Wednesday, 20 August 2014

New Municipal Services Office: Case of a Fishball Stick

New MSO to help bridge inter-agency issues
PM Lee Hsien Loong explaining how the Government still has some way to go in getting different agencies to work more closely together, especially when responsibilities are split. Foto: OOI BOON KEONG

When one resident observed that a fishball stick along the walkway at Bukit Gombak MRT Station had not been cleared after two days, it took Member of Parliament (MP) Low Yen Ling “multiple calls to several agencies & a few meetings” to find out why the area appeared not to be regularly cleaned.

The reason? “On the left of the walkway is a slope, (which is overseen by) the NEA (National Environment Agency); in the middle is a park connector, under NParks (National Parks Board); on the right is a pavement next to the road, under the LTA (Land Transport Authority),” said PM Lee Hsien Loong. As the cleaners engaged by each of these agencies have different cleaning schedules, “the fishball stick was on the roadside, and the roadside is only cleared every two days”, he said.

The incident was an example of how the Government still has some way to go in getting different agencies to work more closely together, especially when responsibilities are split, despite previous efforts to address this, said Mr Lee at the National Day Rally last night. For example, the question of what to do with a snake spotted on the street used to depend on the direction in which it was moving, but all animal-related issues are now handled by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

Pulling together to pick up sticks

A humble fishball stick made political history in S'pore when it helped prompt the setting up of the new Municipal Services Office (MSO). The removal of the stick, discarded on a walkway in Bukit Gombak, had been delayed for more than a day because parts of the walkway were managed by different agencies. Complaints about the stick caused South West District Mayor Low Yen Ling to call up agencies, upon which she found out the source of the problem. Some might wonder why no passing resident was motivated sufficiently by civic consciousness to remove the offending stick himself, rather than looking to the authorities for a solution, but that is another question.

The episode contributed to PM Lee Hsien Loong announcing, in his National Day Rally earlier this month, the setting up of the MSO to deal with a lack of inter-agency coordination in municipal matters. Unlike the trivial fishball stick, this unit has a serious purpose: to improve the Government's overall coordination and delivery of municipal services.

These services address problems in many areas of everyday community life. Littered public areas, choked drains and overflowing litter bins affect the ambience of a First World country, while potholes, faulty streetlights and traffic lights, and damaged covered linkways are potentially dangerous. Likewise, flooded or choked drains and fallen trees and branches cause inconvenience to many. Mosquito breeding is a distinct public health hazard, particularly with the spike in dengue cases. One reason for the high quality of life in Singapore is that close attention is paid to dealing with these and similar problems, which affect the ease and comfort with which citizens can go about their daily pursuits. Indeed, it is precisely because citizens have grown accustomed to sustained standards of municipal service that their expectations are so high, making the fishball stick an anomaly in its surroundings.

The fishball stick-ing point and the new Municipal Services Office
A complaint by one of her residents led South West District Mayor Low Yen Ling to discover the difficulty of bridging certain inter-agency boundaries. The resident claimed that the walkway towards Bukit Gombak station was often dirty, adding that a discarded fishball stick remained uncleared for two consecutive days

The mayor said that despite the size of the area, it took several calls to different government agencies to establish what happened, and to finally resolve the issue, as the area was managed by the National Environment Agency, the National Parks Board and the Land Transport Authority. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared this story at the National Day Rally on Sunday (Aug 17), and said it illustrated the need for a Municipal Services Office (MSO).

"The setting up of the MSO is a very timely move, because it will address the need for a common platform to bridge inter-agency boundaries in a very integrated manner. And I welcome the move in setting up of the MSO, which I hope will also address areas which fall into the gap of 'every man's island, but no agency's responsibility'," said Ms Low.

"There will be areas where responsibility overlaps across different Government agencies, so the role of the MSO will be very critical. And I think moving forward with the formation of the MSO, we look forward to better coordination, quicker response and improved ability to provide sustainable solutions for residents," she continued.

Key points from PM's National Day Rally 2014: New MSO announced

A new authority will be set up to coordinate the work of various Government agencies in order to better serve the public when it comes to municipal issues.

The Municipal Services Office (MSO) will coordinate the work of agencies such as the Land Transport Authority, NParks, the Housing and Development Board and the Singapore Police Force. The aim is to improve service delivery to residents.

MSO will be housed in the Ministry of National Development (MND) and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu will oversee it. More details will be announced later.

Setting up a new office to focus on service delivery

The government will set up a new Municipal Services Office, headed by Minister Grace Fu. It will coordinate the work of all front-line agencies (LTA, PUB, NParks, NEA, AVA and Police) to better serve the people. One way to do this is to get agencies to work closely with each other and sort out municipal issues. Another way to serve people better is to use technology to make Singapore a Smart Nation.

Quotes by PM Lee from National Day Rally 2014:
“One resident saw a fishball stick on the walkway one day. The next day, the same stick was still there. So Yen Ling (referring to Mayor Low Yen Ling) called up the agencies, to find out why the area was not being cleaned regularly… Here is what she found: (1) On the left of the walkway is a slope, under NEA; (2) In the middle is a park connector, under NParks; (3) On the right is a pavement next to the road, under LTA; (4) The different cleaners each had their own cleaning schedules; (5) The fishball stick was on the right side, which was only cleaned every two days”
PM Lee on setting up a Municipal Services Office to coordinate all the agencies to focus on service delivery.
“NEA bao ga liao.” - PM Lee on the National Environment Agency’s role in overseeing everything as a new municipal services office will be set up to coordinate different agencies. Bao ga liao is dialect for “taking care of everything”.
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MyPoint: Inculcate civic-mindedness

To avoid more such fiascos, a Municipal Services Office will be set up to get different public agencies to work more closely together.

This is all well and good, but my question is: Since the fishball stick was on a busy thoroughfare and was noticed by at least one resident, why didn't the person just pick it up and throw it into the dustbin?

Isn't this a whole lot easier than getting the mayor to call various government bodies?

The Story of the Fishball Stick
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the captive audience he found out (what we all already know) that it took 3 government agencies to address one miscreant piece of wood, presumably used for piercing fishballs. Mercifully it was not bagged and sent to a government laboratory to determine whether it could have been satay or yakitori

The National Environment Agency (NEA) would only budge if the offending litter was on a grassy slope, the National Parks Board (NParks) if it was on the park connector, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) if it was on a pavement next to a roadway. Imagine the big inter-agency quibble over a pavement running down a slope, along a park connector, abutting a roadway.

Why the need for NEA, NParks and LTA when PWD was doing a good job for the price of one? Quite simply, that kind of bloat translates to justification for 3 sets of offices, 3 sets of permanent secretaries and 3 sets of superscale civil service officers. First rule in government spending: Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?

Lee's solution is to set up a fourth agency, the Municipal Services Office (MSO) under the Ministry of National Development. Grace Fu must be glad to finally have something to do, to justify her million dollar paycheck. After all, she must feel lost among the numbers of Minister-in-the-Prime Minister's Office, which used to be more accurately called Minister-without-Portfolio.

The Case of the Fishball Stick

My question, however, is “Since the fishball stick fell on a busy thoroughfare, and though just a little stick, it was obviously noticed by passerbys – some of whom had actually bothered to contact the authorities to have it removed – why didn’t somebody just pick it up and throw it into the rubbish bin?”

It is important to have interagency efficiency but the most important thing is to make the most important thing the most important thing and the most important thing now is NOT necessarily to create yet another bureaucracy but to educate citizens so that they will develop a sense of civic-mindedness.

Isn’t picking up the stick and throwing it away a whole lot easier than picking up the phone and trying to contact various government bodies to request them to remove the stick?

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That "Fishball stick" problem

One idiot threw a fishball stick along the path. Another idiot saw the fishball stick and on the first day did nothing. "Somebody will get that."

On the second that he still saw the fishball stick litter on the path. No one had removed it. So he decided to do something about it. No, not pick up the stick. That would be too troublesome. The idiot decided to complain to his MP. Or was it the Mayor? Did he wait for the MP's Meet the People Session to complain in person to the MP? Or did he write a letter to the MP? Or perhaps, he sent an email?

Yes. Sitting down to compose an email to the MP (or Mayor) is infinitely less troublesome than picking up the offending stick. Assuming, he did not get personally to the MPS to complain. Now that would have been even LESS troublesome. The Mayor tried to get the idiots at NEA, NParks, & LTA to clean up the litter. And got pushed around. Finally, she told the PM.

Authorities not claiming responsibility over a fishball stick
Stick it to the Man

Ironically, in the same article, PM was waxing lyrical about Singapore becoming a SMART NATION, and here you have a mayor having to arrange MEETINGS with agencies to decide what to do with a dumped fishball stick. I wonder who would take responsibility if the fishball stick happens to lie exactly midway between NPARKS and NEA’s turf. Maybe the cleaners under the respective payrolls would have to play scissors-paper-stone in order to come to a decision.

Like an unexpected pregnancy after a drunken mass orgy, the Bukit Gombak fishball stick anecdote has become an awkward metaphor of our neurotic, self-serving, ‘not my problem’ bureaucracy. Creating another liaison office to coordinate a response isn’t going to solve the actual problem here which PM Lee did not address in his rally: LITTERING. In full parental mode, our government have spawned yet another nanny to pick up after us because we don’t know how to make people responsible for their own environment. It’s like how setting up child welfare isn’t going to stop people from having irresponsible sex. In fact it takes some of the guilt and regret off your shoulders because you know someone ‘s taking care of your damn baby, rather than leaving him abandoned and straddling the imaginary boundary between two agencies who want nothing to do with him.

The formation of an MSO is a typical approach to how we deal with such issues: Create another layer of bureaucracy to address it, confuse everyone with yet another acronym, and hope for the best. This is just sweeping the littering scourge under the carpet. And then putting another carpet on top of the first one for good measure.

Pick up sticks gain popularity

A fishball stick dropped by a litterbug earned more than one mention in the Prime Minister’s National Day rally speech last night. It was the subject of a complaint by a civic conscious citizen who noticed that it had been lying on the ground for a good two days, well past Singapore’s efficient cleaning standards. His MP, Mayor Low Yen Ling was galvanised into action, as she sought to ascertain the agency responsible for the fishball stick’s continued offensive presence.

After intensive and extensive investigations, PM Lee decided that it will be the National Environment Agency’s business to pick up sticks, although people shouldn’t be dropping them in the first place. He used a dialect term “pau kar liao’’, causing many to wonder if he was moving away from the Speak Mandarin policy.

A Municipal Service Office graced by Grace Fu, he announced, will be set up to ensure that all sticks anywhere will be picked up with alacrity. In the meantime, the civic-conscious citizen complained that he had sent a picture to STOMP which obviously did not realise the political potential of the stick which, it argued, could have been holding up a sotong ball.

New office to tackle estate matters

The issue was eventually resolved, but the experience had been "frustrating and difficult" for the mayor. "Can you imagine if you're an ordinary citizen trying to solve such a problem and running around the different agencies? It's not the way we should be operating and we have to do better," said Mr Lee.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Zainudin Nordin, who is a former mayor and a former town council chairman, told The Straits Times that town councils are responsible for managing common areas in Housing Board estates. "There are parts inside housing estates that don't fall under the ambit of the town council. "People don't realise but roads, drains, bus stops are... not part of the town council's responsibility," he said.

He welcomed the setting up of a central office, which he saw as a "cockpit" from which to ensure that nothing falls through the gaps.

The Tai Chi Department

Sometime in the near future, Singaporeans can expect a new agency called Municipal Services Office (MSO). This was announced by PM Lee in his NDP Rally last night. The core mission of the agency was to improve service delivery to residents by helping them to coordinate among different agencies. He cited an example where one resident in Bukit Gombak complained to the Mayor about a fishball stick on a walkway which had not been removed by cleaners for two days. The Mayor had to make multiple calls to and held meetings with several agencies before she established what happened. The fishball stick was in an area demarcated under the LTA, where cleaning was scheduled once every two days, thus the fishball stick was still around on the second day.

On a smaller scale, a good condo manager or a corporate facilities manager would know exactly who to call when something breaks down. It is part and parcel of the job so I'm a tad surprised that a town Mayor didn't have basic urban planning knowledge to know there are demarcations across residential land that separate the responsibilities among agencies such as the Town Council, HDB and PUB, just to name a few more not illustrated in the PM's photograph. Since the MSO is going to be set up not just to help Mayors who don't know their stuff but also residents who are not expected to know who exactly to call for help, fair play. At least we know how new jobs can be created because existing agencies cannot communicate with one another or help a resident liaise issues brought up among themselves.

One thing that disturbed me deeply was how the resident could have picked up the fishball stick and chuck it in the nearest bin if its presence bothered him or her that much. I don't know if that is a sense of entitlement or laziness. It could be both or something else, a "Not my job, someone else should do it" mentality. That often leads to a lot of costs involved to solve a very cheap problem with a solution that takes minutes or even seconds to implement. In short, a lack of civic mindedness. Unfortunately, this kind of attitude is common in Singapore these days.