Today I read in Mr Wang's blog about this news article regarding a man in a coma who was dying in hospital. His cousin approached the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (which also issues NRICs and therefore has everybody's most updated address) to locate his mother from whom he was estranged.
And the ICA refused to help, citing some regulation about it being an offence for any public officer to disclose to anyone information from its records. The hospital offered to furnish proof that the man was in a critical condition so that the ICA could try and contact his mother but they flatly refused. Fortunately, the cousin managed to track down the mother in the end through other means and she got to see her son one last time before he died. This story has a happy ending, but for the ICA, the entire article just screamed 'all-time EPIC FAIL'.
Personally, I found it extremely shocking that even in a matter of life-and-death, the ICA could just sit pretty and do nothing—nothing even remotely constructive. Mr Wang criticised (rightly) the ICA for this inflexibility, saying that there are only 2 reasons why the ICA didn't try to at least contact the mother on the cousin's behalf: that they were either just too stupid to realise that contacting her on the cousin's behalf instead of disclosing her address would not breach her privacy, or that they just couldn't be bothered. From my experience of how the civil service works, I totally wouldn't put these 2 reasons past them, but I could very well offer a third reason: that they wanted to help, but they were afraid that by contacting the mother directly, they might get in trouble, 'so better not'.
During my stint in the civil service I have encountered quite a number of these cases, where people could've helped and would like to have helped, but didn't know if it was allowed 'so better not'. Fortunately, my staff and I were like-minded in tossing all these conventions to the wind and going out of our way, beyond our job scope to help people. I remembered how my staff once draughted this letter for a pilot trainee certifying he was undergoing training, so as to hold his place in the university—even though it wasn't within her job scope. She got the Mindef Star Service Award for that (amongst other things, mostly also done outside of her job scope). I think any other section head or branch head would've vetoed her doing that because they wouldn't know if they might get in trouble for anyhow certifying stuff, 'so better not'.
We need more people like this in the civil service—people who remember that as civil servants, their job is first and foremost service to the people, in any way they can. Granted, some of the people are just arses when demanding that they be served, but the civil service should not be afraid to step up and serve when a genuine case presents itself. And a paradigm shift of this kind can only be achieved if the direction comes from on top.
So that's why I sincerely hope that Dr Teo Ho Pin and the beleaguered MHA can be humble enough to sit up and take notice of what Mr Wang said, because it really makes a lot of sense.
§ Technorati tags: news bites; social commentary