Budget 2018 debate: Speech of the day

Ensure public servants do not fear to speak up

MP LOUIS NG (Nee Soon GRC)
MP LOUIS NG (Nee Soon GRC)

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) urged Parliament and senior management in the public service to ensure public servants do not fear speaking up against the status quo. He told The Straits Times his comments are a continuation of his Budget speech last year, when he said "the public service has lost its heart". Below is an excerpt of his speech:

"In the past year, I have reached out to public servants to better understand their concerns, the difficulties they face and their aspirations.

Almost without fail, I will be asked two questions: The first is "Will I get into trouble if I speak up and share my thoughts with you?"

They fear that they will be labelled as troublemakers and that their bosses will get angry. They fear it will affect their appraisal and their promotion.

This fear is troubling.

In fact, after I delivered my speech about the public service last year, I received messages telling me to be careful, I will get into trouble for speaking up.

I've made it a point to publicly say I didn't get into trouble, that this fear is mythical. Having said that, this fear is very real.

AVOIDING A CULTURE OF FEAR

This culture of being afraid, of keeping quiet, of not rocking the boat is detrimental to the public service and most of all to Singapore.

MP LOUIS NG (Nee Soon GRC)

A panel of academics and former senior civil servants echoed the same sentiments at a forum last year. They lamented the reluctance of civil servants to pose contrarian views when facing political office-holders.

But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's wish for Singapore is that we "be blessed with a 'divine discontent' - always not quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better".

We do have this "divine discontent" but what we need to work on is ensuring we are able to hear it and that people are not afraid to speak up, that they do not accept the status quo and that they will fight for changes that will lead to an even better Singapore.

This culture of being afraid, of keeping quiet, of not rocking the boat is detrimental to the public service and most of all to Singapore.

We urgently need to cut the extremely long red tape that may be frustrating not just for members of the public but also public servants.

One suggestion from the public servants is a revamp of the appraisal system. I suggest we study the 360 appraisal review used by the private sector.

Many public servants I've spoken to fear a bad appraisal if they speak up, oppose their bosses' views and challenge the status quo.

The second question (I am asked) is "Even if I meet you and share my thoughts, nothing will change so what's the point?"

The second question is much more troubling. It shows these public servants have given up.

Some also told me it is almost impossible to feel motivated to do more because mediocrity is rewarded. They want to make a difference, which is why they joined the public service, but they do not feel empowered to do so.

I also suggest we have an internal Quality Service Manager in ministries and statutory boards to follow up on feedback from public servants. This will help give our public servants a voice and ensure their views, feedback and suggestions are looked into so that the public service is strengthened.

It's ironic that MPs are calling for civil servants to be "less rigid" and to "think outside the box". Ask any young civil servant and he'll tell you superiors frown on those who speak up or try to introduce fresh ideas.

Our public servants are a rare breed who devote their lives towards serving Singapore. But we now need to make sure they don't work in a system where they feel they need to be silent, where they feel they need to be "yes men or women" and where they feel that nothing will change even if they speak up."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2018, with the headline 'Ensure public servants do not fear to speak up'. Print Edition | Subscribe