Speech of the day

Citizens and civil service part of a whole

Mr Seah said Singaporeans should not have to face vigilante justice from the public or high-handed behaviour from civil servants.
Mr Seah said Singaporeans should not have to face vigilante justice from the public or high-handed behaviour from civil servants.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Social and Family Development, spoke about nation-building and collaboration among citizens. Here is an edited extract:

Recently, I had a senior (although still young) civil servant observing one of my Meet-the-People Sessions. The combination of youth and seniority is sometimes an indicator for high fliers, but it can be an unpropitious mix. This officer observed what we did that evening.

At the end of the session, as we were sharing, he turned to one of my key volunteers, exasperated, and he asked: "Why do you keep writing us these letters to make exceptions? You know that we cannot do that. You don't waste time writing, we won't waste time replying."

I am very seldom speechless and very seldom at a loss for ideas. But that night, I paused on both counts.

Does our public service need to change?

On the one hand, this high flier is right. Some residents do ask me to write letters that are beyond the pale. One resident lives in a landed property and owns three cars. Unfortunately, her house is only big enough to have one carpark lot.

She expects the Government - i.e. me - to provide her with lots for her two other cars. If not, she told me, the Government is lousy and she would vote against me in the next election.

My reply - given verbally - was quite a strong one. With hindsight, I was lucky that she did not record a video of me on her handphone.

A Ministry for Social and Family Development (MSF) officer was not so lucky. I am sure you areall familiar with the incident that occurred at the Social Service Office at Boon Lay, where a man went to demand his late monthly social assistance.

The Social Service Office, knowing that this man was going to have another baby, had initiated an early review, and increased the amount of assistance for the family from $600 to $800 per month. This unfortunately resulted in a delay of a few days in the crediting of financial assistance to the recipient.

Even as the MSF staff was trying to explain this, the recipient, loud and hectoring, demanded "his money". After several minutes of this, the officer was riled up enough to say "we don't owe you".

The whole exchange was put up on social media. Two things were clear to me: 1. The man seeking assistance intended to record everything because the recording started with his session. 2. That there is a strong sense of entitlement and the tone he took was that the officer indeed "owed" him the money.

Both sides were not right, but my sympathies lie with the officer.

I have noticed a recent rise of self-administered vigilante justice among members of the public. The weapon of choice - the handphone; judge and jury - the social media public. This has to change.

On the flip side, I have also seen some very bad responses by civil servants, the very few which give the Government as a whole a bad name.

This is not who we are. This is not what we dream of becoming.

We cannot demand that rules be broken on every occasion thatbenefits us, without care for fellow Singaporeans.

We should have neither vigilante justice from the public nor high-handed behaviour from civil servants.

We must not see (Singaporeans as) people to be herded by rules that cannot be broken.

At the same time, we must not see our collective good as largesse to be exploited, our public service as servants to do our bidding, to bear our anger, to right our personal wrongs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'Citizens andcivil servicepart of a whole'. Print Edition | Subscribe