On PSC Chairman’s open letter and our Public Service’s purported intolerance of contradictory views

PSC Chairman Eddie TeoPublic Service Commission (PSC) Chairman Eddie Teo’s open letter and interview in the papers was like a breath of fresh air.  I had espoused the need for a greater human touch during Friday’s dinner, and while I’m sure this year’s more-than-2,416 PSC scholarship hopefuls who did not get picked would have wished for this killer interview ‘cheat sheet’ to have gone into print prior to their interviews, such earnest, direct and transparent communiqué – from our public service to the masses – is a much-needed step in the right direction.  I only hope more government entities can take a leaf or two from PSC’s books.

The PSC Scholarship: a crucial pipeline for our bureaucracy’s leaders of tomorrow

Public Service Commission scholarship banner

Public Service Commission scholarship banner

Even today, I can still remember the awe with which PSC scholarships were talked about during my final months at Raffles Junior College.  My alma mater has a stellar track record of producing scholars, and it was common knowledge that the majority of students that were motivated to undertake 2 or more ‘S’ paper subjects at the GCE ‘A’ Levels, did so to have a shot at landing the prestigious PSC Overseas Merit Scholarship (OMS), and possibly even the President Scholarship.

In the past, PSC would give out 200-odd scholarships of varying flavours (OMS, LMS, etc), choosing to only assess scholars to be worthy of the Administrative Service (as an Admin Officer, or AO) career track upon completion of their studies (and the compulsory National Service for the males) and having worked for at least 4 years.  Judging by 2009’s significantly reduced scholarship recipients (a mere 84) and first-hand info from subsequent batches of PSC scholars, I would surmise that PSC has gone for quality over quantity in its revamp of the crucial pipeline that supplies our bureaucracy with its leaders of tomorrow; and rightfully so.  The open letter could be construed as a form of signaling by PSC, in an attempt to improve the quality of future applicant pipeline.

Of its over 2,500 applicants, a first cut of 350 (14% funnel) were selected, from which only 84 (3.36% conversion) scholarships were awarded.  Tough odds indeed.

I never did go for my second-round interview with PSC.  A representative called me up in March ’00 to schedule the interview one weekend when I was back from the army.  I had already accepted the EDB Singapore Inc. Scholarship offer two weeks earlier.  Besides, to the then-18-years old me, returning to contribute towards Statutory Board X versus Ministry Y didn’t appear different at all.  On hindsight, I really should have been less naive in thinking that no form of pecking order existed within the bureaucracy.

I also recall how students in our cohort with 2 ‘S’ papers (some 80%) received personalized mail inviting them to apply for a whole host of scholarships, and how I sat empty-handed (as I only had 1 ‘S’ paper) as almost everyone in class exchanged notes on which invitations they’ve received.  Thank god for the Internet; EDB had placed its scholarship application forms online (one of the few agencies with the foresight to do so in the past) and was sufficiently open-minded to consider my application alongside the rest.

Myths Debunked, but is it Enough for the Masses?

In reading through the Straits Times’ report on how students responded to the open letter, what was most interesting to me were our youths’ perceptions that contradictory views are not tolerated by the public service, no thanks to our culture of deference to authority and general dislike of confrontation.  Admittedly, despite my best efforts at remaining true to why I blog, I have on countless occasions succumbed to the deadly evil of self-censorship.  As Ms. Sandra Go puts it in the article on page A4 of this Saturday’s Straits Times, “a savvy candidate may moderate her answer to avoid getting on the wrong side of the interviewers – and still appear not overly politically correct.”

I was heartened to learn from a friend who works closely with our Ministers at a certain powerful Ministry, that the top echelons of our leadership actually pay close attention to the blogosphere and take constructive inputs positively.  I only hope that such sentiments can be equally shared throughout the various levels of our bureaucracy.  I may yet decide to lose my mental baggage and speak my mind.  Yet, I suspect few will dare to step up and do the same.  It’s going to take a lot more than just an open letter from PSC to catalyse a change in our culture of deference to authority, and at a balanced level of healthy debate that will give our political leaders sufficient food for thought while ensuring that it won’t degenerate into rowdy rabble and the loss of the votes of the masses.

Wild Idea

I believe it’s going to take some form of reinvention of our bureaucracy before the populace will catch on.  Yet, few large-scale change management exercises have succeeded throughout corporate history, which leads me to predict that any response with a good chance for success would have to include elements of intrapreneurship; a ‘bureaucracy spin-out’ in the form of a skunkworks agency free to design and pilot innovative policies for the benefit of Singapore.  More of my thoughts on this in a subsequent post.

An agency of the Future, anyone?

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.