Roundtable

Being Human in a Crisis: What It Means to Us

Three public officers reflect on the personal impact of the COVID-19 crisis to date.

omelas slightly open

Image Credit: @launshae

Date Posted

16 Sep 2021

Issue

Digital Issue 7, 16 Sep 2021

PARTICIPANTS:

Anastasia Goh has served in policy, enforcement and operational policy positions over her twelve years of service with the Ministry of Manpower. A committed changemaker, she has extensive experience in working to improve the wellbeing of Singapore’s migrant workers. She is currently Lead Product Manager (ServiceSG) with GovTech.

Wong Hefen served in the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for a decade, in various policy and corporate roles. She supported MOM officers and NGOs when COVID-19 first hit the dormitories. She currently serves in GovTech as Director (Technology Management Office) and Director (Development and Organisation Transformation).

Daphne Yuan, also known as Daffy, served in the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of Manpower for eight years, and remains plugged into the Singapore community while accompanying her spouse for further studies abroad. When COVID-19 broke out, she helped find donors of laptops to support the home-based learning needs of children from low-income families. She has also been volunteering with Project Providence, a group that provides crisis relief to migrant workers.


As young policy officers in MOM working on foreign manpower workplace policies more than a decade ago, Anastasia, Hefen and Daphne bonded over a shared desire to do meaningful work. Each of them was deeply affected by the foreign manpower issues that emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and have been contributing to the cause in their own way. This article is the outcome of a conversation among them in mid-2020, about the impact the crisis has had on their lives and perspectives.

The views expressed here are entirely their own, and do not represent the positions of their respective organisations.


What does being human in a crisis mean to you?

HEFEN: To be human is to realise that with each breath, life is changing, and there is always a chance to do something different.

For instance, COVID-19 has provided a “report card” of how well we have prepared our healthcare system for a pandemic since SARS, and highlighted our transactional relationship with migrant workers. Low-cost communal living is the reality we designed for them, which turned out to be ripe for COVID-19 transmission.

I believe it is time for an honest conversation on our relationship with migrant workers, to see them as fellow human beings.

DAFFY: It’s impossible to be fully prepared for every crisis. But being human means recognising that the people trying to be a part of the solution are only human. They may be overwhelmed and struggling, but are nonetheless trying their best. We should support each other through feedback and learning, and applaud each other for acknowledging faults and mistakes.

Being human means recognising that the Singaporean system comprises fellow humans, with their own needs, preferences and emotions. This means that we should learn what their unique needs are and serve them as we would want to be served: with dignity, kindness and love. The crisis relief group I volunteer with assigns a befriender to every migrant worker: even if we are unable to provide food or shelter, they have someone they can call on if their situation changes, who can support them emotionally. The befrienders themselves have skilled counsellors or coaches for guidance and support. This group continues to inspire me with their human-first approach, externally and internally.

ANASTASIA: To me, to be human is to accept vulnerability—not just others’, but also our own. Being human is also about empathy, again for others and for ourselves. In a crisis, it is easy to neglect our physical, mental and emotional needs.

We go at it like a sprint, and when the crisis turns out to be a marathon, we end up being the hare in the fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare”, gassing out way before the race is over.

This was one of my biggest lessons from COVID-19—to learn to accept my own limitations, and to take care of myself and ask for help when needed, so that I can take care of others.

What broke your heart during COVID-19?

HEFEN: What broke my heart was the stark realisation that Singapore is, as The Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang has argued, very much like Ursula Le Guin’s fictional city of Omelas.1 Our glittering success depends on the labours of those whose gritty plight we have chosen to overlook.

With limited land and Singaporeans’ “Not In My Backyard” sentiment towards migrant workers, we choose to keep our migrant workers out of sight in dormitories. We track COVID-19 cases residing in dormitories separately from cases in the community clearly, transparently. We stay safe in the community, in homes that migrant workers built. We draw our differences and boundaries clearly from them, night and day.

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Image Credit: @launshae

ANASTASIA: I was pulled into the COVID-19 operations at MOM quite early on, when the outbreak in the migrant worker dormitories worsened. The Government’s response evolved very quickly, and while I was able to identify gaps and anticipate oncoming problems that our stakeholders would face with the Government’s interventions, I could not close the gaps fast enough on my own, nor persuade enough people in the system to address those problems along with me.

I felt ashamed that our actions caused uncertainty and distress to our stakeholders. Much might have been avoided or minimised, if we had simply taken time at the start to pause, align our goals, gain clarity on our roles and plan out details, instead of rushing to establish control over the situation when we were in confusion ourselves.

I struggled to make myself heard and understood by those who held positional authority but had little knowledge of the nuances in the migrant worker landscape, and who were therefore blindsided by gaps that I could see. I felt overwhelmed by the influx of new faces from different agencies, all raring to do good, yet unclear about how each was expected to work with the other. The system I knew was in shock, I felt ineffective and helpless, and that broke my heart.


I felt overwhelmed by the influx of new faces from different agencies, all raring to do good, yet unclear about how each was expected to work with the other.

DAFFY: I was most affected by the knowledge that friends in Public Service were overwhelmed, overworked, emotionally drained, mentally struggling , and felt ill-equipped by the system to cope with a pandemic of this unprecedented nature and scale.

Everything had to be figured out on the fly. As boundaries had not been clearly drawn, precious time was spent deliberating who should take charge of which segments. I can only imagine the stress put on everyone involved to figure out what needed to be done while staying on top of their responsibilities.

The work of our public officers also seemed underappreciated by some members of the public, who amplified the faults without crediting the tremendous efforts put into solving the problems at hand. I felt fortunate to not be caught in the fray, but also guilty that all I could offer were mere words of comfort.

How did you keep your spirits up in this crisis?

ANASTASIA: I barely could. I slipped into a really dark place after the first couple of months. It must have come from the severe lack of sleep and the sheer deluge of emotions that arose from how things were unfolding: fear, sadness, anger and above all, shame and guilt. Encouragement and love from friends and family helped; from messages, phone calls, surprise food deliveries, simple gestures that carried the message “I see you, and you are enough”.

I was also re-energised in subsequent redeployments where leaders expressly emphasised the need to do the right things and fight for the little man. I appreciated their reminders to keep our eye on those we were ultimately trying to help—the migrant workers, employers and dorm operators.


I was also re-energised in subsequent redeployments where leaders expressly emphasised the need to do the right things and fight for the little man.

HEFEN: In Singapore, we don’t give up. Our Public Service chugs on, even when we are under siege and not fully prepared for the work we need to do. In the face of public criticism, we turn up every day, striving to do better. We committed to lifting the quarantine for migrant workers as soon as possible, and pulled all stops to raise testing and vaccination capacity. Change comes in 10,000 steps, and each day we take a step to make things better.


In Singapore, we don’t give up. Our Public Service chugs on, even when we are under siege and not fully prepared for the work we need to do. In the face of public criticism, we turn up every day, striving to do better.

DAFFY: I remember the three of us bouncing ideas off each other on how we could contribute. Around that time, I came across a call for volunteers for an initiative by a small group of people who called themselves Project Providence, to support displaced or soon-to-be displaced migrant workers affected by COVID-19. The sense of agency that came with being a part of this effort to help some migrant workers slowly replaced the helplessness I felt earlier , and it has been more than five months since I joined them as a volunteer.

I’m beyond grateful that the group adopts a human-centred, strengths-based approach in assigning tasks. To illustrate, here’s an excerpt from their recruitment campaign for volunteers: “Solving mysteries is totally your thing. Investigating and discovering the truth is important to you… Speedy is your nickname. You don’t mind Google Sheets. In fact, it is your best friend.”

After a quick chat with one of the founders, my experience in the civil service made me the ideal candidate to be the point of contact for various government agencies. They have also been happy to work around my everchanging schedule as a full-time mother. It has been a dream to contribute to the larger story unfolding in Singapore in such a human-centred organisation, in a way that taps on my strengths and networks while allowing me to continue to put my family first.


The sense of agency that came with being a part of this effort to help some migrant workers slowly replaced the helplessness I felt earlier.

What insights or shifts has this pandemic brought about for you?

HEFEN: Our Public Service values are integrity, service, excellence. In the early chaos of COVID-19, I couldn’t recognise empathy and compassion in our service to employers and migrant workers, let alone efficient and high-quality outcomes. While the government made decisions and legislative changes in record time, we did not spend enough time with our last-mile service delivery—the alignment of instructions and timelines with partner agencies, triaging public queries across agencies’ hotlines, or up-manning our hotlines with additional manpower.

But over time, I realised that I was holding myself and the Public Service to pre-pandemic standards of delivery, when our operating environment had changed dramatically. Bridging and coordinating across departments and agencies’ mandates to ensure human centricity involves immense patience, care, and humility. It’s exceptionally hard to do so in a pandemic .


Bridging and coordinating across departments and agencies’ mandates to ensure human centricity involves immense patience, care, and humility. It’s exceptionally hard to do so in a pandemic.

ANASTASIA: I shared about vulnerability and empathy earlier, for others as well as for ourselves. Aside from this, I have a couple of other learnings from this period:

Everyone has strengths, learn to see and tap them. My first boss never failed to ask me “Do you know why you are doing this?”, for every single paper I wrote. My most recent posting was in Co-Lab, MOM’s in-house innovation team that uses human-centred design and evidence-based approaches to improve MOM’s policies, programmes and communications. I have always been surrounded by bosses and teammates who had no qualms about doing the dirty, tedious and unseen work to understand how things are like from stakeholders’ perspectives. I realised that over time, I have come to value some specific traits in leaders—visionary, optimistic, decisive and at the same time, humble, composed, grounded and human-centred. While this is helpful in informing my personal leadership choices, the downside is that I have become blind to the strength of other traits that other bosses might have—efficient, prudent, shrewd and circumspect, all of which are critical to responding with limited resources during a crisis. When I am unable to see and tap on these traits as strengths, I compromise my own working (and learning) experience. I also become a difficult team member to work with.

Listening appears passive but is critical for stewardship. In a crisis, bosses are parachuted in to lead teams, even if they have little to no context about the stakeholders we are trying to help. In doing so, we take for granted that hierarchical authority trumps contextual knowledge, experience and wisdom. Our working culture also seems to impose an unfair expectation on bosses to know it all, leaving them with little to no choice other than to show that they are in control and that they have it together. This makes the skill of listening all the more critical, even though it may appear to be weak and passive. From this crisis, I observed that bosses who are predisposed to active listening were able to run teams that performed better and enjoyed greater camaraderie. Beyond administration, such bosses demonstrated stewardship.

DAFFYOne episode in this pandemic in which I tried in vain to help others might be summed up with the Chinese saying “越帮越忙”: the more help is given, the more work is created for the one being helped.

To support the home-based learning of children from low-income families, a friend and I sourced for donors, and assembled a team to reformat the donated laptops, raise funds to purchase replacement parts, and have them delivered to the charity. We were really grateful to all who played a part in this effort, and were excited for the children to receive their laptops.

However, the very next day, we started getting feedback that many of the laptops were taking too long to start up and launch their video conference application—some even had to be returned to the charity. The charity then asked for donations to purchase new laptops instead, and stopped accepting laptops from individual donors.

I thought of all the contributions from the donors, tech-team and couriers. Our initial flurry of excitement gave way to great disappointment. As the coordinator who had pushed for efficiency over everything else, it felt like I had failed the team. Had I wasted everyone’s time, effort and money, and ended up creating more unnecessary work for an already overwhelmed charity?

On reflection, it was not completely futile. I could have avoided the problems if I had taken the time to speak to the organisation to find out what their specific needs were, or better still, speak to the end-users. But the reason for my failure is not the point here. I often tell my daughter that it is okay to make mistakes as long as we learn from them. Yet it took me three months, and this conversation, to finally confront my critical misstep.

The episode helped me realise my poor relationship with failure: I was crippled by it for months, unable to harness the learning potential from the experience. We lack a fail-culture in our society; instead, we have a blame-culture. How do we build a fail-culture in our communities where we are comfortable with our own defeat, eager to admit mistakes and adept at extracting lessons from each episode?


We lack a fail-culture in our society; instead, we have a blame-culture. How do we build a fail-culture where we are comfortable with our own defeat, eager to admit mistakes and adept at extracting lessons from each episode?

What can we do to prioritise human centricity: to make sure things actually work for the people we serve?

ANASTASIA: For the Public Service, I think the change has to start from within ourselves as individual officers and from within the system. We need to rebuild our practices and recognition structures, to encourage each other to dare: to dare to be authentic, to speak up, to listen, to be wrong, to dare to care for ourselves, to be vulnerable, to be human. Only in doing so can we find capacity to see how things may work for ourselves and for others, and to bring the best of ourselves to the crisis without ending up like the hare in Aesop’s timeless fable.

HEFEN: Working in GovTech during COVID has provided many bright spots of inspiration. User-centricity is baked into agile delivery, through iterative UI/UX design, prioritising features for development, and accepting bugs, failures and iteration as part of daily life. It’s my wish and aspiration to find ways to scale this way of working and living with the rest of Government.

DAFFYI love this. I wonder if there is utility in a platform for teams to showcase failed projects as a way to normalise failure in the Public Service!

I think we need to accept that no system is perfect. We are ready for our national narrative to be shifted from an emphasis on being best-in-class in a multitude of spheres, to one that acknowledges where there are flaws in the system. It is time to improve our relationship with failure: as an individual, a Public Service, a society. Our resilience as a country hinges on this.


NOTE

  1. Han Fook Kwang, “What Dark Secret Is in the Singapore Basement?” The Straits Times, January 28, 2015, https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/what-dark-secret-is-in-the-singapore-basement.

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