That is one of the things that Mr Laurence Lien said in an interview with 938 Live on 7 Nov.
Mr Laurence Lien used to be the CEO of that National Volunteer and Philanthropic Centre (NVPC). Other than that, Mr Laurence Lien had been a high flying civil servant for 14-15 years and an NMP. He is now the chairman of Lien Foundation. He is also a member of one richest families in Singapore. These experiences have given him interesting perspectives on issues ranging from philanthropy to governance, from social challenges to education.
Other than his take on philanthropy, I think three things stood out from what he said.
The need to be in touch with the ground
In response to the question of whether he thought that the criticisms that have been levelled at civil servants over the years – that they’re not really in touch with what’s happening on the ground – is valid, Mr Lien said this:
We put a lot of burden on our civil servants to come up with the perfect answers. As a result, policy-makers quite often spend hours going through data, going through research and so on, trying to come up with the best solutions. They feel that there’s no time to go down to ground, which is a real mistake…
Again, among the side effects of that is you’re further away from the ground. Civil servants also feel that they don’t want to be driven by the anecdotal story, they want to be driven by data, but by doing that, you tend to miss a lot of perspectives, a lot of insights that you can gain by just spending time on the ground. Yes, I think civil servants need to and can do a lot more by going down to ground. Not just superficially talking to a few people, making some observations, but by spending time observing, understanding and being with people (emphasis mine).
I have heard that the highest flying of civil servants now have to serve a stint in operational postings. This ostensibly gives them an opportunity to be in touch with the ground. This is certainly a good step in the right direction.
But I think we need to do better. My concern is that such experiences that these civil servants have will be coloured by the lenses of the more certain privileged background that most of these high flying civil servants would have come from.
So I hope that more will be done to help these high flying civil servants develop empathy. Because it is only with empathy can these high flying civil servants truly understand how best to serve the needs of people. In other words, I hope that our high flying civil servants will make policies not just with data and rational analyses, but also with empathy after being with, observing and truly understanding the people they ostensibly serve.
Government should let go
When asked about his views that the government should encourage citizens to contribute more to society, take greater ownership of social issues, even if all of that comes with a certain amount of dissent, Mr Lien said this:
The starting point is that social issues are getting a lot more complex in the sense that, quite often we don’t even know what the underlying problem is, let alone the solution. And people need to be part of that problem-solving, to find out the exact problem, and sometimes the problem is people themselves. And government cannot just come in, to come up with a policy and a program to just fix that. People have to change, people have to reflect, and people have to discover, the solutions for themselves and work on those. We need, in that complexity, to energise citizens to be part of that work.
He also said that he felt that a top-down society where we need the government to take the lead and to set the tone is not a healthy society. He highlighted that people actively involved in tackling the issues that we face as a society is necessary, even if there is a “possibility of dissent, spiralling into chaos”. He says:
Yes, but we don’t think about the possibilities. Actually, it’s a necessity, because if we go down this route of over-dependence on government to solve all problems, where is that going to lead? It’s only going to lead to a situation where more and more demands are put on government to solve problems that it cannot on its own.
If it doesn’t get the people to change and be part of the solution, it will only end up letting people down, because the government can’t do everything.
He further elaborated:
People have thinking minds; people have passions, and in civil society, to get people energised and working on issues, invariably, they will become very passionate about it. And sometimes, there is the possibility of dissent, of people saying things that are different. But to me, dissent is actually important for society. Dissent is important for society to find new solutions, to find different perspectives of looking at the same issue. Otherwise people get stuck with inertia; people are stuck with the same thought process.
He then concluded that:
We need to experiment with different forms of engaging people, and letting go.
This view that Mr Lien has, that people should be engaged actively, is something that PM Lee and DPM Tharman have mentioned. However, it is not certain whether how deep the government is willing to engage people. Is the government truly willing to devolve power? Or is the engagement to be restricted to the safe and structured confines of structured dialogue sessions? This, at least, is what Mr Lien found disappointing about the Our Singapore Conversation exercise:
Well, I was involved in a few of those Singapore Conversations sessions and they’re really pretty good at getting people to talk passionately about issues, but it did not seem to go that step further. It’s just that initial conversation. To me, it’s an opportunity lost, in terms of really empowering people to do things.
If anything, how MOH responded in the SGH Hep-C case seem to suggest that the government is only willing to engage people superficially within the safe and structured confines of dialogue sessions. That’s why I still strongly believe that we need to have opposition MPs – so that we can have dissenting voices that offer different perspectives and thus are more representative of Singaporeans.
Fear is why the government isn’t letting go
But why isn’t the government willing to let go? Mr Lien’s take is this:
It’s the social compact between the government and citizens. The government has said, “Well, trust me, and I’ll solve your problem.” Government itself has to change. Government has to empower, has to take the lead in leading by stepping back. It’s not something that comes naturally, because at the back of the mind is “Oh, what if there’s chaos? Oh, what happens if we have too many solutions that counteract each other, and we have impasse, and disorder and chaos. We often think about the negatives, the inefficiencies…
… we were saying about a government that is very paranoid about things getting out of control, inefficiencies, impasse. We always look at the risk, at the downside, rather than the potential.
In addition to the paranoia, he also believes that it is also an issue that most politicians all over the world have:
But another reason is a political one, I believe, because, and this true not just of Singaporean politicians, but politicians all over. You want to be in the thick of action, you want to be almost the hero. Then you say to the electorate, “It’s because I did this, therefore you have these things.” It’s not because you did it for yourself.
In other words, only political leaders who truly have the best interest of the people at heart rather than thinking about their own political career would be willing to really engage and empower people to tackle the most important social issues. How many politicians would do that? Not many. Any in Singapore? Not sure. I hope so.
The challenge is made harder to meet because we have been so successful. In explaining why change is hard, Mr Lien said this:
But change is hard, you know, especially when you have been successful for so many years. Who wants to be the one who tries something and it fails.
This is something I fully agree with. I think one of the greatest threats Singapore faces is that our past success has made us afraid to make the radical changes needed to meet present and future challenges. Do our political leaders have sufficient courage to break free from the yoke of our past successes? I don’t know. I can only hope that they are.
All in all, I think we are fortunate that we have people like Mr Lien constantly challenging the system. And of course, the many crazy people in the opposition parties too. At least this shows that there are people who still care enough for Singapore.
[Featured image: from onesingapore.sg. Source]