Tuesday, December 4, 2012

SMRT Strike - Breaking the sacred chain of command

Yawningbread had a post on the recent SMRT bus strike. In his post, he commented on the ineffectiveness of official channels for dispute resolution. Here’s the pertinent section:

The government has also said, repeatedly, that workers should have “discussed” their issues with management. Knowing Chinese workers, I am sure they have, many times and loudly. It’s in their nature. The problem is that the system is stacked against them. It’s a very Singaporean system: where lower-rank people don’t have rights to justice, but can only plead for better treatment. It’s a microcosm of the political system this government has created. Citizens have no substantive rights; they can only plead for their wishes to be taken into account. There’s a term for this: The petitionary state.

My first reaction to this was: but the Chinese workers came from *the* original petition state (see here for instance), so surely they should comprehend the Singapore system perfectly. 

But I digress. Snarky humor aside, I have another insight to share. But first, let me tell you a story.

I used to work in a division of a quasi-government company headed by a former SAF general. He had a pet peeve, and here when I use the word “peeve”, I really mean (from the perspective of the general) reprehensible, egregiously bad behavior that deserves to be excoriated in the strongest possible terms.

You get the idea.

This pet peeve was what the general called “breaking the chain of command”.

He would expound on the importance of the chain of command every time a complaint surfaced from the staff at the ground level, bypassing him to reach the ears of human resource, other senior management, or the CEO himself.

In simple terms, he hated it every time a problem in his division cropped up without coming up through the official channels, namely through him. He probably thought it made him look bad, which to be fair, is a pretty logical deduction to make.

His take was that even if a problem required the CEO’s intervention, the request should be escalated through him rather than brought up directly by the individual.

It never occurred to him that part of the problem was with him, that some staff were either not comfortable coming to him with their grievances or that they felt their concerns would not be properly addressed.

The uncharitable would add that most people avoided coming to him because they expected (correctly, as was unfortunately often the case) that his initial reaction would be to stonewall them.

In my experience, the expectation of the general that all staff adhere to the chain of command was really not that unique of a trait among SAF personnel, both former and current. I clearly remember the commanding officer of my NSF battalion espousing a similar sentiment.

The point of the foregoing story is this:

Our government is stuffed to the gills with people who think this way, from former fulltime professional soldier officers like the recently anointed Chan Chung Sing and Tan Chuan Jin, to our Prime Minister who formerly held the illustrious rank of Brigadier General.

It should hardly come as a surprise that the government likes to stress the importance of working through official channels when it comes to resolving disputes.

There are lots of issues worth exploring here.

One issue is whether recourse can truly be found through official channels in Singapore. Whether you think so or not depends on how cynical you are, and whether you have had firsthand experience navigating the system.

Yawning Bread has brought another issue into his post: namely the lamentable state of our petitionary state. That sounds quite anodyne really. I prefer to call it the PAP’s dictum to Singaporeans to “Be silent and be governed.” Citizens’ opinions don’t matter until seats in Parliament are suddenly up for grabs. The recent national conversation is really just a grand exercise in perception management.

My preferred issue to focus on is what this strong aversion to anything that doesn't originate from official channels tells us about the decision-making processes in the higher echelons of the Singapore government.

That the government constantly stresses that labor relations (and other matters by extension) can only be negotiated only within the ambit of official channels indicates that the government:

  1. Cannot handle uncertainty. Our officials are world champions at planning, but are frequently caught flatfooted whenever a situation develops that they failed to anticipate. That’s not to say that other governments do better all the time in unscripted situations, but a tendency to over-plan typically means less of an ability to adapt to a changing situation. The fact that even elections are carefully choreographed affairs is not complimentary of our cabinet ministers. For supposed consummate actors in the rough and tumble world of politics, our ministers are in a word, coddled.
  2. Cannot handle negative media attention. This has to do with point (1) above. Our officials are bad at adapting to dynamic situations. When was the last time we had a minister answer unscripted questions posed to them by an independent journalist or interviewer who had not been warned implicitly or explicitly to go easy on the minister?
  3. Has an attitude that no news is good news.
  4. And that what isn’t surfaced through official channels doesn’t exist and is hence officially NOT A PROBLEM. In other words, the PAP likes to operate within its own personal reality distortion field. Too bad they don’t have the charisma of Steve Jobs as well cuz they sure as hell need it.
Point number 4 above is the most important point. But the other points are related in that the PAP has been so effective at building a safe, controlled political environment for itself that it has started believing in its own propaganda and hence frames its governing decisions accordingly. That's a dangerous place to be, drinking your own Kool-aid.

The upshot of seeing things surfaced only through official channels means tunnel vision, and all the associated bad decision-making that goes with it. And we haven't even brought in the stonewalling that all too often blocks what you can see of the information that floats up through official channels.

Case in point is the recent SMRT strike where unhappiness had in fact been simmering on the ground for months.

The remarkable thing is that considering Singapore is so small, so tightly controlled and with such a precisely defined and controlled government machinery (including the media), that the government still cannot get reliable information and act on it is a severe indictment of its ability to sense-make and come to effective and appropriate decisions.

Who knows what other problems are out there just waiting to explode? All thanks to the reality distortion field associated with the chain of command.

But again, I come to the stupid or evil hypothesis for the PAP, which I can never decide between. Are they really that dense, or are they just plain evil and actually prefer the status quo, which while detrimental to the resilience of our society, benefits themselves and the entrenched power elite.

See Jon Stewart for a more elaborate explanation of the stupid-evil dichotomy.

I am personally more inclined toward the evil hypothesis, but I am also reminded of Hanlon's Razor.

1 comment:

DH Poser Chwee said...

I used to wonder too, whether our current elites were evil, or really that stupid. Would be more comforting to know that it's the latter? 95% probability....

We can have a really nice long discussion where I paint the dots in a certain way and the conclusion becomes more obvious.....

Or we just go a with a simple reality. In China, the leaders know that the mainstream press serves more of a propaganda purpose than not. Hence they would call up certain reporters and get a more unvarnished assessment, whether it's a political, economic or social issue. In Singapore's context, the mainstream media's capabilities have been so degraded (both press and TV) that they can no longer do any real investigation or journalism, hence the usual verbatim reporting of ministry press releases as 'news'. So even if the local elites wanted to to step out of their bubble to find out what is going on.... they don't have a reliable means of doing so. Please do not call their bubble a reality distortion field. That cheapens the ability of someone like Steve Jobs. Just call a spade a spade. Folks who have their heads stuck so far up their asses that they can't see shit until it's coming straight at them.