Who's Got Your Back?

Challenge talks to four winners of this year’s PS21 Star Service Award who have earned the public’s trust by being there for them. 
Who's Got Your Back?
When curious subordinates passing by asked about the photo shoot, CPT Mathiaz (right) quipped: “It’s for Teenage magazine!” (Teenage’s March 2014 issue had featured the cast of the musical Ah Boys to Men.)

Nigel Jevan Mathiaz, 30

Intelligence Officer, HQ 7th Singapore Infantry Brigade, Ministry of Defence

He’s all about relationships

When Captain (CPT) Nigel Mathiaz was the Officer Commanding at Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) School 4, his mission was to turn boys into soldiers. To this end, he redesigned and repackaged the basic military training (BMT) course based on feedback. But the empathetic officer went further. He knew that a lack of familiarity with BMT caused parents worry. So in 2012, he began writing weekly emails to update parents of their sons’ progress. These emails, which included photos and videos – even one for Mother’s Day – established a relationship of trust with the parents. One parent wrote to CPT Mathiaz: “Each week we read with interest all the trials, challenges and achievements that he and his mates have experienced.” Another remarked: “Who on earth will send out an email at 2.01AM to update on boys with NO paternal relationship to him whatsoever? We're very touched by your communication, Sir!” For CPT Mathiaz, engaging parents could boost the nation’s total defence, as they support and encourage their sons in National Service. Though he left BMTC last year, what he had started has evolved into a Parent Engagement Programme that other units could adopt. Today, CPT Mathiaz continues to inspire trust, respect and loyalty at work. “I love my job,” he says matter-of-factly. “I try to rub off a positive attitude on whoever I work with … to make them feel comfortable and have fun [while serving].” For example, he encourages his men to join events like the Commando Challenge, which they would train for together. First Sergeant Andre John (pictured), CPT Mathiaz’s former subordinate, says: “He allows us to speak our minds. He is willing to listen to us and readjust his plans for trainings… He’s one of the best officers I have worked under.”

Once they realise that your care and concern is genuine, the respect comes automatically.
Who's Got Your Back?
Mr Vicknesh’s students specially went back to school during the March school holidays when he asked for volunteers for the photo shoot.

Vicknesh Thiagarajah, 29

Allied Educator (Teaching and Learning), Mayflower Secondary School

He’s up for any challenge

Mr Vicknesh Thiagarajah, who is on Mayflower Secondary School’s discipline committee, admits to having a love-hate relationship with his students. “There are times when you can have fun [with them]… at the same time, they must know when they have to respect the boundary,” he says. The allied educator, who lives by the motto “Challenge the challenges”, is seldom ruffled by unruly students. Once, during an English lesson with a riotous class, a student threw a lizard at him. Instead of losing his temper (as they had expected), he calmly gave the lizard back to the boy, then continued the lesson. Undaunted by their antics, Mr Vicknesh persevered and even stayed back late to coach the class in various subjects. He eventually won them over and motivated them to study harder, resulting in a 100% pass in English for their GCE N(T)-Level exams. “Once they realise that your care and concern is genuine, the respect comes automatically,” he says. Mr Vicknesh’s willingness to go the extra mile extends beyond the classroom. When placed in charge of the school’s Graduation Night, he made the effort to talk to students of graduating classes to encourage them to attend the event. When he discovered that some could not afford the tickets, he looked for sponsors to help them so “no one is left behind”. It is clear that he has built camaraderie with his students, who call him “Mr Vick”. After the Challenge photo shoot, his students pulled him in for a group selfie. He says: “The happiness is the acknowledgement that you get… In school, you are a teacher… so they have no choice but to respect you, but outside, they have that choice. When they make that choice to [continue to] respect you, that makes a difference.”

Who's Got Your Back?
Ms Ng meets many types of customers in the course of her work. Her warm, cheery disposition makes it easy for them to share their troubles with her.

Sharon Ng, 40

Road Tax Arrears Administration Officer, Land Transport Authority

She feels your pain

How would you react if a customer curses at you and throws money in your face? Ms Sharon Ng, who collects overdue road taxes at the Land Transport Authority (LTA), would keep her cool, be patient, and continue to serve the person. The affable officer understands that some road users just need to vent their frustration. “Some customers may not quite understand how the road tax recovery process works,” she explains. When a vehicle’s license (road tax) has expired for a certain period, other than late charges imposed, the owner may also face legal action. In addition, the unlicensed vehicle could be seized. Often these vehicle owners have financial hardships or are foreigners unfamiliar with the local road tax system. But no matter what their circumstances may be, or how rude some of them can get, Ms Ng sees it as part of her job to be a “problem-solver, friend and listener” to them. She says: “I want them to know that we are actually here to serve and help them, not to find fault with them.” Her empathy has clearly touched many of those she helped. In 2013, she received 120 compliments from customers, one of which described her as “the gold standard for customer service in Singapore”. Once, when an angry customer accused her of discriminating against him, another customer she had previously helped stepped in to defend her and explain that Ms Ng was simply doing her job. Over the years, she has learnt the importance of sincerity in service. “Be sincere… No matter whether you can help them solve their problems [or not], they are very thankful that you are there to listen to them,” she says.

Sometimes [the residents] thank me a lot. I say, ‘No, it’s my job.’
Who's Got Your Back?
Mdm Agnes Chong (left), who regularly takes Zumba classes at the Serangoon CC, jokingly called Mr Lu a shuai ge (“handsome boy” in Mandarin), during the photo shoot.

Lu Juncai, 30

Constituency Management Executive, People’s Association

He’s always thinking of what you need

Building friendships is part and parcel of Mr Lu Juncai’s job at the Serangoon Community Club (CC). As a frontline staff, he mans the service counter and comes into close contact with the public. “For the past four and a half years, I’ve been making a lot of friends. They are regular customers… they know my name, I know [theirs],” he says. Mdm Agnes Chong (pictured), who is on first-name basis with Mr Lu, is a regular at the CC’s gym. When she wanted to sign up for an exercise class, Mr Lu considered her age and fitness level, and recommended the Zumba (Gold) course, which is tailored for older folks, instead of the regular Zumba classes. Mdm Chong, who is now enjoying her slower-paced class, says he gives “good recommendations”. When a resident, who is often at the CC, came in with computer troubles, Mr Lu spent his lunch break fixing the computer at the resident’s home. He says: “Sometimes [the residents] thank me a lot. I say, ‘No, it’s my job.’” While he insists that he is simply following the PS21 guidelines for customer service, what he does certainly goes beyond his job scope. The helpful officer, for instance, sees nothing of personally delivering financial assistance cheques to a resident who lives some distance from the CC and cannot afford the bus fare. In 2013, Mr Lu arranged for extra laptops at the CC for the annual tax e-filing exercise so that residents would not have to wait too long. “It’s simple to know what residents need,” he says, because “what I need will also be what they need.”


This article is part of a series 7 Ways To Go Steady With The Public.

  1. Growing With Our Citizenry
    The social contract between Singaporeans and the government is changing. How should government agencies respond?
  2. Earn Trust By Connecting Emotionally
    Head of Civil Service Peter Ong on the elements of trust and where the Public Service can do better.
  3. How Openness Strengthens Relationships
    Sharing data and crowdsourcing through hackathons is bringing two public agencies closer to the public.
  4. Bringing Help Closer To Homes
    Moving into the heart of communities and working closely with partners, the new Social Service Offices do their work guided by the principle that it's all about the people.
  5. Co-Creating Singapore: Citizens Have Their Say
    As Singapore moves towards a new relationship between people and government, three active citizens say it's time to give the people a bigger role in co-creating Singapore. 
  6. Let's Get Personal
    There is no foolproof way to make any Facebook, Instagram or Twitter post go viral. But some public agencies have begun to show that humour and "keeping it real" can help them engage the public like never before.
    May 15, 2014
    Yvette Kan
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