Naysayers vs No-sayers

By Jack Sim

I’m very encouraged by 3 good things happening recently.

Firstly, I applaud Prof Tommy Koh’s and Dean Kishore Mahbubani’s call for more naysayers to help build our future.

Secondly, the civil service has announced that officers promotions will be based on performance and not on paper qualifications.

Thirdly, PM Lee himself has declared that it is not constructive for leaders to be surrounded by Yes-men.

For the longest time, active citizens wanting to contribute constructively has great difficulties engaging the civil service. From the public’s viewpoint, almost all our suggestions seem to enter a Black Hole with no feedback nor action.

This gives rise to a continuous misunderstanding between the public and the government which may trigger a meltdown of confidence in the future. If that happened, we’re doomed.

Citizens cannot understand why their sincere thoughtfulness is treated as uselessness by the civil servants who simply say “No” 8 hours a day and get paid a handsome salary. If the bureaucrats who are paid don’t care, why should citizens care?

The bureaucrats, on the other hand, don’t have the nose the sniff out the gold nuggets from the noises. They also are not incentivized to depart from status quo and pre-determined KPIs.

But we need cohesive nation building between people and government today more than anytime before. We also need disruptive thinking to improve our competitiveness against the onslaught of technologies and business models.

To increase the number of Naysayers we need to reduce the number of No-sayers. To achieve this I suggest we revamp the Feedback Unit to a Dialogue Platform.

All ideas contributions need to have the following components before you can hit the SEND button:

  • Description of the problem
  • Description of the desired end state
  • Suggestion of solutions
  • Suggestion of action parties

The contributors are invited to dialogue with relevant departments and agencies, and the public is invited to refine these raw ideas into useful applications through open dialogue.

Like any relationships, we would probably go through a period of storming and forming, but over a period of practice, everyone will have better listening skills and eventually we can develop a culture of nation-building working together across all viewpoints.

Singaporeans are the world’s best complainers. But complaints are actually problems identification and an important function to finding solutions. But today this energy source is quite wasteful and emotional. In fact, it deters the sensible people from contributing.

If we can convert the Complainants into Problem Solvers, you can imagine how powerful Singapore can become.

To do this, we need government not to be afraid of people. To trust the people we need to build a culture of support for Naysayers.

We also need to put the spotlight onto the No-sayers because they cannot escape scot-free. They need to be made accountable for missed opportunities. This will discourage fence-sitters and work avoidance. This way the civil service will be a wonderful place to work because motivated officers can innovate and see a deep sense of purpose serving and collaborating with the public.

If done well, the government will also gain popularity when people are feeling a sense of belonging and nationhood. We’re a small nation. We need empathy and dialogue to build a strong nation.

I’m very sure we can succeed in this endeavour. As a first step, I’d like to call upon the public to debate this idea and how we can refine it.