Louis Ng: No to “yes sir” men and women in public service

By March 2, 2018Current

TL;DR – The world suffers a lot, not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people.

Mr Louis Ng, MP for Nee Soon GRC, spoke at the Budget Debate speech that there is a “a general consensus that people will get into trouble if they speak up in the public service”. 


He pointed out that many civil servants he spoke to fear that they will be labelled as troublemakers and that their bosses will get angry if they held contrarian views. He highlighted that a panel of academics and former senior civil servants echoed those sentiments. Mr Ng emphasised that this culture is not good for Singapore. He said:

“This culture of being afraid, of keeping quiet, of not rocking the boat is detrimental to the public service and most of all to Singapore”

Watch the full video here.

Minister Ong Ye Kung responds: Be part of the change

Minister Ong Ye Kung, who leads public service innovation efforts, has responded to Mr Ng’s remarks.


He said that we shouldn’t tar the entire civil service with the same brush as that doesn’t do justice to our officers and it discourages and undermines improvement efforts. He said:

“I’ve urged the service to be bold, to think big, start small, act fast. This deep change cannot happen if the public service does not welcome ideas from its own officers. All agencies today conduct regular employee engagement surveys, and many carry out other organisational development initiatives, one of which is regular 360-degree feedback to better develop public service needs.”

Minister Ong also highlighted various other initiatives that the public service has to encourage and reward innovation and enterprise.

Not the whole civil service, but…

It’s definitely unfair to say that everyone in the civil service is afraid of speaking up. But I’m sure many of us have heard of stories where people in the public service tried to be garang, spoke up, fought for something they really believed in that was a little bit contrarian, then ”kena jialat jialat from their bosses.

I read a comment online of someone who apparently was from the civil service. A few years ago, while he was still in the civil service, he suggested that we reduce the operational hours of our train system every week so that there’s more time for the engineering team to maintain our train systems. He was shot down, he was told to not rock the boat. I’ve also heard a similar story from another friend.

I’ve also heard of other stories of public servants, some of whom are rather high ranking, who prefer to stay safe, stick to the rules, play by the book. Stories where these public servants would rather not do something, not try something, simply because they were worried that their bosses would disagree with them, even if that something was worth doing.

Some in the service ARE averse to breaking things and failing

Yes. These are mere anecdotes which may not represent the entire system. Yes. It may be a stretch to say that the public service isn’t and can’t be bold, daring, innovative, and enterprising just from these anecdotes.

But the reality is that this is a pervasive perception – that while some in the public service may try to be bold, to think big, start small, act fast, many aren’t willing or don’t dare to break things and fail forwards.

Because breaking things, especially rules, and failing, even if to fail forwards, are things that we are extremely averse to.

Some would say that we no longer have the breed of public servants like Philip Yeo. Instead, now it seems that public servants must study things over and over again, consider every possible option, wait till there’s conclusive evidence that something will definitely work before they will even begin to put together a paper to start planning.

Read what the neither civil nor servant Philip Yeo said about the eunuch disease.

And then there will be committees upon committees, meetings upon meetings before they will even consider… doing another feasibility study.  By the time there’s any commitment to do anything, we would have lost many opportunities, or the context might have changed drastically to the extent that all the work studying and analysing is wasted.

Maybe things are changing, but I’m not convinced… yet

If you are a public servant, I bet you are nodding your head in agreement. You’ve been there. I know. I had been there too. So. It’s good that there are initiatives in place to reward and recognise innovation and enterprise.

But… at least, for now, I am skeptical that those will work. Instead,

I think we need far more radical measures. Overhaul the entire appraisal system. Do away with forced ranking. Change the hiring process.

To be fair, change does take time. Minister Ong said:

“Notwithstanding all these efforts, like all big and complex organisations, when there’s a change, there’ll be those driving it, supporting it; those worried about it; those wanting change in a totally different direction; and some resisting it.”

But until the public service does something radical, I remain skeptical.



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Author CRC

Working on a startup is a scary crazy process. To destress, I write random stuff.

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