ONCE in a while we have someone who rocks the system for good. Once in a blue moon, we get a PAP Member of Parliament who dares to be different. Once in a way, we’ve a young parliamentarian who propagates that he’s not a “Yes Sir!” man.
Once in a Tuesday morning, he erupts Parliament House with a rousing speech that left Singaporeans speechless of a Rambo-styled MP and needless to say, he made the talking point in the print, broadcast and social media.
I’m proud to say that Louis Ng is my MP at Nee Soon East and as I do MPS (Meet the People’s Session) Monday sessions and other heartlander activities with him, I’ve always told non-partisan friends that if there’s an eighth day of the week, he will be on the ground for residents on that extra divine-intervented day.
He’s only 39 with a big animal-heart, armed with a Masters in Science degree in Primate Conservation from Oxford Brookes University and founder of ACRES (Animal Concerns Research and Education Society). But he’s a gentleman MP with a bigger heart for the man-in-the-street.
Simply because he listens to the ground and seriously and sincerely conveys the down-to-earth feedback right to the austere corridors of Parliament House.
I know him better, too, as we were born on same December 8 birthday and believe me, as a Saggitarian, he unpretentiously calls a spade a spade and always offers that soul-searching opinions of the grassroots folks, from senior citizens to the younger generation in any matter that affects their day-to-day life.
And on Tuesday, he gave a tsunami-of-a-speech about the public service, which many Singaporeans perceive to be pro-ruling party and sometimes the PAP propaganda machine.
He kicked off by emphasising that the “public service is the heart of our entire system and they play a crucial role…the success of this budget and Singapore relies heavily on them and this year, I will again focus my speech on how we can strengthen our public service.”
Ng does his homework excellently well. He says: “In the past year, I have reached out to public servants through closed door dialogue sessions to better understand their concerns, the difficulties they face and their aspirations. I’m grateful that they have shared their views with me very honestly and candidly.”
Without fear or favour, Ng says that there is a general consensus that people will get into trouble if they speak up in the public service. He adds: “They fear that they will be labelled as troublemakers and that their bosses will get angry. They fear it will affect their appraisal and their promotion.”
As a fair-minded Singapore, he says “this fear is troubling, extremely troubling”. He elaborates: “In fact after I delivered my budget speech about the public service last year, there were Facebook comments and I received messages telling me to be careful, I will get into trouble for speaking up too much. My sister was also passing me messages from her friends, telling me to be careful.”
Like the brave-hearted, sometimes Rambo-styled, warrior he is, Ng says: “I’ve made it a point to publicly say that I didn’t get into trouble for speaking up, that this fear is mythical. Having said that, this fear of speaking up, whether we want to acknowledge and accept it, is very real.”
SPEAK UP MORE!
He noted that a panel of academics and former senior civil servants echoed the same sentiments at a forum last year, “that Singapore needs more people to speak up and challenge authority. They lamented the reluctance of civil servants to pose contrarian views when facing political office-holders.”
He encouraged civil servants, who drives the core of the government’s policies, to “fight for changes that will lead to an even better Singapore”.
Emphatically, he says: “This culture of being afraid, of keeping quiet, of not rocking the boat is detrimental to the public service, to any organisation and most of all detrimental to Singapore. This culture results in the loss of good ideas, of better ways of doing things and the loss of good public servants.”
Quoting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Ng reminded that PM didn’t want to be surrounded with “yes, sir” men. PM then said: “That is important because if all you have are people who say “three bags full sir”, then soon you start to believe them and that is disastrous. You need people who have their own views, whose views you respect, whom you can have a productive disagreement with, and work out ideas which you might not have come up with, or who improve on ideas you had.”
And that’s the mantra of the PAP government: Not to have a public service filled with “yes sir” men and women. And to demolish this culture, we need to break our entrenched processes and bureaucracy.
Ng noted that even Education Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke about at the Public Service Conference in 2017: “We urgently need to cut the extremely long red tape that may be frustrating not just for members of the public but also our public servants.”
Ng, always with a fresh young heart and head says: “We are in danger of becoming what Calvin (in the comic book Calvin and Hobbes) said: ‘If you care, you just get disappointed all the time. If you don’t care, nothing matters, so you are never upset.’
“We need to make sure that, one we make it easier for public servants to voice their concerns and, two make sure that we follow up on the concerns they raise. We need to ensure they feel empowered.”
MEDIOCRITY IS REWARDED?
Daringly, Ng gave feedback that some public servants told him that it is “almost impossible to feel motivated to do more because mediocrity is rewarded…status quo is a prized possession. They want to make a difference, which is why they joined the public service, but they do not feel empowered to do so”.
Moving forward, he urged that we should continue this “open and transparent practice of having all-hands staff meetings frequently, where all levels of public servants have direct communication channels with senior management…I also suggest that we have an internal Quality Service Manager (QSM) within Ministries and Statutory Boards”.
It’s ironic, Ng adds, that MPs are calling for civil servants to be “less rigid” and to “think outside the box”. Recently, MP Dr Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon South) in an interview even suggested that civil servants give “cut and paste” answers.
“Ask any young civil servant and they’ll tell you that their superiors frown upon those who speak up or try to introduce fresh ideas.”
He quotes the philosophical words of Napoleon: “The world suffers a lot, not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people.”
Giving a pat-on-the-back for civil servants, Ng remarks: “As I shared in my budget speech last year, these are a rare breed who devote their lives towards serving Singapore. But we now need to make sure that they don’t work in a system where they feel they need to be silent, where they feel they need to be “Yes sir” men or women and where they feel that nothing will change even if they speak up.”
PRAISES FROM NETIZENS
Ng’s forthright Parliament House speech drew massive applause from netizens.
Well-known critic-commentator Howard Lee says: “It might seem futile to bring it up in Parliament, but it does speak to those in power who care to listen. It touches on so many of my pain points through my decade in public service. I have been called “willing to try new ideas” and “radical” by my nicer bosses (God bless them), does not empathise with X position” and “making things difficult” by the worst. Never once has “diversity of opinion” been taken seriously, in spite of all the grandiose statements.”
Schoolteacher Sally Viathalingam says on Facebook: “Thanks Louis for being our voice. Many a times when giving feedback on government policies from the residents, you’re branded the troublemaker and worst still, you’re blacklisted. You speak with a brave heart.”
Former Non-Constituency MP Braema Mathi says: “Fantastic speech by MP Louis Ng. How many times have we seen this, experienced this and heard this. Leaders in various sectors do not set the example as leaders and many are averse to risk taking. So well, done Louis.”
Kelly Ann Oxenham writes: “Some public servants I met also told me directly that it is almost impossible to feel motivated to do more because mediocrity is rewarded. Status quo is a prized possession. They want to make a difference, which is why they joined the public service, but they do not feel empowered to do so.”
“I’m a big fan of the 360 appraisal review and agree that it should be implemented across public service urgently. Just as important – inculcating in the students of today, a habit of questioning, so we can groom the leaders of tomorrow who can ask insightful questions and develop meaningful solutions.
“Thank you Louis Ng for always speaking up and saying the things that need to be said!”
• Suresh Nair, a veteran journalist over three decades, sits in the Nee Soon East Citizens Consultative Committee (CCC) and actively serves in grassroots activities with Louis Ng in Nee Soon GRC.