Sunday, July 26, 2009

Harry Lee and the Half-hearted Civil Servant

The public sector has about 110,000 employees, making the Singaporean government the largest employer at 4% of the total labour force.

Some see working for the bureaucratic public service as a secure option, and there are others who enjoy serving people and improving the nation (yes they really do).

There's probably a public sector job for various strata in our society, well except for the lesser educated.

The government needs talent with paper qualifications to be able to execute its long term plans - sturdy reliable spokes in the wheel of the state machinery.

And from the many rowers of the civil service boat, some are chosen to continue the leadership and work, and the whole process is renewed.

For some segments of the employed, the government hands out scholarships, attracting young talents, enticing them with college/university fee waivers and stipends, and after which a job in the relevant departments of their appplication.

These teenagers put pen to paper and seal off 3-6 years of their young adult lives.

But isn't it odd that brilliant minds with possible leadership skills and out of the box creativity, end up becoming a footsoldier?

Maybe the way things are run in the civil service allows the talent to be firstly immersed into the culture of civil service, and learn what is it like to be a pawn or a spoke. Because after all, ceteris paribus, they may become a more important pawn or spoke. (Similar to the defence force for those serving their national service)

Like in all sectors, there will be a portion of employees who feel jaded and disillusioned with their work.

The thing is, is the disillusionment working in the civil service the same kind of disillusionment working the private sector?

Why does a civil servant feel disillusioned or jaded?

Is it an intrinsic thing where he/she cannot reconcile his/her expectations with the realities of governmental bureaucracy?

Or is it an extrinsic thing where the environment, working conditions and management within the public sector are not very conducive for the character and professional development of the employee?

Some in the civil service are on occasion (to be conservative) on the verge of tears. Maybe it's work stress. And many people will reason that stress is part of work. (To be fair, stress is also not exclusively confined to the civil service).

As usual, in the context of meritocracy, we obsess ourselves with merit and the individual. If you're strong/good, you are duly rewarded and progress; but if you feel jaded or bordering on depressed, it is your fault. Surely there is something wrong with a system that makes us think like that, that makes us less compassionate and understanding of others.

Is internal feedback failing? Can there be better man management? Do people care about mental health?

We have progressed so far under the leadership of demi-god Lee Kuan Yew, who has imparted into us, formally and informally, values of pragmatism and survivability and so on. We are definitely beyond fighting for survival now, but sustaining it and developing ourselves in other domains. And since we are sustaining it, can we not develop enough compassion and savvy to reduce the invisible tear-shedding?

Well, this is the part where I digress from the topic of the stressed civil servant to that of mental health.

Mental health record/history and job application do not really go well hand in hand. Companies do not want to be responsible for what them view as a "personal" mental problem. There already is stigma here.

Next, employees are mindful not to show their emotional vulnerability in front of the people that matter (i.e. bosses), again because of stigma. They also worry about what will happen to their career (in that specific job) if they actually sought help for depression or anxiety for example.

Given our mindsets, there is very little awareness of depression in the workplace in Singapore. As we chase the paper, chase materials and other ideals, we forget that as social creatures, most of us can feel down for prolong periods of time.

Most of us will negate this phenomenon saying "it's all in the mind", "get on with it", "be strong", but these merely show a lack of understanding about the depression that afflicts our friends and loved ones. We think that it is the depressed individual who has to change and adapt, and that the world is normal. I think the world, society and the workplace have a part to play too, but these parties have enjoyed a long history of "innocence".

I think it is becoming disturbingly trendy that people don't give one another credit and in the event of failure or breakdown, look for individual factors.

There are civil servants who breakdown because they are heavily invested in their work and personal lives. I see no wrong with their dedication. They deserve a kind of management that will bring the best out of them, theoretically. But in the civil service, only a handful steer the boat compared to the thousands of rowers. Some are okay with the whipcracking by the slave drivers, but there are others who do not appreciate that kind of treatment.

This lack of compassion on the part of management probably explains why some have wisen up to working within their means and doing what they are paid and nothing more. Their dedication matches their pay and treatment, no emotional investment, no heart.

While what has been discussed is not exclusive to the civil service, I feel we should all ultimately be nicer people and respect those who have emotional investment in what they do. Otherwise, we will have a nation of half-hearted civil servants if we already do not have it.


On a side, I think that in recruiting the top talents for the civil service, the government has effectively reduce the talent pool of civil society. Civil servants cannot challenge the state in the domain of civil society. I wonder if I'll be able to write to the press regularly and blog openly if I worked in a Polytechnic (a statutory board) for example.

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