork but I suppose he thought Mr Lee might do more harm than good by speaking up to a population which is no longer dominated by the first or second generation Singaporeans. Also, he wouldn’t want his father to help bolster him and the younger lot, and risk looking even weaker especially after a weak showing in the GE. Just saying.

There is another point in his speech I found disconcerting. He talks about how Mercedes still needs Lewis Hamilton to win the F1 championship even though it has an outstanding car. “The car can’t drive itself.’’ So those people who think it’s okay to try out a different team to lead the government because there is still the civil service to run the show should be “very careful’’.

Hmm. The civil service SHOULD be able to run the show despite a change of political masters no? That’s how it works elsewhere, so why can’t it work here? What is the relationship between the civil service and the government-of-the-day, especially when so many ministers are ex-civil servants?

I ask this because I was very taken by the speech made by Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo published in the media last week:

“The distinction of the role between the politician and public servant has started to become blurred.

“The upside is that the politicians will have strong support from public servants when they need to sell government policies. But the downside of the change is that it will be more difficult for the public servant to behave in a non-partisan manner as the public will see him as intrinsically linked to the ruling party, perhaps even occasionally justifying the party line. It was not an issue in the early days because the old-generation public servants never had to worry about another political party taking over government from the PAP.

“But GE 2011 has caused some of our younger public servants to worry about what to do if there are more and more opposition MPs in Parliament or even if there is a change in political party, and not just in government, maybe a few general elections from now.’’

There is something very wrong here. Are the fates of the civil servants so inextricably tied with that of their political masters that we have to be “very careful’’ if we exercise our right to put in a different political team? We risk the country going down the drain because the civil service can’t function as well with someone from a different party? Surely, ministers are NOT super civil servants.

You can already see attacks on the civil service when something untoward happens in the Workers’ Party town council. There is a perception that civil servants might not be even-handed in its dealings with the PAP and WP town councils, with those living in the opposition wards being worse off. It might be an unworthy perception but it is one that will dog the civil service if the distinction of the role between the politician and public servant is not clarified. We can throw out the party in power because we disagree with its politics or politicies but we must always be able to have faith that the civil service can and will carry on on behalf of the people.

It got me thinking about the NTUC. What happens to the NTUC should the PAP lose more seats or even lose power? Maybe nothing as the symbiotic relationship is between the PAP and the NTUC, which is like a holding fort for some would-be candidates and a testing ground for others. (Note: symbiotic is not tripartite which is G-employer-union.) I once asked Mr Lim Swee Say about the relationship and he said there were non-NTUC unions as well and opposition parties are free to tie up with them or form their own version of the labour movement. Interesting.

So PM Lee is right about being “very careful’’ about our vote. Throw out the bath water (the PAP) and the baby might go as well (the civil service) – and we also risk over-turning the bathtub (the NTUC)?

He might be right but it doesn’t seem right, does it?

 

This article was first published at berthahenson.wordpress.com.

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Some pedestrians taking shelter from the rain in the Ophir Road area.

I’m glad I’ve never worked in the public service. What if I got placed on – or streamed into – some career track with a very low glass ceiling? What if the track is so rigid that promotions come far and few in between with pay rises that are pre-determined rather than merit-based? What if people less talented got placed on a separate track that reached to the skies because they did well in some examination hall some time ago?

I was aghast at today’s report about the civil service boosting the career paths for non-grads. I never knew much about the dual tracks with posts that depended on whether someone was a graduate or not. All I knew was that entry into the Administrative Service required sterling results which set a path to the top. No third class honours, no siree…The degrees had to be pedigrees. But below the exalted ranks, the hoi polloi can’t seem to get away from being “streamed’’ just as they were in the education system. Is it any wonder than that parents obsess over their children’s grades given the country’s biggest employer has set the example of chasing paper qualifications? So if you have the paper, you are set for a smooth life. Our parents were…right.

Yup, a cultural shift is needed.

The wonder is that the change has come so late. So the Prime Minister has said that the civil service will lead the way in measuring the worth of a person on his character and performance rather than a piece of paper. It seems like he was being kind. The civil service is not leading the way, it is catching up with the private sector. It’s pretty crazy to read that non-graduate teachers who perform well on the job can now be placed on the graduate salary scale. This is like crossing from the Normal stream to Express stream in secondary school. Surely, if a non-grad’s performance is as good as a grad, they should at least make the same amount of money and not be constrained by their pre-determined tracks?

It’s also crazy to read that non-grads who do well can get their first promotion after two to four years, down from the current three to six years. Hmm. I wonder about grads then – how many years do they have to wait? Probably shorter. I also keep wondering if I’m supposed to go “Yay!’’. So, in the past, there’s a set pattern and too bad if you are a super teacher and only hold a diploma, you wait three to six years, okay? The fellow with the degree gets promoted first. Now….got chance to switch to a different ladder. Yay!?

Why are there even two ladders dependent on education qualifications? It seems that there are ONLY three agencies with single-track schemes for grads and non-grads : the People’s Association, the Inland Revenue Authority and the Home team. PM raised an example of PA officer who did good while the media today highlighted police officers. I am almost sure the examples were picked for the media to interview rather than sourced by the media themselves. It would be too funny – or rather not funny – to have a well acknowledged good performer who is a non-grad, who got held back because the civil service HR practices…Maaaan, he or she should have joined the three agencies and not any other ministry or G agency…

But this is not school, where you cross ladders if your grades are good enough. In fact, streaming in school is fairer because it is based on academic performance at that point in time, Surely, in the workplace, performance at the point in time is more important than past school results? And if a person’s performance – based on whatever criteria – is on par with that of a grad, he should get the same rewards as the grad. And if performance outstrips the grad, he gets more. Of course, it all depends on whether the different ladders are drawn up such that comparisons in terms of performance can be made. Or whether each ladder is so different in job scope, that is, designed to keep a good man down – or raise him up. The grad track is known as Management Executive and the non-grad track is Management Support. Since we’re all into changing names to avoid stigmatisation (like no more Third Class Honours), maybe a nicer term than “support’’ can be used. Some measurement must be done comparing the work and worth of line managers, say, principals, and those of individual professionals like super teachers who don’t want supervisory roles. I guess management consultants will now be in demand.

I read ST and TODAY to find out if these separate career paths would merge into one. Yes, the PSD is studying ways to merge the graduate and non-graduate schemes into one career path. Yay! (Not sarcastic this time) I wish a time-frame was given. In fact, I think that this was the most significant point of the story, not the itsy-bitsy details about teachers getting promoted in how many years instead of how many years. There are 139,000 officers in the public service, 56 per cent of whom are grads, according to TODAY. It will be a gigantic change for them – unless it is only for new entrants.

It is right that non-grads get a lower starting pay. But once they start work, their exam results and what school they came from should be erased from the minds of their superiors. Everyone should have a chance to race to the top. It is only performance that matters in the workplace. I believe this is much the case in the private sector. It should be so in the public sector too.

 

This article was first published at berthahenson.wordpress.com.