Good Work (Pretend I Never Said That)

The brain behind finds civil servants scaaary!
Colin Goh

This may surprise some of you, since I’ve poked fun at the Public Service in many of my projects, whether in my columns in the Sunday Times, my films or my website (currently on hiatus), but I don’t have a knee-jerk hatred of public officers.

I have relatives and close friends who are public officers, and, like most male Singaporeans, I’ve technically even been one. So I know that many public officers are sincere about trying to improve things, and not just lobos who signed on because which other job in today’s always-on economy allows you to take two tea breaks a day?

Also, being a Singaporean expat in the US and having survived eight years of the Bush Administration, I’ve moderated my views on the Singapore government somewhat. Sure, you’ve made some boneheaded mistakes, but at least you’re not wilfully breaching international law or attacking countries on false pretexts. (I hope.)

I also think most of us would concede that even if liberalisation isn’t happening exactly in the way we’d prefer, there’s nevertheless been some progress over the years. So in that context, I think the Singapore Public Service is doing a pretty decent job compared to many countries.

By now, I’m sure some of you are thinking: why can’t those potty-mouthed bloggers or hysterical forum posters be similarly sensible and balanced? Why must they fire off choleric criticisms all the time? Sure, we’re nowhere near being a liberal democracy, but isn’t it clear that we’re not North Korea either?

Yet, despite my own nuanced perspective, I must confess I really struggled with whether to give you even the slightest pat on the head. This is owing to two fairly recent brushes with public officers.

The first happened several years ago, when the Wife and I completed production of our feature film, “Singapore Dreaming”. Someone arranged for us to do a special screening for a group said to comprise “top public officers and their families”, and it was strongly suggested that I turn up to oblige the august audience with a Q&A session. I was happy to do so, but was stunned, when the houselights came on, to find that nobody had a single question.

“Weird,” I said to the organiser, also a public officer. “In every single screening we’ve done, the audience always had questions. Even if it’s ‘Your budget how much, ah?’”

I was then told, in all seriousness, “Well, Colin, you must understand. These are the most intelligent people in the country, so they probably know the answers already and don’t need to ask anything.” I tried to pretend that my jaw didn’t hit the floor.

Then last year, I attended a dinner in New York, which included some visiting public officers. They were bemoaning the increasingly vitriolic tone of the criticisms being levelled at them, especially online. “Don’t they know just complaining gets you nowhere?” groused one. “We want to help, honestly. But do your research. We’ve thought of all this stuff already. If you want things changed, give us facts and figures to change our minds. Be part of the solution, not just raise problems!” It sounded very reasonable, yet also very wrong.

Because you really can’t expect the average citizen to give you a Powerpoint presentation with charts and citations of various studies, especially since they lack access to the data only you possess. But that doesn’t mean their feelings or experiences aren’t valid, or can be given short shrift. Besides, why should they do your homework for you?

Maybe I’ve just lived in New York for too long, and got used to seeing how public servants have to endure televised Town Hall Meetings before they enact policy. Here, ordinary citizens are allowed to air their views, no matter how histrionic, and officials just have to suck it up, especially if they want to save their seats.

I doubt this will ever happen in Singapore, and more’s the pity.

If one is simultaneously praised and shielded from criticism all the time, it’s inevitable that very warped views are formed – like assuming one is always more intelligent, or that only criticisms which come suitably gift-wrapped are entitled to a real response. Maybe you’re not all like this, but my two brushes sure scared me.

Because, over time, such behaviour breeds mistrust. In the US right now, distrust of government has become so great, it’s entering the realm of the irrational, and certain cynical parties are beginning to stoke those flames for their own ends. If this is happening in a country where the feedback process is so open, I can’t imagine what might be simmering under the lid in Singapore.

So, yes, most of us think that by and large, you’re all doing a decent job. But please pardon us if we don’t tell you so very often, if at all. Consider it our act of public service.

Colin Goh is currently in New York, working on several international co-productions.
    May 12, 2010
    Colin Goh
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