TOP government scholarship holders who once went straight from university to writing policy papers in air- conditioned offices now start their work lives sweating it out on the ground.
Mr Sim Kwang Xiong, 25, a graduate of Northwestern University, joined the Land Transport Authority's community partnership department. He visited angry residents with transport woes in their homes and mediated conflicts over parking spaces and pedestrian crossings.
He did so under a new scheme in which management associates (MAs) like him, who largely go on to enter the elite Administrative Service, must spend their first three months in the civil service at a frontline agency like the LTA or Housing Board.
Having to take 'abuse' from those who felt that government decisions dealt them short shrift was a memorable lesson in how the policies he is now crafting affect ordinary Singaporeans. Now at the Ministry of Defence, he is glad for the ground experience because young policy officers are often 'insulated' from the public by the layer of agencies once they start ministry work.
Now more aware that there are different stakeholders, he said: 'The 'neat' policy may not do as well as an untidy compromise in reconciling competing needs.'
The Public Service Division said the new scheme kicked off last August and is mandatory for all MAs.
Sensitive to the charge of being disconnected from the public, the Civil Service has always had a variety of opportunities for its top officers to do stints on the ground.
Mid-career administrative officers have been seconded to grassroots organisations and operational agencies. Last year, 17 of them, out of a 300-strong corps, served grassroots stints.
Ms Lim Phey Wa, 23, did her three-month stint at the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. The time she spent there handling appeals from those wanting permanent residency for their foreign spouses, or extended social visit passes for a dependent, showed her how difficult those charged with executing policy have it.
While welcoming the sentiment behind the scheme, Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua said a three-month stint may be too brief. The long-time advocate of a more flexible and responsive civil service hopes for longer-term 'roadmaps' to expose young scholarship recipients more consistently to realities on the ground.
Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob suggested sending MAs to the labour movement, grassroots organisations and voluntary welfare organisations as well.
She urged young policymakers to make the most of their short stints: 'If they treat it as just an attachment to be cleared as a prelude to starting their proper career, they may not learn much. But if they take it seriously, there is a tremendous amount that they can learn which will be greatly beneficial to them.'
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