I recently came across this blog post written by Lucian Teo, saying that it’s terribly discouraging to work in the public sector these days. It’s a brave post because based on my observation, anti-establishment sentiment is at an all-time high.

In the course of my work, I meet many people from the public sector, from different organisations, and I kinda agree with Lucian – in some ways, it’s harder to work in the public sector than private sector now.

Recently I was at KKH and at the payment counter, there was a man making a loud fuss about something or the other. I don’t know what it was about but he went around calling all the staff stupid. His teenage daughter, who was the patient, was sitting quietly, looking like she wanted to disappear into a hole as her father ranted and railed. As far as I could see, the nurses tried to attend to him while taking the verbal abuse. I was thinking, thank goodness I’m not in the public service cos I would have told him exactly what i thought of him.

There are many public servants who deal with this sort of thing everyday. I’m not saying they’re saints – I’m just saying they do their jobs. And sometimes it can become an extremely unpleasant job. All of us occasionally complain about the people we work with or our customers. But unlike with you and I, if public servants complain about horrible customers, you can bet they’ll get no sympathy. Just a cold “that’s your job”.

I’ve no doubt that if that father at KKH had later gone online to complain about the “useless public hospital staff and the state of public service”, he would have gotten many likes and comments agreeing with him from people who were not present at the scene. It has become fashionable and trendy now to be seen as anti-establishment. Which I’ve written before, is as unthinking as being pro-establishment.

It doesn’t help when online celebrities join in the flame war. The minute they mention something unflattering about a public service experience or person, others will automatically jump in to see who can out-insult the government/public sector/public service officers. Often exaggerated, mindless and mean-spirited.

I don’t see how this is any different from bullying. The popular gang picks on someone, that person becomes fair game. Everyone wants in on the action. Bystanders don’t say anything cos it’s uncool to disagree, even if the comments are baseless or wild generalisations. I’m often amazed by how little people are interested in the truth. People will spread a rumour as long as it reinforces what they want to believe. If they happen to be proven wrong later, they will justify or excuse their actions in some other way: “Oh, it’s because I’ve been so frustrated or was shortchanged.” Really? It’s okay to lash out at others just because we’re unhappy? Funny, I don’t think we’ll feel that way if we’re at the receiving end. I’m sure that KKH father was very frustrated, maybe even with cause. Still, it didn’t give him the right to behave that way.

There are many public sector services that I find excellent, especially in e-services. Applying for utilities or a passport, for example. Very fast and easy. In most other countries, you queue for hours, deal with bored and surly officers, and wait for weeks. Like most folks, I dislike filing taxes but I have to admit the tax e-filing is very convenient and hassle-free.

I frequently interview doctors and healthcare professionals at SGH as part of my work. Their schedules are packed and if they’re senior staff, they’re often roped in to several committees, while having to juggle clinic duty, research and teaching. Once, I interviewed a senior doctor whose clinic duty load was so heavy that he didn’t have time for lunch. Still, he made time for me at 4pm and answered my questions graciously, while wolfing down a cold sandwich. And I almost always leave the interviews with a deep sense of appreciation for these people who can have a much cushier life in the private sector and earn a heck of a lot more, but stay because they have a heart for service.

Is the public sector perfect? Of course not and that’s not the point because nothing ever is. But the public sector is not an impassive, monochromatic institution. It is made up of many, many individuals (136,000 from what I know) with a wide spectrum of personalities and life goals. Are there disenchanted, dishonest and disengaged public servants? Of course. I sometimes come into contact with them. But just like in any other sector or company, there are also hardworking, big-hearted people who want to serve even as they try to earn a living. And no, I don’t believe these are the exceptions.

So while I’m not advocating that we put the public sector on a pedestal, I would like to see that we treat people, no matter who they are and where they work, with a little more kindness. Because this institution that we belittle so carelessly and easily, either online or in person, is not a faceless, concrete mass. It is made up of people – every single one of them with thoughts and feelings. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience in one area or with one person. That’s no cause to dismiss the entire public sector and the many good people in it.

To the public servants who do their best because they want to serve, we don’t often say this enough but thank you for doing what you do.

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