Jos Teo’s latest faux pas highlights everything that is wrong with the PAP government and the civil service.

In case you’ve been out of the country and without internet access, Jos Teo who is Minister of State and heads the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) was quoted in a Straits Times article saying “You need a very small space to have sex.” Needless to say, that line has become the latest meme on the Singaporean blogosphere and she has come out to say that the line was taken out of context and her intention was to the highlight the fact that in other countries, such as certain ones in Europe, having children is not something that always follows marriage and/or the purchase of a home.

As I remarked to a colleague the day after her comments were published, the real reason why people are making fun of her comment is not just because of the comment itself (which, to be honest, is darn funny) but because it serves to highlight the problem that our Ministers have when it comes to cherry-picking examples to make their point (think Shanmugam’s defending the death penalty for drug trafficking or every time someone warns about taxes going up when there is suggestion to increase the social safety net).

At this point, I would have to explain my line of reasoning further but thankfully, the ever-astute Donald Low wrote a post explaining very clearly the problem behind Jos Teo’s comment. (link to Mothership.sg’s coverage here) In case you need a TL;DR version, Mr. Low highlighted the fact that those countries Jos Teo pointed out have a much stronger social safety net as well.

In other words, you can’t want to solve one problem without changing the constraints imposed or as Mr. Low put it, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

This brings me to the problem with the current government and civil service in general. Don’t get me wrong, our government and civil service are perhaps one of the most functional in the world. Joined at the hip is, of course, the fact that our civil service is also one of the least corrupt (yes, you may point out certain examples like the SCDF guy and the Brompton bikes case but the fact that those cases have been brought to light shows that we have a relatively low level of corruption).

The problem I’m referring to is the fact that the government and civil service has grown so large and become so entrenched in managing so many different things that it’s no longer possible to work in silos and think that you can solve problems within a committee. Using Jos Teo’s case as an example, the NPTD cannot possibly think of solving the low birthrate issue without considering an expansion of the social safety net which cuts across healthcare, housing and education amongst other things but that is precisely what Jos Teo’s use of her example highlights- solving for an optimal solution given current constraints when she should be working with a whole lot of other committees or departments to change those constraints.

An example closer to my heart is at the organisation that I work in. We suffer from a problem of excess supply when demand is falling (largely due to the falling birthrate). While the demand issue is one that was set in motion years ago, the supply-side issue is due to the fact that we have to support government initiatives for hiring older workers. Don’t get me wrong, older workers who need to and can work should be encouraged to but most of them in my department have absolutely NO NEED to. A fair number own a second property, have financed their children’s education overseas and stay on the job only because it pays quite decently (thanks to their length of service) for little effort on their part. And because we can’t add more hours to the core job because of the falling demand, many of us end up being shoved into doing some low value-add tasks in order to have something to shout about during the yearly appraisal.

In short, the big problem is that the government has tried too hard to solve too many problems and the way they are trying to solve the problems is by assigning capable people who don’t necessarily collaborate nearly enough because of whatever issues like guarding their turf or having an ego larger than this little red dot. Those are two problems that are loosely related but let’s face it, it’s making even smart people look stupid.

In other words,  it seems that our civil service has reached diseconomies of scale.

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