Guts in the public service

// thoughts

A few days ago, I came across Philip Yeo’s recollection of the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) project. A familiar sense of futility, fear and dread slowly seeped through my chest, as I read his words:

“When Lee Kuan Yew announced they were going into Suzhou, Dr Goh Keng Swee called me up,” Mr Yeo recalled. “He said: ‘This project will fail and they will call for you’.”

I believe our leaders raised concerns about this project when it was still in the talks, just like the way Dr Goh declared with boldness that it will fail. The people who are involved in it probably knew much more than I do, and as leaders, had to make a decision somehow. Nobody outside of the project team knows the intricate details — perhaps heated arguments behind closed doors — that led to pushing this project out the door.

What I have come to appreciate after a few short years of public service, is that things are just not as simple as they seem. We’re talking about large-scale economic forces; wicked problems in the political and social arenas; complex sociological and cultural issues at the organisational level; not to mention, the personal struggles that one plows through at an individual level.

Life in the public service

I have been in the public service for the past 3 years. Over the weekend, I reflected on my impact as a public servant. I found myself asking the questions: What is the value and impact I can make in the public service? How can I create meaning for myself, and for others?

I believe there are peers in my generation, in whichever ministry or agency, who are asking the same questions and observing the same problems down in the rank and file. This is my attempt to articulate the feelings that welled up in my throat as I read the story.

Civil service is challenging work. The problems we try to solve and the solutions we design are complex, because we are dealing with people. We are all trying to make lives for Singaporeans better.

But sometimes, we find ourselves in the same situation as Philip Yeo and Dr Goh: waist-deep in seemingly dead-end projects.

Guts to bail

In some seemingly dead-end projects, the question we should be asking ourselves is “when do we bail?”. It is a question of when, not if. The answer is now.

Sadly, a lot of these conversations happen in hush-hush environments; a sigh accompanied by a slight shaking of the head; a slight shrug of the shoulders, culminating in a familiar resignation to “this is the way things are”.

But why?

“He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.” — Luke 16:10

This passage of scripture from the Bible talks about how having faith in God for little things determines how we would react to bigger setbacks and trials.

Just how far, and just how much effort, have we put into stopping projects that are train wrecks in slow motion? We may not have the authority, but we have our voices. Being powerless is no excuse for inaction.

We have to roll up our sleeves, and put up convincing cases to persuade key decision makers. If we can’t even do this much now, we cannot expect ourselves to do any differently in future. Changing jobs won’t solve the problem; and if you do, you’re likely to still face this problem again in a new workplace.

The “this-is-beyond-my-pay-grade” and “this-is-beyond-my-job-scope” excuses are symptomatic of our self-preservation instincts. I think we owe it to ourselves to balance our fears with a healthy dose of courage.

Guts to rally

You’ve probably seen and heard this before: people murmuring and complaining about a dead-end project; criticising and badmouthing higher management, and giving advice to “just do what you’re told”.

Morale is understandably low in “train wreck” projects. At this juncture, it is more important to focus on mitigation and recovery rather than blaring sirens and blaming people. It is easy to blend in with murmuring voices and criticise higher management; it is almost comfortable to just slink back into the cushy chair of impassivity.

On the other hand, it takes courage to dispel fear and to look on the upside. It’s painful and uncomfortable. But nothing worth doing is ever easy. Take care not to spread negativity among your teammates. Pluck up the courage to remove yourself from the echo chamber, and begin persuading those around you to make things better.

Often times in the process of doing so, we catch a glimpse of the constraints that were previously invisible to us. The reason to the madness, if you will.

Idealistic? I don’t think so. Optimistic? Definitely yes, and we need a truckload of optimism in a pessimistic world.

Progressing as a nation

In November 2014 our country embarked on the Smart Nation journey. The clarion call for “all hands on board” resonated in our news feeds. Today, we are full steam ahead, and seem to be making good progress so far. Tech workers are excited, sparing no effort to invest hours of enthusiastic labour and toil into digital transformation projects that promise improvement for citizens’ lives. To survive as a country, we need to stay ahead of the game—a game where both the government and private industry have skin in.

Yet I still see projects with poorly defined problem statements, rushing to produce something. What baffles me is how we are willing to perform the Sisyphean task of seeing these projects to completion. Because to pull out would be to admit that we were wrong, and in admitting our mistakes, we would risk “losing face”.

I can’t help but feel that we might still be making the same mistakes of indifference and impassivity. What can hinder our progress is not a lack of or slow adoption of technology, but a lack of honesty and humility to see things for what they are. To call it quits when necessary, to speak for the truth than to play along with what’s comfortable, polite and politically correct.

And that requires guts.

Special thanks to my lovely fiancée, Shakespeare Sim, for bouncing ideas with me and editing this.