Maid-to-Order Policies

Two agencies share how effective listening – internally and externally – is helping them to tailor better public policies.
MOM responds: Senior Policy Analyst Ruby Pan (third from right) and colleagues from the Manpower Ministry led an extensive consultation exercise to review a mandatory English test for foreigh domestic workers.

When the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) implemented a mandatory English entry test for first–time foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in 2005, it was in response to employers’ demand for higher quality helpers who could communicate better.

But over time, it became clear that training centres in source countries were training FDWs to pass the language test instead of focusing on enhancing their skills. The tests were a major cause of stress for the maids: those who failed had to leave Singapore, and pay back over S$1,000 they had borrowed to get here. Furthermore, many potential employers found the tests redundant if they did not need English-speaking maids, for example, the Ah Ma more likely to speak Malay to an Indonesian helper.

But it was the suicide of a 26-year old Indonesian maid in May 2011 that thrust the controversial test into the media spotlight. It became clear to MOM that, instead of fulfilling its intended goal – helpers who could communicate better with employers – the test had become a stumbling block. In response, MOM embarked on an extensive consultation exercise in the last quarter of 2011.

A big listening team

Headed by a core team, with an external organisation to aid in design planning, some 40 MOM staff met with various stakeholders – FDWs, maid agents, employers and nongovernment organisations (NGOs) – in focus groups, in-depth interviews and town-hall meetings, giving space for creative solutions.

In December 2011, MOM announced that the test would be replaced with a Settling-In Programme (SIP), which is being fine-tuned. The orientation programme covers areas including adapting to life in Singapore, FDWs’ responsibilities and safety awareness.

Sharing at a Public Service Conference in October 2011, MOM Permanent Secretary Loh Khum Yean said a key lesson of the consultation was the need to be more people-centric. “In developing policies, we tend to prioritise macro-level considerations such as national concerns and system constraints. But… rather than thinking about problems in terms of Ministry KPIs or outcomes, we also need to look from the perspective of the individuals impacted by our policies.”

Instead of forming policies based on the Ministry’s framing of problems, the best solutions would involve brainstorming ideas together with stakeholders.

Listen without prejudice

Mr Loh cautioned that for such sessions to be effective, public officers must first learn to listen to opinions without prejudice. “What public officers think is the problem, may not in fact be exactly the right or only one.”

He revealed that one topic stakeholder groups brought up was the debt incurred by FDWs. This had been completely off MOM’s radar. Being open and allowing stakeholders to shape discussions helped such issues to be raised.

Said MOM Senior Policy Analyst Ruby Pan: “We were encouraged (by the external design thinking organisation) to go out without pre-conceived ideas and to build ideas rather than seek results from fixed agendas.”

MOM also sought staff opinions, as well as “extreme users” – stakeholders whose amplified needs would present more obvious solutions.

Ms Pan pointed out that it was essential to “learn to listen past the noise and make meaning out of it.” With these analyses, some form of closure is vital – such as regular updates on Facebook, which may include a listing of shortlisted policies – so that the public knows they have been heard.

The learning curve may be steep, but the exercise, Ms Pan says, has better equipped MOM to create policies with people in mind.

We hear you

Another agency keeping its ears close to the ground is the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA).

In recent years, public complaints pertaining to intrusive unsolicited calls from telemarketers have been on the rise. Heeding their call for intervention, MICA announced that it would introduce a law to protect individuals from the unauthorised collection, use and disclosure of personal information by private organisations.

MICA wanted to know if the public was in favour of a Do-Not-Call (DNC) registry, where they could register their numbers against receiving unsolicited marketing messages. So, it launched a public consultation exercise in September 2011 to inform the public about the new Data Protection Law as well as to solicit feedback and ideas on the need for such a registry.

MICA received an overwhelming response in favour of a registry. “While we sort of expected this would be a welcome move, we didn’t quite expect the strong response, with several writing in to express their heartfelt thanks and support for MICA in championing the cause to protect consumers,” revealed Ms Junie Neo from MICA’s Industry Division.


It was heartening to see responses like ‘Thank you! Finally, (we’ve) suffered long enough!’ and this gave us the reassurance to press ahead with our efforts.

MICA embarked on the next phase of their consultation exercise in October 2011 on the guidelines for such a registry, including the types of marketing messages to be covered under the registry, its design framework, as well as proposed penalties for marketing organisations that breach registry requirements.


Listening in: A team of MICA and IDA officers are engaging the public on guidelines for a Do Not Call Registry that would allow people to register their numbers against receiving unsolicited marketing messages.

Ms Neo said the strong public support encouraged the team. One challenge they faced was learning to manage the extra time, energy and resources for such an engagement exercise. This was because unlike previous MICA policy reviews targeting specific stakeholder groups, the issue of data protection and a DNC registry concerned all Singaporeans and hence a more comprehensive consultation was required.

MICA created public awareness on the consultation exercises by engaging a variety of methods to seek public opinion, ranging from traditional tools like engagement sessions and surveys, as well as online channels such as through REACH - the government’s official online feedback portal, MICA’s website and via online polls. MICA also conducted engagement sessions with businesses and industry associations to explain the proposed framework and seek their views.

Looking internally

While listening to the public is a given for public engagement, the officers of MOM and MICA realised that listening and looking internally was important too.

The MOM team tapped the wealth of experience in its own people, while MICA collaborated with colleagues from other departments and government agencies to structure the framework of their engagement exercise, and involved them for feedback.

Even as these engagement exercises give the public a sense of ownership and stake in formulating policies, the ministries stress that they should be carried out only after careful consideration because of the extra resources required.

As MOM’s Mr Loh highlighted, such an exercise will be more successful if done early in the policy-making process, so that viewpoints have sufficient time to be heard and analysed. “The greater the level of public impact, the earlier we would need to involve our stakeholders.”

This is the last of a two-part series on Public Engagement.

    Mar 13, 2012
    Ryandall Lim
    John Heng
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