Singapore

Public service has lost its heart, MPs say

Public service has lost its heart, MPs say
Singapore Parliament House. TODAY file photo
They call on government servants to have empathy when dealing with the needy
Published: 4:00 AM, March 2, 2017
Updated: 11:56 AM, March 2, 2017

SINGAPORE — Several Members of Parliament yesterday called for greater compassion from a public service that has, in Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng’s words, “lost its heart”, citing examples of how people have been turned away because public servants were doing things strictly by the book.

Citing a resident who was slapped with letters demanding mortgage and tax payments while struggling to provide for her late sister’s two children, Mr Ng said: “I asked the HDB (Housing and Development Board) why they did that. The answer was that they didn’t know the letter was sent as it was computer generated … Our aim seems to be to process each case as fast as possible and to follow the book as strictly as possible.”

He lamented: “In our pursuit to automate most things, we now have a system without a heart.”

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin, meanwhile, urged the Government to extend a “compassionate” helping hand to those mired in the poverty cycle.

While the slew of handouts — from education subsidies to Goods and Services Tax U-Save Vouchers — were helpful, they are but “drops in a constantly-leaking bucket” for these families, said Ms Kuik, who called for more universal support to meet needs such as eldercare, quicker access to affordable housing and respite for caregivers.

The working poor, she noted, hold full-time jobs and slog to support their families but still cannot seem to break the poverty cycle.

Not only do they feel left out, those struggling to make ends meet are left behind by the Government’s calls each year to “upskill”, “internationalise” and “innovate”.

This is neither the result of nonchalance nor laziness, but because “they’re just busy trying not to drown under wave after wave of new demands, new costs and new changes”. To this group, even the “calmest and most reasonable technocratic explanation” on why a water price hike is justifiable would feel like “salt on a wound”, said Ms Kuik.

What preoccupies them is that they “don’t have enough, I’ll never have enough and I’m not enough and you don’t care”, she added.

The disadvantaged lack the luxury of breathing space to weigh alternatives and plan for their future, and rather than brush them off with “don’t know, go talk to your MP” — as some frontline officers do — conveying available solutions compassionately is the key, she said.

Dr Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) noted that some civil servants tend to be more concerned with the “rules of their own agency” than what might benefit Singaporeans.

And public agencies often have requirements that contradict one another, said Dr Lee, citing the example of an “incomplete” covered linkway in Khatib that was left with a gap because the HDB could not meet other agencies’ requirements to build a seamless linkway.

“These are only small projects and we meet so many obstacles ... Can’t our civil servants be more result-oriented and objective-driven, instead of just guarding your own turf?” she asked.

Calling for better communication between the Government and the public, Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) said: “Seniors used to joke that the answers to their queries at Government departments always start with ‘www’… Making adjustments to accommodate our seniors is a signature of a caring society.”

Saying that the public service defends policies rather than listen to ideas on how to make them better, Mr Ng called for greater innovation in the public service.

“A crucial player in the implementation (of the Budget) is our public service … I hope that every public servant has a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love,” he said.