Budget debate: Speech Of The Day

Can we have a system with more heart?

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) said that there was room for public servants to be more compassionate. Here is an edited extract of his speech:

There is no doubt that we have a very efficient and corruption-free public service. My concern is that 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.

Our aim seems to be to process each case as fast as possible and to follow the book as strictly as possible. Don't deviate, don't rock the boat and don't question.

Unfortunately, many people fall through the cracks when the system is so rigid and where compassion is not exercised regularly enough.

Not long ago, one of my residents died. Her husband was remanded and she left behind two very young children. Her sister was thrown in at the deep end while grieving for the loss of her only sister, and still single but suddenly becoming a mother of two. She needed help. She needed some compassion.

I spoke to HDB on her behalf, urging it not to chase her for the mortgage, to give her some time to grieve, to compose herself for a very difficult next chapter of her life. HDB agreed, but later still sent a letter demanding payment.

Mr Louis Ng says many people fall through the cracks when the system is very rigid and compassion is not exercised regularly enough.
Mr Louis Ng says many people fall through the cracks when the system is very rigid and compassion is not exercised regularly enough. ST FILE PHOTO

She came to see me in tears, worried HDB will repossess the flat. I asked HDB why it did that. The answer was it didn't know the letter was sent as it was computer-generated.

Not long after, she received a letter from the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore demanding tax payment for her late sister.

I appreciate that on paper we are right to demand payment, but on compassionate grounds should we do so as our fellow Singaporean is trying hard to get back on her feet? Can we not afford to show some compassion?

Our public service needs to think out of the box as well. We have now developed a mindset where a solution, which has been used for years, becomes the right solution. We think that if we change, it means we have been wrong all these years and we don't like to be wrong.

Perhaps the easiest way to come up with new ideas is to listen to suggestions from others. I have been to too many dialogue sessions where we talk so much rather than listen attentively. We defend our policies rather than listen to ideas on how we can make our policies better.

It is not my intention to paint the public service in a bad light. I have worked with many outstanding public servants as a civil society activist and as an MP.

I have some suggestions. For a start, we need to cut our ground officers, who will be the first to detect people who have fallen through the cracks, some slack.

Many I've spoken to feel that when they bring such cases to their superiors, they are scolded for not following the book. We need to develop a culture where they are not penalised for being different and where they are given some flexibility when processing cases.

I suggest senior public servants attend Parliament and listen to the debates so they have a better understanding of the concerns we are raising. I suggest public servants who draft policies actually go down to the ground and experience different jobs related to their policies... and see how their policies affect the people on the ground.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'Can we have a system with more heart?'. Print Edition | Subscribe