Low Hansiong

In November 2008, the Economic Development Board (EDB) announced in the Straits Times its intention to market Singapore as regional hub for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) and Non-Profit Organisations (NPO). This brings me to an opaque question: what is considered public service among Singaporeans? This is of particular interest to me because I am currently doing my studies in public administration at New York University.

Antiquated Thinking in Singapore

Most people tend to envision public service as working altruistically, for little or no money, for the greater good. Is it really important that one must work for no money to be considered doing a public service? This is a particularly sensitive issue, given that fat ministerial salaries are already a sore point among Singaporeans. However, my idea of public service is not towards the civil service but rather the men and women who brave their lives and bare their souls to work in appalling conditions in the most dangerous and poorest nations among us, helping people in whatever manner they can.

The nature of public service is changing: thirty years ago, most Singaporeans would say defining ‘cheng-hu-lang’ (Hokkien for civil servant) as public service would probably be apt. However, in New York and the world, public service is taking a drastic turn today: no longer do most people think that the civil service is the sole agent of public service, rather it is now perceived that NGOs and NPOs play this role with far greater efficacy.

Yet Singaporeans remain cocooned. Singaporeans expect the government to provide for everything that is lacking in the free market. This is antiquated thinking. NGOs and NPOs have proved themselves to the world that they are the answer to the future. Organisations such as Mercy Corps, International Rescue Committee, International Red Cross and even the United Nations are now stellar examples of how non-sovereign and multilateral intervention can become agents of change and relief in the third world, war zones and major disaster sites.

It is essential to realise that public service is not necessarily a selfless endeavour. It is a business and profits or not, any organisation will aspire to expand its operations and be in healthy financial shape. As such, the staff behind a public service organisation should be well incentivised to do an excellent job. This would benefit recipients among the public and maximise the impact on society in the long run. Such incentives should include a competitive salary package, adequate medical benefits and a professional training scheme. After all, which labour market does the invisible hand not govern?

The State of Public Service in Singapore

Currently, Singapore has a handful of NGOs and NPOs, such as Mercy Relief, National Kidney Foundation (NKF), TWC2 and AWARE. With exceptions to NKF and Non-Profit Hospitals having a significant professional staff, many organisations are made up mostly of volunteers complemented by a small number of full-time professional staff. Such a set up hardly inspires Singaporeans to take up public service as a career because one ultimately needs to balance one’s lofty ambition with bread and butter needs.

To get things started, NGOs in Singapore could approach the myriad of foundations such as Hong Leong Foundation, Lee Foundation and Shaw Foundation to form a truly trans-Asian NGO. This can be a starting point: forming an organisation that will tackle head-on the most vexing and basic of issues such as poverty, illiteracy and sanitation, and do something about it. The Youth Expedition Project has been funding teams of 15-20 persons to go abroad to alleviate such situations in the third world; yet such activities require continuity, so it would be better to have a trans-Asian NGO to manage and implement these activities on a day-to-day basis.

Think tanks form a special group of NPOs. They serve an important role in research, advisory, advocacy and promoting understanding and policy debate within public circles. Think tanks in Singapore include the  Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Think Centre (TC), Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and NUS School of Public Policy (SPP). These think tanks serve a secondary role known as Track II Diplomacy. For example, SIIA negotiated the Singapore-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement with Taiwanese think tanks in October 2008 because the Singapore Government only recognises the People’s Republic of China as the sole representation of Greater China.

However, think tanks are not limited to Track II Diplomacy. Their research and advisory roles also enable them to act as advocator for a variety of non-state actors such as the private sector, political groups and special interest groups. For example, the Consumer Energy Council of America monitors development in the liberalised US electricity and gas trading markets and push for pro-consumer policies in Congress, the State Assembly and even the energy exchange itself. They make up for the lack of lobbyist capacity that is absent in a traditional consumer organisation such as CASE, since CASE is constrained by the diversity of consumers it represents. They also provide timely updates on policy development to the public that would not only increase the public’s awareness and understanding on policy and how it would impact them. With the exception of Think Centre, the other local think tanks in Singapore are directly or indirectly affiliated to the Government.

The Future of Public Service

Public service is also a global industry. Apart from public transport and healthcare, a notable example is international development consulting. Big players in this market include government and multilateral agencies (e.g. USAID, DFID, Asian Development Bank), international NGOs (e.g. Oxfam) and private firms (e.g. McKinsey, PA Consulting, Emerging Markets Group). Private firms in particular provide the much needed private sector expertise such as IT, logistics, project management, legal counselling and policy advisory.

Singapore is ideally positioned to be the regional hub for NGOs and NPOs. It has a highly educated populace, common culture, geographic advantage and most importantly, a ‘can-do’ spirit. Singapore is also home to some private sector expertise needed in international development projects. However, the Singapore Government needs to start taking the lead in the non-profit sector by abolishing archaic laws that prevent funds raised locally from being used in other countries and foster a new generation of Singaporeans who can and will take the lead in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, especially in South Asia.

Public service, in its simplest connotation, evokes grand imagery of sacrifice and noble aspirations, and it is still true. Call me a romantic but if the business of saving is left to the markets and dependency on inept corrupt administrations, there would be little left to hope for the people whom we call our friends.


About the author:

Hansiong is currently doing his Master of Public Administration at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. His interest is primarily in economic development and poverty reduction. He believes that the Millenium Development Goals are attainable, but only if we cut the bull****. 

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TOC International features every Tuesday on The Online Citizen.


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