13 Mar 2018

Speaking truth to power

On Feb 27, Member of Parliament Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) used his speech during debate on the Budget to express worries about the fear among public servants of getting into trouble when speaking up and challenging their bosses.

He warned against having a public service filled with "yes" men and women who are wary that speaking up will affect their appraisal and promotion.

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) and Second Minister for Defence Ong Ye Kung responded on March 1, emphasising that the head of civil service has called on public officers to have "constructive discontent".

Alluding to the major public service transformation currently under way, Mr Ong stated: "This deep change cannot happen if the public service does not welcome ideas from its own officers".

He mentioned the regular 360-degree feedback exercises as an organisational development instrument aimed at enabling the sharing of new ideas.


The exchange between the MP and the Minister touches on a classic dilemma for public servants: balancing between "voice, exit, and loyalty", in the formulation made famous by economist Albert Hirschman in his influential work in 1970 on how people respond to decline in firms, organisations and states. The three roles have since been applied to people in thriving, not just declining, organisations.

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