Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Budget Debate 2017.
Madam I’m grateful we have a Budget, which is long-term, and one, which is not only about the economy but also our environment, our families, about building an inclusive society and about strengthening community bonds.
I have 27 specific recommendations for the government and have filed 27 cuts this year, speaking up about protecting the environment, curbing smoking and helping smokers quit, strengthening responsible financing, helping divorcees, single parents and their children, tackling animal cruelty and wildlife crime, improving our rehabilitation process for inmates, strengthening our humanitarian aid, helping domestic workers, helping neglected children, helping stay-at-home mothers, tackling oil spills, enhancing the ElderShield, helping couples with difficulties conceiving, enhancing our LegalAid and helping our IPCs who internationalise.
The key in our Budget, our policies and all the recommendations all of us in this House will be making is in the implementation. The execution is crucial.
A crucial player in the implementation is our public service. This year, I will focus my speech on how we can strengthen our public service.
An efficient Public Service
There is no doubt that we have a very efficient and corrupt-free public service. My concern is that in the pursuit of efficiency, we have compromised a key value – compassion. In our pursuit to automate most things, we now have a system without a heart.
Our aim seems to be to process each case as fast as possible and to follow the book as strictly as possible. Don’t deviate, don’t rock the boat and don’t question.
Unfortunately, many people fall through the cracks when the system is so rigid, when we view things in black and white and where compassion is not exercised regularly enough.
There are the famous four words “case-by-case basis” but in reality and based on my experience on the ground, we have to fight with all our might to get that “case-by-case basis”.
Not long ago, one of my residents died in very unfortunate circumstances, her husband was remanded and she left behind two very young children. Her sister was thrown into the deep water, while grieving for the loss of her only sister and still single but suddenly becoming a mother of two. She needed help. She needed some compassion.
I spoke to HDB on her behalf urging them not to chase her for the mortgage, give her some time to grieve, compose herself for a very difficult next chapter of her life and in any case, both owners of the flat are no longer there.
HDB agreed but later still sent a letter demanding payment. She came to see me in tears, worried HDB will repossess the flat. I asked HDB why they did that. The answer was that they didn’t know the letter was sent as it was computer generated.
Not long after, she received a letter from IRAS demanding tax payment for her late sister.
I appreciate that on paper we are right to demand payment but on compassionate grounds, should we do so as our fellow Singaporean is trying hard to get back on her feet. Can we not afford to show some compassion? And this is just one case out of the many cases I’ve encountered.
Thinking Out of the Box
Madam we have spoken a lot about how we need to adapt to a changing environment, to be creative and innovate. These are the exact things our public service needs to do as well. We need them to think out of the box.
We have now developed a mindset where a solution, which has been used for years, becomes the right solution. We think that if we change, it means we have been wrong all these years and we don’t like to be wrong.
I spoke about chickens in Parliament last week. Let me now speak about monkeys. Our response to monkey issues is as “knee jerk” as it can get. We receive a complaint, a trap is laid, a monkey is caught and killed and we put a tick on the box that something has been done and in a lot of cases, its case closed.
I was there when an AVA contractor was poaching monkeys from a protected area away from where he was supposed to be trapping. He was eventually fined. But when a trapper returns to AVA with a monkey, how can we possibly verify that he trapped the correct monkey or even a monkey from the correct location?
And does the trapping even help? Professors at our local universities and NGOs have all voiced our concerns and based on science, have concluded that the culling of monkeys actually makes the situation worse.
I asked an officer on the ground why do we do this when science says it doesn’t work. The reply is that this is what we have always done this, I don’t think it works too but my director told me to do it.
There are other ways of managing this issue, we can choose to think out of the box, innovate, and choose to address the root, rather the symptoms of the problem.
Listening rather than Explaining
Perhaps the easiest way to come up with new ideas is to listen to suggestions from others, to engage the wider community, to create partnerships.
I have been to too many dialogue sessions where we talk so much rather than listen attentively, we defend our policies rather than listen to ideas on how we can make our policies better.
We still do sessions where we explain a decision rather than get feedback to make a decision. The cross-island line saga is perhaps the best example of how we should have engaged the wider community and how we should have done sessions to get feedback to make a decision rather than make a decision and then call for a dialogue. “Is this process more tedious? The answer without a doubt is yes. But will people feel more engaged, more empowered? The answer is without a doubt also yes.
The way forward
Madam, it is not my intention to paint the public service in a bad light. I have worked with many outstanding public servants in the last 16 years of my life as a civil society activist and the last year and a half as an MP.
These are a rare breed who devote their lives towards serving Singapore but I see issues that we need resolve urgently so that we continue to have an efficient, committed yet compassionate public service.
Moving forward, I have some suggestions to make.
For a start, we need to cut some slack for our ground officers, our frontline staff members who will be the first to detect people who have fallen through the cracks, who can alert us.
Many I’ve spoken to feel that when they bring such cases to their superiors, they are scolded for not following the books. We need to develop a culture where they are not penalised for being different and where they are giving some flexibility when processing cases.
I suggest that all Bills that we debate in this house are put on REACH for extensive public consultation before the First Reading.
I suggest that members of this house are also provided with a report on the suggestions made by members of the public. We should list all the suggestions provided, whether we agree with them or not. This is not new and an excellent example is the report done by ECDA published on 20 November 2015 with regard to the Public Consultation on Proposed Early Childhood Development Centres Regulatory Framework.
I suggest that senior public servants attend Parliament and listen to the debates so they have a better understanding of the concerns we are raising. Like football, nothing beats watching a live performance than reading a report.
I suggested this last year and I will suggest it again. We should release a draft Budget Statement so the public has a chance to make suggestions before we finalise the budget. I listened to SMS Indranee on the radio last week and there were so many good suggestions on how we can improve the Budget but of course they were made after the Budget has been cast in stone. It is a wasted opportunity not to be able to implement some of the really good suggestions to improve Budget 2017. It is a wasted opportunity to just have a one-way conversation.
I suggest public servants who draft policies actually go down on the ground and experience different jobs related to their policies. In the past year, I have experienced what it is like to be a healthcare worker, driver, town council cleaner, coffee shop cleaner, police officer, kindergarten teacher, cardboard collector, customer relations officer, full-time father and a humanitarian worker.
And as I shared on Facebook, It has been an enriching journey and through these experiences I’ve learnt a lot, seen the struggles they face and witnessed first-hand the sacrifices they have made.
And through these experiences, I’ve seen how we can make the lives of our workers better and where we need to make changes.
I urge public servants to also embark on this journey and see how their policies affect the people on the ground.
I suggest we set up more committees like the Animal Welfare Legislation Review Committee and the Active Mobility Advisory Panel. Committees made up of people who are on the ground and who perhaps might even have more experience on the issues than the public servants. These are committees, which give the public servants a chance to listen and work with the community, to come up with new policies and even legislation.
And as pointed out by Prof Tommy Koh last week “When we appoint people to boards, we can also appoint challengers who are subversive and who have alternative points of view. That’s the kind of cultural change we want to see. It makes Singapore stronger, not weaker”.
My last suggestion is for public servants to more work more closely with civil society activists. Engage them, don’t be afraid of them, these are people who speak up because they care. These are people who put the welfare of others before theirs and we should embrace this spirit rather than fear it, we should support rather than penalise them. We should work together rather than go our separate journeys, when the end destination might be the same. This fear of engaging them is very apparent when I speak to public servants but I urge you to start the dialogue.
There is nothing to fear. I have been and continue to be a civil society activist. I do understand that I look too fierce sometimes and so as PM requested when he introduced me at the last General Elections, I am smiling a lot more now. In fact, I smile so much that it hurts, it really hurts.
Madam, I trust that the public service will continue to evolve, will continue to improve and will always serve in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans.
In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Madam, I hope that every public servant has a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.
Madam, I support this Budget.