Doing the small things well
February 18, 2011
Anyone driving across Benjamin Sheares Bridge today cannot help but marvel at the changing skyline. Marina Bay, the Esplanade, the Singapore Flyer and Marina Bay Sands are architectural and urban distinctions that emboss themselves into your mind. These are the big things that Singapore has done right. We do the broad strokes of city-building well. We are good with the big picture stuff like boosting the arts, bringing F1, creating a financial hub, inventing NEWater, or wooing the multinationals.
But big things alone are not enough to make this city tick. Doing the little things well count too – and we’re not so hot in that area anymore. Take for example the public gym that I frequent, one of the many run by the Singapore Sports Council. In there is a chin-up bar that has been broken for about 2 months. There is a crack in the joint, and over it a flapping piece of paper has been pasted which reads “Bar not in service. Sorry for the inconvenience”. I took a close look at the bar several times and realised that all that was needed was a simple wielding. I spoke to the instructors there and they agreed. So why the long delay? Well, they need to file in the report, get officers to assess the cost, put out the tender, wait for response, and so on…. all for a simple wielding job that most ITE students can do in 15 minutes. In the meantime, the bar hangs broken with an obscene piece of flapping paper stuck to it.
And I have noticed many other smaller things we can’t get handle anymore. We can’t handle floods, we can’t handle YOG certificates, we can’t handle MRT depot security, the list goes on. Lee Kuan Yew wrote that one of the reasons why he laid the island with greenery was that the mundane care that went into pruning, fertilizing and watering our trees, shrubs and bushes would show investors and visitors that we were a meticulous and fastidious people. This set us apart from the rest, and that was something to be genuinely proud of.
Today, one gets the sense that we can’t do the small things well anymore. Our famed efficiency and decisiveness is more evident in clamping down on political blogs, illegalising public assemblies, catching opposition members giving out pamphlets, and much less so in the lives of ordinary Singaporeans. One gets the sense that we are losing our priorities. One gets the sense that we’re seeing more “Sorry for the inconvenience” signs in our daily lives.
Is it a symptom of a decline in public and civil service standards? Or the side-effect of out-sourcing and privatisation? I really don’t know – perhaps both. But I do know that unless we begin to do the small things well again, even the big things will eventually fall apart.