Tan Kin Lian

During the past years, I have submitted many suggestions to Government agencies and commercial organisations in making simple improvements that cost little to implement and can add a lot of value to the public and customers.

However, I get the impression that suggestions are not welcomed.

No response

If I was lucky, I would receive a standard acknowledgement that my letter or e-mail has been received and forwarded to someone to look into. Occasionally, I might get a further contact from a person, but that would be “once in a blue moon”.

Often, I would not even get any acknowledgement at all. I often wondered if my letters or e-mails had been received. If I followed up with one or two reminders, I might get a reply that my original mail went into the “spam” folder. What a convenient excuse.

My general impression was that public officials do not like to receive these suggestions. But this habit seemed to be quite common in commercial organisations as well.

The establishment of service quality units in these organisations does not seem to make any difference. It appears to be mainly “for show”.

Unwilling to engage

What are the reasons for this situation? Why is there an unwillingness to engage the public about improving service?

I can think of two.

First, there is the fear of having to make a decision. If one receives a suggestion, one has to make a decision. It is better for decisions to be made by the boss or superiors.

People in Singapore are very good in carrying out orders given by their bosses, but are not good at making judgement or deciding on what is to be done. They also have the difficulty of communicating with their bosses on new ideas.

Second, there is the fear that good suggestions from the public or customers may reflect badly on the people in the organisations.

“Why have we not thought about it before?” Or maybe, “We have thought about it and decided that it does not work. We should stay with our position and defend it. Otherwise, we will appear to be wrong. As Singaporeans, we cannot be wrong!”

Singaporean trait?

Hey! Is this just a Singaporean trait?

To be fair, I believe that this is quite a common trait in most parts of the world. I am not able to identify any exceptions. Americans would probably be different, due to their open society.

I suspect that Singaporeans are probably quite far down the scale in being receptive and open to other ideas. In other words, we probably fare worse than most other countries.

Blame the education system

This is probably the outcome of our education system. We teach people to excel, to fare better than their classmates, to reach the top and win scholarships. This is the passport to a good career in life.

This has probably developed into a trait. Singaporeans want to win, to excel, to show that they are better than others, and that they can solve a problem on their own. So, suggestions from the public are not welcomed.

Approach top people

After some time, I found that I was not getting any headway at the operating level. I decided to send my suggestions to the top people – ministers and the chief executives. I usually received a reply from them. Maybe it is because they knew me personally, or found my suggestions to be sensible.

Being busy people with many things to take care of, perhaps they could not attend to my suggestions personally. They probably passed the suggestions down the line in their organisations. That would usually be the end of the matter.

Sometimes, I might receive a polite reply after a few weeks that my suggestion had been considered, with a few reasons why it could not be implemented.

Nobody bothered to listen to my views on how the perceived obstacles could have been overcome or to consider my suggestions from a different angle.

Finally, it gets done

Wait a few months or years. You might find that your suggestions have been adopted after all. However, you should not expect any acknowledgement of your contribution. It would appear that the idea came from the people within the organisations. As Singaporeans, they perhaps pride themselves on their ability to get the answers on their own. They do not really need any suggestions from the public. Giving credit to others, it seems, would somehow make them “lose face”.

I am talking not only of my personal experience. Many civic minded citizens have sent suggestions to Government agencies and commercial organisations over the years. They shared their experiences with me, which are similar to my personal experience.

Tips for the future

Let me give a few suggestions on how suggestions from the public and customers can be approached differently. I will use the word “contributor” to refer to the person who made the suggestion.

1. When you receive a suggestion, engage the contributor promptly. Have a conversation with the contributor by telephone or e-mail.

2. Listen to the suggestion. Ask a few questions to get more facts and understand the issue.

3. If necessary, re-write the issue or suggestion, with the relevant facts. The contributor may not have written the suggestion clearly in the first place, due to their limited insight or perspective. They may wish to modify their suggestion in the light of additional information.

4. In gathering facts, avoid making any judgement on the merit or feasibility of the suggestion. Avoid another Singaporean trait – to be judgemental.

5. Give a reply to the suggestion within four weeks. Many suggestions cannot be implemented because the time is not right. Say so, and the contributor will understand.

I hope that the service quality managers of these organisations are paying attention to these suggestions.

I believe that many improvements can be made, if Government agencies and commercial organisations adopt an open and receptive approach towards these suggestions. There is a wealth of ideas that can come from the public and customers.


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