The Honeymoon is Ending

Public officers must face up to the challenges of a society in transformation, argues P N Balji.
The Honeymoon is Ending

Singapore’s Public Service is entering a very trying stage as it marks half a century. In the new book, Pioneers Once More, words such as audacity, derring-do, smart regulation, mindset change, what-if, gumption, gall and managing risks are sprinkled liberally to show the game-changer needed.

These will remain motherhood statements if public officers lack an intimate understanding of the current transformation in nearly every aspect of Singapore.

One eyebrow-raising ideological shift has been announced – moving away from a high-growth strategy. “Over the next decade, I think 5 per cent will be a stretch,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in January. What does this mean for Singaporeans who grew up tasting only success?

The other big change: immigration being allowed to go unchecked. From 750,000 in 2000, the foreigner population rose to 1.25 million last year, nearly double in just nine years.

All would have been fine if last year’s recession had not blown up with a ferocity and suddenness not seen since World War II. Rumblings about foreigners crowding roads, trains and buses, taking away jobs and pushing up prices of resale HDB flats have suddenly become real, with the government forced to announce a slew of measures to reduce the perks foreigners used to enjoy.

But the real test is the mood of the media reflecting the people’s frustrations. More eyeballs are drifting to online news, with mainstream media circulation revenues dropping, especially for The Straits Times and Sunday Times. A study of coverage in these two publications of recent events like the floods, long-haul bus routes, the town council report card and the security breach at an MRT depot shows that the mainstream media is taking its gloves off in reporting such events. How should public officers prepare for this new world?

First, those who run public organisations must rethink priorities. Mas Selamat’s audacious escape, the floods, the MRT security breach and the sudden supply-demand imbalance in public housing are all Third World problems – due to Public Service leaders taking their eye off the ball on basic issues.

Second, the honeymoon with a compliant population and media is ending. Used to a culture of dealing with an obedient citizenry and media, the Public Service must take a big leap and square with these stakeholders in a transparent way.

The Youth Olympics tickets issue has at its root a system of cut-and-paste textbook solutions. The YOG committee sold 80,000 tickets to the Education Ministry, which then gave the tickets to schools. But nobody asked: Will stadiums be filled? The YOG budget tripled in just a few months. How could that be, if not for wrong calculations by somebody? No corporate board would accept this.

Appeals can be made to look at the big picture of how hosting the Games is historic for Singapore. Previously, a public with a shared pride would have accepted that.

But a different, unforgiving Singapore is emerging, drilling down to nitty-gritty like never before.

The public is not going to accept wishy-washy answers. They are demanding in-depth responses to issues of crowded trains, overflowing drains and canals, if online discussions and letters to forum pages are any indication.

They are in no mood to see sandbags stacked outside Liat Towers as a solution to the floods and keep quiet about it. The faster the Public Service comes to grips with this new Singapore, the better.

P N Balji has 40 years’ experience in Singapore journalism. He is the director of the Asia Journalism Fellowship, a joint initiative of Temasek Foundation and Nanyang Technological University.
    Nov 4, 2010
    P N Balji
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