Are Singapore civil servants little more red tape generating than robots?

I read about the herculean effort someone had to put in to bring the first Tesla to Singapore. The owner of the Tesla, Mr Nguyen, had to get through lots of paperwork and providing various information. And that’s fine, I suppose. It’s good practice to be sure that the person bringing in the car actually does own the car.

But the LTA suddenly asked the owner to go and talk to the Energy Markets Authority (EMA), which is in charge of power infrastructure in Singapore. They apparently thought that this guy was going to import entire fleets of electric cars for sale. It seemed that they thought he was going to set up an entire infrastructure to charge electric cars in Singapore.

Then there was the testing. It seems that the engineers or mechanics in Singapore have never dealt with electric cars and didn’t bother to learn how to. According to Nguyen, the testing took very long because the people running the tests didn’t charge the car overnight, but “turned it on sporadically” (which I think meant they charged the car sporadically throughout the day).

The real clincher came when LTA deemed the car to be a fuel guzzler. Somehow the tests showed that the car’s fuel efficiency was equivalent to 444 watt hour per km. However, apparently the US EPA (that’s the Environmental Protection Agency of US for you) found that the Tesla needs only 237 watt hour of energy to go one kilometre. According to the US EPA, this would make the Tesla about three times more fuel efficient than the Toyota Corolla, long held as one of the most fuel efficient cars in the world.

So what went wrong? How can it be that Singaporean testing centre somehow found that a Tesla car, which according to a US agency, to have terrible fuel efficiency? Two possibilities. Singapore test centre is right, US EPA is wrong, Tesla managed to hoodwink us all. Or. US EPA is right, Singapore test centre didn’t know what they were doing and tested wrongly. Between Singapore’s testing and US testing, I would choose to believe US EPA.

It could well be that the Singapore test center just didn’t know how to handle someone importing a Tesla because they’ve never had to test an electric car. It could well be that they were applying the same tests that they would perform on a petrol car on the electric car with minor modifications. In other words, it could well be that the people performing the tests were just following rules.

It’s something that we Singaporeans are well-trained to do – follow rules. Many of us would have heard our teachers say this in school: “It’s ok if you don’t understand the formula. Just apply and you will do well.” So we do past year papers over and over again. We figure out the rules, the grading rubrics and then we game the system. We are very good at answering questions, so long as those questions are similar to questions that have been asked before.

But we are terrible at answering questions that we have not encountered before. And we are even worse at asking questions. Especially the “why” and the “why not” sort of questions. We are terrible at challenging assumptions. In short, we are not creative.

It may not be that we cannot do it. It may well be that our civil servants aren’t even willing to ask the “why” and the “why not” sort of questions. They dare not challenge assumptions. They dare not take the risks and rock the boat. They would rather execute the policies without questioning, without understanding. Stick to the rules, never mind why they were there. Just follow law. No need to start from first principles. Not much different from machines. Red tape generating robots.

Of course there are civil servants who are bold and willing to take risks, who ask “why” and “why not”, who challenge assumptions. But it is my view that they are few and far between. Most of them would be in the Administrative Service of our civil service, i.e. the top echelon of our civil service. They would likely have been anointed by higher powers. They could almost do no wrong. Of course they would dare to take risks.

But even amongst those form the Administrative Service, there are those who would not take risks. To them, the cost benefit calculus just doesn’t make sense. Take risk to do something wild and radical, be innovative, be imaginative and visionary and things go well… no one will really reward you, because you would have moved on to another post by the time your innovation bears substantial benefit. But if you took the risk to be innovative and something went wrong.. you can be sure as hell your head will roll.

As a result, innovation in our government moves at a glacial pace. Except when some catastrophe strikes (e.g. financial meltdown, or the ruling party loses a whole GRC). Then maybe we will see some drastic innovation.

Is this really the case in the civil service? I don’t know. In many instances, I have encountered or heard of civil servants who are nothing more than red tape generating robots. But I also personally know a few people who are willing to take the risk to challenge assumptions, asking the “why’s” and the “why not’s”, and pushing for innovation in our civil service.

How can we nurture a greater innovative spirit amongst more of our civil servants at every level rather than just at the top? I really don’t know. But I hope that some brilliant person at the top will take a very good look at this challenge and come up with a really great plan. Only then would be ready for the future.

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