Budget debate

Call for less rigidity among civil servants

Ms Lee Bee Wah said some civil servants focus on their agency's rules, instead of looking for a beneficial outcome. She illustrated her point by showing how this mindset resulted in a 10m gap between a covered linkway at a cluster of newly completed
Ms Lee Bee Wah.ST FILE PHOTO

MPs urge them to think out of the box and not fall back on default solutions

Civil servants should think out of the box, and be less passionate about guarding their own turf, said two MPs on day two of the Budget debate yesterday.

Nee Soon GRC MPs Lee Bee Wah and Louis Ng, in speeches full of anecdotes that had some members of the House smiling wryly, said having these two traits would keep the Government closer to the ground.

Both of them praised the efficiency of the civil service and its lack of corruption, but said there was room for improvement in some areas.

Some civil servants focus more on the rules of their agency, instead of looking for an outcome which benefits Singaporeans, noted Ms Lee.

She recounted her recent visit to a cluster of newly completed Housing Board blocks, located next to Khatib MRT station, that are in her constituency.

She noticed a 10m stretch between the blocks and the station that was not sheltered by the covered linkway.

Ms Lee Bee Wah said some civil servants focus on their agency's rules, instead of looking for a beneficial outcome. She illustrated her point by showing how this mindset resulted in a 10m gap between a covered linkway at a cluster of newly completed
Ms Lee Bee Wah said some civil servants focus on their agency’s rules, instead of looking for a beneficial outcome. She illustrated her point by showing how this
mindset resulted in a 10m gap between a covered linkway at a cluster of newly completed HDB blocks and Khatib MRT station. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEE BEE WAH

Said Ms Lee: "I asked HDB, what happened? Are you training my residents to be 10m sprinters, especially during rainy days?"

As it turned out, HDB staff told her they could not meet the requirements of the Land Transport Authority, which oversees the land next to the station.

"These are only small projects, and we meet so many obstacles. In bigger policy decisions, I'm sure there are even bigger roadblocks," said Ms Lee.

MANY OBSTACLES

These are only small projects, and we meet so many obstacles. In bigger policy decisions, I'm sure there are even bigger roadblocks.

MS LEE BEE WAH, on how an uncovered stretch of a linkway in her constituency was difficult for government agencies to resolve.

"Can't our civil servants be more result-oriented and objective-driven instead of just guarding their own turf?"

Mr Ng pointed out that the civil service is a crucial player in executing policies laid out in the Budget.

He urged public servants to think out of the box and not fall back on default solutions, as well as to listen to more suggestions.

"I have been to too many dialogue sessions where we... defend our policies rather than listen to ideas on how we can make our policies better," said Mr Ng. 

He suggested, among other things, that senior public servants attend Parliament debates to better understand the concerns raised.

"Like football, nothing beats watching a live performance, (rather) than reading a report," he said.

Mr Ng also took aim at the civil service's seeming tendency to "process each case as fast as possible and to follow the book as strictly as possible".

He said: "In the pursuit of efficiency, we have compromised a key value - compassion. In our pursuit to automate most things, we now have a system without a heart."

But many people fall through the cracks when the system is so rigid, he added.

While acknowledging that agencies do grant exceptions based on the merits of each case, Mr Ng noted: "We have to fight with all our might to get that 'case-by-case basis'." 

Having a better sense of the ground can help counter the perception that the Government is out of touch with the people, as brought up by at least four other MPs.

They included Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) and Nominated MPs Chia Yong Yong and Kuik Shiao-Yin.

Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) said one of the greatest complaints among Singaporeans is "that the Government is too concerned with the big picture and often neglects the perspective of the individual".

He urged the Government not to lose sight of the issues and difficulties that Singaporeans and their families face in their day-to-day lives.

In her speech, Ms Chia lauded the civil service's plan to recruit people with disabilities, announced last year, and the personal interest which she said civil service head Peter Ong had in the matter.

But she pointed out that unless the agencies' human resource departments also shared this vision, progress on this hiring front would be difficult.

But it was a worthwhile change to make, said Ms Chia, adding that companies would follow the Government's lead.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'Call for less rigidity among civil servants'. Print Edition | Subscribe