Professionals, public institutions need to strive to earn and retain public trust: Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung is concerned by a weakening of public trust towards institutions globally - including the medical profession, education system, mainstream media and governments. PHOTO: PHOTO: MINISTRY OF EDUCATION

SINGAPORE - When he sent his first car, a Suzuki Swift bought over 20 years ago, for repairs the first time it had a problem, Mr Ong Ye Kung was told by a mechanic that there were several things to rectify, and was quoted a price which was "quite a bit of money".

The Education Minister said he was "none the wiser" as to whether it was a fair price, and consulted a friend from national service, who was a mechanic, who told him to get a second opinion. Mr Ong decided to save the trouble, and got the car repaired.

"Till today, I do not know if I paid a good price. I had a trust problem with my mechanic," he said at an annual dinner for the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine on Wednesday evening (July 3). A text of his speech was released to the media on Thursday.

Today, Mr Ong is concerned by a weakening of public trust towards institutions globally - including the medical profession, education system, mainstream media and governments. "Nobody is spared," he told the audience of about 900, comprising alumni and fresh graduates of the National University of Singapore's medicine and nursing courses.

Mr Ong discussed some problems arising from this weakening of trust, and spelt out four principles to preserve trust: Be competent and safeguard the role of expertise; uphold codes of conduct; contribute back to society as a professioanl community; and stay true to the ethos to serve.

He cited a recent article written by Dr Wong Chiang Yin, the former president of the Singapore Medical Association, in The Straits Times on the impact of mistrust in the medical profession. Dr Wong had said that if doctors start seeing every patient as a potential plaintiff, they would start to practise "assurance and avoidance defensive medicine".

"This means ordering more tests and procedures or prescribing more medicine than required for assurance, or ruling out higher-risk procedures on patients even though it may be the correct treatment for purposes of avoidance," Mr Ong said.

He also cited how, if a front-line public officer suspects his conversation is being secretly recorded, and could be uploaded to social media to create a fuss if the member of public was not pleased with the answers, there is no trust and service cannot be good.

"The public officer will ensure he sticks strictly to the rules, the procedures and the script, because that is publicly most defensible. So forget about the exercising of judgment and flexibility to cater to exceptional circumstances," said Mr Ong.

"When there is no open and honest communication, and trust is weakened, the system and the institution as we know it can no longer serve its recipients well. In fact, you will start to get perverse behaviour, like defensive medicine," he added.

Mr Ong gave several possible reasons for the weakening of public trust, including an asymmetry of information - when the service provider knows much more than the buyer - and customers having more access to information and knowledge, such as from the Internet.

In the medical sector, patients can now question the doctor's advice and even present alternate options they have read about, while in education, parents also now give policy suggestions, such as revamping the Primary 1 admission process, he noted.

"We should not mistake this as a lack of trust in our profession or our judgment. I think what it means is that what we are doing matters a lot to the public, and they want to know more about what we are doing," Mr Ong added.

Mr Ong said he could not really pinpoint the reason for the current erosion of trust globally, but said digital technology has changed the "texture of human relationships in society and affects trust". For example, while bad news often gets exaggerated and travels much faster than good news, this process has "gone into overdrive" with digital technology.

"Imagine if we all read a piece of negative news about a profession every day, over time, your trust in it will be eroded, even though nothing about the profession has changed," he said. "Remember, water that drips on a hard rock, over time, will create a hole."

But while they can hope that the public continues to value their services, or be discerning in the news they consume, Mr Ong said professionals and public institutions need to do their utmost to earn and retain public trust.

This comes, for example, in maintaining high standards of teaching and training in institutions that impart professional knowledge, whether in the medical, military or education sectors, Mr Ong said.

Codes of conduct must also be upheld. "For the medical community, the Singapore Medical Council sets out guidelines for practice such as the ethical code and regulates the conduct of doctors. But a good code of conduct needs to work both ways, protecting the client as much as the service provider, in this case the doctors, by setting out common standards and expectations about the practice," he said.

Addressing the new batch of graduates, Mr Ong said like them, he also belongs to the "newest batch of my profession" - the 4G, or fourth-generation, ministers.

"And just like you, we need to be competent in running our organisations and uphold a high standard code of conduct. We need to ensure that policies serve the people and the society for the long term, even if this is not evident in the short term."

"Above all, we need to stay true to the ethos to serve as well. We have the privilege of holding positions of trust, and we must do our utmost to safeguard it," he said.

As for his car mechanic story, Mr Ong said: "Fortunately, I have now found a good car repair shop that I trust. I am sure it makes money off me, but I am happy, because I trust the shop."

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