This article has been shortened and edited for submission to The Straits Times Forum, from the previous article here.
Since Singapore’s independence, our public sector and administration has played an integral part to ensure our country’s consistent socio-political and economic development through the decades. Mr. Eddie Teo’s opening address at the 2010 Singapore Seminar in Cambridge, “Idealistic Citizens Help Push Bar For Public Servants” (October 24, 2010), presents itself at the right time; given the evolving sentiments on the ground, and the increasing demands of Singaporeans for the public service to evolve and progress. Against a background of purported frustrations, as well as the outpouring of sentiments and well-intentioned commentaries on-line, public servants indeed have much to prove.
Mr. Teo is right to assert that the continued general success and stability generated by the public service has simultaneously heightened the expectations of Singaporeans. Decades of improvement in various sectors have contributed to increases in our quality of life, and the public service should take some of the credit. However, he is wrong to assert that some Singaporeans “are beginning to expect the Government to do the impossible … and less forgiving and more demanding”. In fact, his decision to use the series of flash floods as an anecdote to explain how Singaporeans “tend to regard explanations as excuses” shows what is wrong with the public service. The question should be; is the public service listening; truly comprehending the concerns on the ground?
Singaporeans’ general frustration with the government stems not from the perceived ineffectiveness and inefficiency per se; more significantly, the empowered generations – with the growth of the Internet and other physical platforms for engagement and discourse – are lamenting the sense of distance between the people and the authorities. Naturally, the common criticisms of ministers and high-level public administrators relishing in their ivory towers are not without their justifications.
During the floods-fiasco, Singaporeans were enraged with the Public Utilities Board’s (PUB) poor handling of the incidents, as well as the laissez-faire attitudes adopted by the relevant personnel; when in fact citizens were asking for greater accountability in terms of taking responsibility for the damages, and proposing more tangible solutions for the future. Likewise, all we were asking for is for the administrators in the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) to experience first-hand the rush-hour squeeze on public transportation, instead of developing policies based on fuzzy statistics and mere academic information.
Are our agencies and public service really listening? They think they are. Whenever they are posed similar questions, they quickly point to the plethora of community surveys and outreach programmes to garner feedback through their established platforms; but honestly, superficial “public engagement” is not the answer. Public administrators and even politicians need to shed their apathy and lethargy in their domains, cease frowning upon tasks as careers and laborious commitments, and be more genuine and honest in their policy-making. Listen to the sentiments on the ground, on websites, in the newspapers, and even involve yourselves in grassroots and community activities; and instead of dismissing commentaries and suggestions wholesale, take more time and effort in sieving the gems and putting them under consideration.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.