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.


6 Responses to “Doing the small things well”

  1. cy Says:

    it’s because the small things don’t create GDP growth ,hence bonus for the ministers. thus,ministers can’t be bothered doing small things well.

  2. look at the big picture Says:

    When the big things and brandings go international fast, small things are trivial and can wait.

    Why so fastidious and uptight over small things?

  3. barsushi Says:


  4. genghis Says:

    we dont seem to be doing the big things particularly well either. mr wang has been complaining of leaks in new MRT stations. guess they r still filing reports and tendering on fixing those too. meanwhile, we’r still intent on growing the foreign population despite all the stresses and strains of this so far. and having enough drinking water has yet to come into the picture. does tt mean we’r at the 2nd stage of our decline already?

    incidentally, today, more and more shady trees are being cut down and replaced with non-shady palms. seems odd that as temperatures rise, we remove the shade that would lower temperatures along the streets by providing protection from the sun.

    but then it didn’t make sense to me to find the comfortable wooden benches at greenfield park in the east replaced by showy metal ones, which are uncomfortable to sit in. you also have a lot of difficulty getting out of them.

    the wooden benches weren’t broken either. so does this mean we’ve wasted money on replacing serviceable furniture? this is on top of replacing them with benches which don’t fulfil their purpose.

    • I suspect the replacement of shady trees by palm trees is because palm trees are easier to maintain and less likely to kill people. Sad.

    • Vane Says:

      I like to think of it as this.

      The trees/benches were removed/replaced for various reasons. Most probably this have to do with either the contractors or say.. you have to buy these off someone. And that someone/contractor could be someone within our cabinet making a profit from it.

      Why else would you fix something that isnt broken?

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