SINGAPORE: Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung on Thursday (Mar 1) issued a sharp rebuttal to Member of Parliament Louis Ng’s comments on Tuesday that public officers dare not speak up for fear of getting into trouble.
Mr Ng, who is MP for Nee Soon GRC, had said that there is "a general consensus that people will get into trouble if they speak up in the public service".
"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," Mr Ng had said. "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."
In response, Mr Ong, who also leads public service innovation efforts, said: "Where the public service has fallen short, it will address the problem. But when generalisations that tar the entire service with the same brush are made in public and worse, further spread through media, it does not do justice to our officers and it discourages and undermines improvement efforts."
"I've urged the service to be bold, to think big, start small, act fast," he stated. "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."
There are also systems in place such as a Public Sector Transformation Award, Mr Ong explained, which recognises officers who display "constructive discontent" and make the effort to effect transformative change.
"We've also recently incorporated into the bonus system a mechanism for agencies to specifically recognise officers for their innovation and enterprise," he added.
"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."
"It's not just the public service - this happens in every organisation."
"BE PART OF THE CHANGE"
Mr Ong later urged individuals to start by reflecting on themselves.
"It starts with me … So I constantly ask myself: 'Am I giving policy directions that are bold enough, clear enough, empowering enough?'" he said.
"If your starting point is that everyone else is an obstacle except yourself, then I say you need to care more about doing your work and doing your part."
"Mr Louis Ng ... you can do your part too," said Mr Ong to his fellow People's Action Party MP.
"If some civil servant tells you they dare not speak up, you can assure them from your own experience that you've always spoken up and never got into trouble. If they feel the system does not allow them to make a difference, ask them what is it you want to change."
"If it's a philosophical shift in Government policy … then you have to explain to them this is not the policy of the current Government. If it's something that makes things better but their immediate supervisor is not supportive, then inform their permanent secretary or the head of civil service or even have a word with me and I will see to it."
"So I say to Mr Louis Ng, be part of the change. Be part of the change," he concluded. "Work with and encourage the public service as it strives to transform itself to build a better Singapore."
Later, Mr Ng thanked Mr Ong for clarifying that "all public officers can speak up without fear of getting into trouble".
"I’m keen to be part of the solution, which is why I spent the past year meeting, listening to and working with public officers, and now share their concerns with everyone," said Mr Ng. "And I’ll take Minister Ong’s advice and will be more careful about generalisation of public officers."