(Photo from Louis Ng Kok Kwang's Facebook fanpage)

Ng: Fear of civil servants getting into trouble for speaking up, is mythical

Louis Ng stated that the fear of civil servants that speaking up would get them into trouble is mythical.

He told Parliament during 2018 Budget debate on Tuesday (27 February), encouraging civil servants to make sure that they do not work in a system where they feel they need to be silent, where they feel they need to be “Yes sir” men or women and where they feel that nothing will change even if they speak up.

He said that in the past years, he reached out to public servants through closed door dialogue sessions to better understand their concerns, the difficulties they face and their aspirations.

He noted that most of them fear to speak up as they do not want to be labelled as troublemakers, make bosses angry, and that it would affect their appraisal and promotion.

“This fear is troubling, extremely troubling. In fact sir, after I delivered my budget speech about the public service last year, there were Facebook comments and I received messages telling me to be careful, I will get into trouble for speaking up too much. My sister was also passing me messages from her friends, telling me to be careful,” he said.

Then he stressed that this fear is mythical.

Mr Ng then said that the fear, however, is real, adding, “A panel of academics and former senior civil servants echoed the same sentiments at a forum last year that Singapore needs more people to speak up and challenge authority. They lamented the reluctance of civil servants to pose contrarian views when facing political office-holders.”

However, he said that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wish for Singapore is that we “be blessed with a ‘divine discontent’ – always not quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better.”

Mr Ng said that the culture of being afraid, of keeping quiet, of not rocking the boat is detrimental to the public service, to any organisation and most of all detrimental to Singapore, which results in the loss of good ideas, of better ways of doing things and the loss of good public servants.

“As PM has so rightly said “I try not to surround myself with “yes, sir” men. That is important because if all you have are people who say “three bags full sir”, then soon you start to believe them and that is disastrous. You need people who have their own views, whose views you respect, whom you can have a productive disagreement with, and work out ideas which you might not have come up with, or who improve on ideas you had,” he stated, adding that the country needs to make sure we do not have a public service filled with “yes sir” men and women.

He noted that to demolish this culture, we need to break our entrenched processes and bureaucracy.

“I suggest that we redesign the public service appraisal system by studying the 360 appraisal review used by the private sector in MNCs like Google and Alibaba,” he said, adding that it will allow employees to review and grade their direct managers, resulting in a holistic 360 review, instead of just a one-way top-down appraisal system.

He noted Deputy Prime Minister Teo who said that “leaders receive 360 degree feedback on their leadership qualities when they attend milestone leadership development programmes”.

Mr Ng then noted that some public servants he met also told him directly that it is almost impossible to feel motivated to do more because mediocrity is rewarded. Status quo is a prized possession.

“They want to make a difference, which is why they joined the public service, but they do not feel empowered to do so,” he added.

Through these meetings, he said that he also learnt that each Ministry or Statutory Board functions differently. Some public servants shared that they have regular dialogues with their CEO and sometimes their Permanent Secretary, saying that they have pigeonhole sessions where they can share their views openly.

“Moving forward, we should continue this open and transparent practice of having all-hands staff meetings frequently, where all levels of public servants have direct communication channels with senior management. This should be made available to all public servants and not just in some Ministries or Statutory Boards,” he said, adding that he also suggests that the country has an internal Quality Service Manager (QSM) within Ministries and Statutory Boards.

He then stressed that these sentiments are already in the public domain, sharing parts of what Joanne Poh wrote a few weeks ago, in a post entitled “Civil Service: The Ins and Outs of the Iron Rice Bowl”, where she provided advice on whether a career in the civil service is for you.

Mr Ng cited her, saying, “While there are many perks of working in the civil service, be prepared to work in an environment that some find stifling. There tends to be a very strict top-down hierarchy and things are done 100% by-the-book, so if you’re a young upstart who’s dreaming of doing great things, be prepared to know your place, shut up and just do what your boss tells you to.”

“Some people are happy to just be quiet and do as they’re told in exchange for a stable job with good pay and perks. But if you’re the type who wants to be a superhero and change the world, you won’t find the outlet you seek in the service.”

He said that it is ironic that MPs are calling for civil servants to be “less rigid” and to “think outside the box”, pointing latest incident where MP Dr. Lee Bee Wah suggested civil servants to give “cut and paste” answers.

Mr Ng said, “It is indeed. We and by we, I mean us in this House and the senior management in the public service need to make sure that our public servants work in a system where everyone can speak up and where everyone can be heard.”

“Sir, let me end with a quote as always. In the word of Napoleon “The world suffers a lot, not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people.” Our public servants are good people. As I shared in my budget speech last year, “These are a rare breed who devote their lives towards serving Singapore”,” he said.

“But we now need to make sure that they don’t work in a system where they feel they need to be silent, where they feel they need to be “Yes sir” men or women and where they feel that nothing will change even if they speak up,” he ended.