Civil servants have no heart? LKY had a response to that…

MP for Nee Soon GRC Louis Ng chided the civil service for having “lost its heart”. He cited examples of how people have been trend away because public servants were doing things strictly by the book.

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin followed suit, urging the Government to extend a “compassionate” helping hand to those caught in the poverty cycle. Although she acknowledged that the hands outs – from education subsidies to GST U Save vouchers were helpful, they are “but drops in a constantly-leaking bucket” for these families.

These charges against the Government are nothing new.

In 1976, ex-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew responded to similar criticisms in Parliament. Then, MPs accused the civil service of being discourteous, having an indifferent attitude and a cold, bureaucractic approach.

He basically told the MP this: if Civil Servants knew how to give bad news to citizens and managed their feelings at the same time, then there is no need for the MP to be around.

“We (politicians) are professional in our relations with the public. That is part of the business of the MP if he is not good at it, then he would probably not be here,” said Mr. Lee to the MP for Katong then.

Lee also said that he was “glad that this was the maximum of criticism”. That there was no accusation of dishonourable or corrupt practices. If all that the MPs had to complain about was discourtesy, inadequate toilet facilities and so on, this was a healthy state of affairs.

Then in robust LKY style, Lee then chided the MP for Katong: “…we should have a conducted tour for MPs and some of their constituents (who complain of the bureaucratic practices) to parts of the Third World…and when they come back, they would be extremely grateful that they have Singapore and the Singapore Civil Service

The man then gave a fatherly opinion on our state of “discourtesy”. He spoke of how consideration for each other, courtesy or the lack thereof, comes out of a long cultivation of good habits. He reflected on the state of affairs in Singapore; the accepted standards of conduct of a society as a whole since 1955 was that of an illiterate, ill educated constituent, improving along the way but getting better through time.

Lee then talked about how difficult it was to find talent to work in the civil service. Being able to get a job done took greater weight than being good in public relations.

In short: the job of the government is to govern. It is the job of politicians to be political. It is extremely difficult to say “no” to a constituent and then make him be happy with the answer – that job is the job of the political, not the civil service.

I hope I have made my position clear. We are the political side of the Service. I do not defend rudeness. I do not defend arrogance. I do not defend mediocrity. I do not defend the desire to do the minimum and get by. But this is what we have got. This is after 17 years of PAP government. I think it could have been better, but it may have been a lot worse. In fact, let us start off in the knowledge that it is better and let us make it better. But to make it better, let us not come here with any scales over our eyes. True MPs must make some noise for querulous constituents.”

He then put the MP for Katong in his place and asked him not to shift his responsibilities elsewhere. Because if citizens were so happy with their civil service and getting every request done through them, it would make the job of a Member of Parliament redundant.

Mr. Lee was extremely proud of our civil service – I didn’t think he would let these criticisms go without some seeing to. Although we have come a long long way since 1976, some of these arguments still hold water.
Read his full speech here: [http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/data/pdfdoc/lky19760316a.pdf]

 

 

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Tay Leong Tan

Tay Leong Tan is a collective of 3 writers. Tay, Leong and Tan. (Who were you expecting?!) We are enthusiastic about labour issues, economics and current affairs in particular.

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2 Comments

  • I do not think the government wants to advertise its compassion because it doesn’t want its citizens to take it for granted or assume that it’s a given. One of my half uncles was poor and alone and the government assesed his situation and offered him heavily subsidised rental room, free healthcare and even an allowance. When I was in the HQ of a Ministry I was dealing with a programme to revamp the Civil Service to make it more user friendly, to have less ping pong behaviour etc. Responses tend to be rapid and most try to be helpful. I’ve lived more than 20 years overseas and I can tell you we have it good but refuse to acknowledge that. But it’s ok, keep them on their toes, after our motto has always been strive for excellence and by definition there will be no end to that.

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