Pulling together to pick up sticks

A humble fishball stick made political history in Singapore when it helped prompt the setting up of the new Municipal Services Office (MSO). The removal of the stick, discarded on a walkway in Bukit Gombak, had been delayed for more than a day because parts of the walkway were managed by different agencies. Complaints about the stick caused South West District Mayor Low Yen Ling to call up agencies, upon which she found out the source of the problem. Some might wonder why no passing resident was motivated sufficiently by civic consciousness to remove the offending stick himself, rather than looking to the authorities for a solution, but that is another question. The episode contributed to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announcing, in his National Day Rally earlier this month, the setting up of the MSO to deal with a lack of inter-agency coordination in municipal matters. Unlike the trivial fishball stick, this unit has a serious purpose: to improve the Government's overall coordination and delivery of municipal services.

These services address problems in many areas of everyday community life. Littered public areas, choked drains and overflowing litter bins affect the ambience of a First World country, while potholes, faulty streetlights and traffic lights, and damaged covered linkways are potentially dangerous. Likewise, flooded or choked drains and fallen trees and branches cause inconvenience to many. Mosquito breeding is a distinct public health hazard, particularly with the spike in dengue cases. One reason for the high quality of life in Singapore is that close attention is paid to dealing with these and similar problems, which affect the ease and comfort with which citizens can go about their daily pursuits. Indeed, it is precisely because citizens have grown accustomed to sustained standards of municipal service that their expectations are so high, making the fishball stick an anomaly in its surroundings.

The MSO's immediate task is to work with a diverse range of key government agencies to improve the management of feedback and customer service for municipal services. Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu, who heads the unit, has rightly emphasised the need to avoid bureaucratic duplication, which would merely prolong the response process.

Instead, the MSO would facilitate interaction between the public and government agencies, which depends closely upon quick access and good communication. For inter-agency coordination to increase the efficient delivery of municipal services, there should be close interaction among the agencies. The MSO could contribute to that end by encouraging a culture of cooperation and information-sharing.