ANDREA ONG, Straits Times

How charity work taught a public servant humility

SOME of the best lessons Mr Kwek Mean Luck has received in policymaking have come from his life outside his job as a public servant.

One of these came while he was doing volunteer work with the Catholic Church’s charity arm, Caritas Singapore.

He remembers vividly an encounter with an old woman living in a sparsely furnished flat. “I wanted to buy her chairs and upgrade her bed, her clothes,” says Mr Kwek, the dean of the Civil Service College and Deputy Secretary (Development) in the Public Service Division. But the woman refused, saying she was perfectly comfortable.

Then the volunteers thought of arranging with a shop to deliver groceries to her. But she became unhappy. After speaking to her, Mr Kwek realised why: “She wasn’t looking for efficiency, she actually liked the company of (the volunteers) coming to give her the groceries and talking to her.”

It was a humbling experience.

“It shows that in terms of assistance, you need to have that broader view of what is helpful and not just have your view of what is helpful.”

These and other encounters taught him that people’s circumstances are complex and that non-material assistance – like company – can be just as important.

Caritas is building a social services hub in Toa Payoh, and Mr Kwek recalls a social worker’s advice: “Please don’t make it look like a help centre, because if you do, those who need help will not come. People don’t want to be seen as though they need help.”

That made him realise the importance of respecting others’ dignity and “walking with the poor” rather than a top-down approach of “giving to the poor”.

Mr Kwek grew up with his grandparents in the then gritty streets of Chinatown, where the night-soil man would come every morning and there were rats on the creaky floor.

But experiences gleaned from that poor background led him to volunteer as a counsellor to youth at risk.

In the earlier part of his career as Senior Assistant Registrar in the Supreme Court and District Judge in the Subordinate Courts, he saw the need to look deeper at root causes of delinquency than to just rely on the justice system.

Even when he switched to policy work at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, he was motivated by the thought of his work creating good jobs for people like the youth he worked with. “It’s very hard to wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to go chase that extra 0.5 per cent GDP’. Mind you, it’s nothing to be sniffed at. But you don’t wake up for statistics. You have to personalise and keep it to a personal level of motivation.”

Mr Kwek agrees it’s crucial to have officers with diversity of life experiences as it makes for a richer policymaking environment. “Having that rich personal lived experience is important and, where you can’t have it, then interaction with people is very important,” he says.

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