The Straits Times
Published on Nov 17, 2012

Outcomes, numbers not incompatible


MR NGIAM Tong Dow's speech ("Dons should 'critique policies'"; Nov 9) reportedly stated that civil servants tend to focus on outputs rather than outcomes.

In my years of public service, I know that we have always tried to see beyond mere inputs and outputs to real outcomes.

Hence, in technical education, it was not about the numbers of students graduating, but the dignity that well-paying and fulfilling jobs conferred on them.

It is not by chance that Singapore's youth unemployment is among the lowest in the world and there is no tumult of frustrated young people on the streets.

In libraries, it was not about the number of items borrowed, but about creating knowledgeable and well-informed citizens who can participate fully in civil society. This was emphasised repeatedly to staff so that they understood why their jobs were important.

Public servants I worked with were continually challenged to look at the big picture and define the outcomes that mattered most.

Even so, outcomes still need to be measured. Good governance is an outcome, but how do we know we have it?

Safety is an outcome, but we still need to measure it to make progress. National security and sustainable growth are also outcomes, but what do they mean in concrete terms? Data still needs to be collected and analysed.

Even the ultimate outcome, happiness, has been deconstructed by the Bhutanese into nine domains and 33 indicators. So outcomes and numbers are not incompatible.

However, I would agree with Mr Ngiam that university professors, especially in the social sciences, must build and stake their reputations by taking independent positions on areas of national interest. Their research and publications have to be forward-looking and not merely analyses or records of the past.

N. Varaprasad (Dr)