Monday, September 14, 2009

When civil servants turned street sweepers

Sep 12, 2009

When Ong Eng Guan became Mayor between 1957 and 1959, he gave the Singapore public a terrifying preview of what a PAP government might be like

WHEN the councillors trooped into a City Hall room for a meeting and found that there were not enough seats, Mayor Ong Eng Guan summoned R. Middleton Smith, the acting chief administrative officer of the city council, and hollered: 'Go and get chairs.' The British expatriate left and came back carrying one chair after another.

Chan Chee Seng felt compelled to lend a hand. 'I was a witness. I felt so bad I went to help him carry the chairs.' The former city councillor, who related this anecdote, could not help admiring the stoic endurance and phlegmatic patience of British colonial officials who bore the brunt of Ong's berating and bullying. 'They were really good and very cultivated. I could not understand why the Mayor had to treat them in such a way.'

Goh Sin Ee, who was a chief officer in the maintenance department in the city council, recalled attending a meeting convened by Ong for all the heads of departments. When the Mayor commented that the Europeans were passing their work to Asian heads, an expatriate expressed disagreement. Goh was shocked when Ong 'pointed his finger at the officer and asked him to get out'.

Ong's crusade against the establishment has been described by some writers as the nearest to a Singapore equivalent of the fall of the Bastille in 1789, when peasants seized the symbol of royal tyranny and ignited the French Revolution.

Many heads rolled - metaphorically. It was a terrifying situation, Rajaratnam said, when Ong treated haw-kers as top dogs and began sacking staff.

The Mayor was particularly harsh on the expatriates as he wanted to expose their inefficiency and racial prejudice against Asians: a commercial secretary was sacked for allegedly embracing a young Chinese typist; a city engineer was reprimanded for insulting the dignity of the council by bringing his dog into City Hall; and a city analyst was fined $200 a month for a year for allegedly being rude to the Mayor.

Ong abolished the monopoly of a European legal firm which enjoyed all of the city council legal work and rescinded the Malayanisation scheme which allowed for the gradual retirement of expatriates with handsome provident fund benefits.

Local civil servants who incurred his wrath were subjected to the humiliation of a dressing down in front of the people who complained against them. The Mayor did not allow staff to read newspapers or drink tea or coffee at work. He would prowl around the office and eavesdrop on conversations. If anybody was found to be a bookie, he was sacked on the spot. If he was found to be rude to the public, he would have to give a lengthy and satisfactory explanation or face punitive action.

Ong could not tolerate long queues and tardy responses to letters and enquiries from the public. He expected bills to be settled within 15 minutes at the counter. A vehicle inspector with 22 years' service lost his job for allegedly keeping a taxi driver waiting for almost an hour before taking down a report from him. An efficiency officer was appointed to execute policies and investigate complaints.

Civil servants had to obey the Mayor, recalled Goh Sin Ee, 'if not, we had to get out of the job'. If anyone failed to do his work properly, he would be downgraded and would have to settle for less pay, he said.

P. C. Marcus, who was the 'efficiency expert' in the city council and later became the deputy chief administrative officer, summed it up by saying that Ong 'put the fear of God in staff, both expats and local'. Later even Marcus himself, who was close to PAP leaders, fell out with Ong.

The Mayor had no compunction about ordering staff to get out of their offices to clean up the city. Retired civil servants still chafed at the memory, saying it was akin to the hard labour imposed on professionals in communist countries. Forced to do menial labour, some felt as if Ong was behaving like a communist leader and that Singapore was going communist.

Fong Sip Chee recounted an operation dubbed Operation Pantai Chantek ('Beautiful Beach' in Malay) in which frightened civil servants were made to dig up stones and clean up Nicoll Highway.

City council officers were rostered to sweep different roads on different days. Goh Sin Ee found himself in a spot when he was assigned to sweep an area where he was known to most of the shopkeepers. He confessed that he had to buy a 'big Chinese type of hat' to shield him from the sun - and embarrassment.

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