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A Tale of Two Standards: Unpacking the moonlighting conundrum in Singapore’s civil service

Moonlighting by Singapore civil servants. It’s an issue steeped in inequality, revolving around the apparent dichotomy that exists between the practices allowed for low-level civil servants and those in high positions of authority.

Many of us can recall the story of a staff sergeant from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), fined S$2,000 in 2017 for giving rides using the GrabHitch app without obtaining prior approval.

The sergeant was not engaged in any illicit activity or indulging in corruption but was simply trying to supplement his income.

His case throws into sharp relief the strict policies on moonlighting in the Public Service Division, designed to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption.

The rationale seems clear – to ensure that civil servants are dedicated solely to their public service roles, avoiding any potential conflicts of interest.

However, these rules seem to be applied unevenly, as evidenced by the case of Tin Pei Ling, a People’s Action Party Member of Parliament who was appointed as director of public affairs and policy at Grab, Southeast Asia’s leading super-app company.

Ms Tin maintains that she will keep her roles as a parliamentarian and at Grab distinct, with clear rules of engagement to avoid conflicts of interest. However, she was eventually redeployed to another appointment by Grab due to the public outcry over the matter.

But this raises an essential question: how can lower-level civil servants be barred from even minor income-generating activities while their higher-ranking counterparts can maintain lucrative roles in private companies?

Moreover, another instance of moonlighting by top-level civil servants involved a Senior Counsel from the Attorney General’s Chamber who has been on the board of directors for NTUC Fairprice since 2017, drawing a hefty annual director salary of over S$50,000.

Requests for comments from AGC and the Senior Counsel regarding this appointment have gone unanswered, only deepening the opacity surrounding the issue.

To ordinary civil servants, such actions appear unjust. A sizeable portion of Singapore’s civil service is likely struggling to supplement their meagre income, yet they’re met with reprimands for taking up part-time employment. On the other hand, high-level civil servants, who are already earning sizeable salaries, can secure high-paying side jobs seemingly without repercussions or issues.

The question here is not whether those in high management positions should be allowed to have additional roles, but rather, why the same latitude isn’t granted to those lower down the ladder.

The crux of the problem lies in the glaring double standard that is applied – a double standard that exacerbates income inequality in Singapore.

Furthermore, it’s crucial to evaluate the potential for conflicts of interest more holistically. Arguably, those in high management positions are more likely to encounter situations where their roles might conflict due to the very nature of their positions, which involve decision-making on policies and governance. The present approach, punishing low-level employees while ignoring potential conflicts at the top, seems to miss the point.

Ultimately, the handling of moonlighting in Singapore’s civil service should be subject to greater transparency, consistency, and fairness.

There should be clearer guidelines for all civil servants, regardless of rank, about what constitutes a conflict of interest.

The current state of affairs, with its perceived inequality, not only widens the income gap but also damages the morale and trust of those working within the civil service.

We can, and should, do better.

Edit: The pay of the director has been edited for accuracy 

This is 8 of 60 articles written for the S$30k fundraising of Terry Xu’s contempt of court fine and cost. To see the full list of the 60 articles, visit this page.

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