Debt Recovery In Public Services: Should Constituents Go To Jail?

“Walk a mile in his moccasins (shoes)” is a quote often attributed to unknown American native Indian tribes. It is actually from a poem Judge Softly by Mary T. Lathrap in 1895. It is of course about empathy. One should withhold judgement unless one fully understand someone else’s situation.

Two recent incidents brought on an onslaught of public indignation against a perceived uncaring government. There was the case of the mother who failed to pay her daughter’s school fees which caused the poor primary school girl to be denied her PSLE certificate. This was followed by the case of the single mom who failed to pay her conservancy fees and was hauled to the police station.

Few Singaporean really appreciate and discuss the many deeply troubling issues that the country is mired in, but many are vociferous over minor community trespasses. Even then, these have in the main been knee jerk reactive outbursts of condemnation at the government, almost always viewed as where the final responsibility lies. It would do well if one were less trigger-happy and try to fathom deeper causal factors, as indeed there often are.

On the other hand, hard working executives who have conducted themselves dutifully, often kick into defensive mode. Immediate is the denial of non-responsibility as all rules were observed diligently. Ministers push the non-responsibility narrative further by explaining from authority with some clarity from their perspective.

Ministry of Education explained primary school is free for Singaporeans except for a monthly miscellaneous fee of S$6.50. When parents fail to pay up, there is no attempt at chasing payment in view of the meagre sum. The fees are allowed to accumulate till after the final PSLE results are out when they will be forced to settle all outstandings in order for their child to receive the certificate. This has been the practice for years.

The Town Council explained consumers who did not pay conservancy fees are given reminders, then warning letters. Long outstanding bills are then handed over to lawyers and the collection process then is no longer in the hands of the TC. Legal letters are sent. A S$100 fee could end up with a $3,000 bill after adding on penalties, reminder notices, cost of lawyer’s letters, court fees. After several unsuccessful attempts, legal proceedings commence at the Night Court which sends out summons. If the plaintiff fails to attend court hearing, it is contempt of court. The sheriff issues a warrant of arrest.

This no nonsense credit collection process is the norm across all bureaucratic departments such as HDB, URA, IRA, LTA, etc. A single traffic offence may result in a $25 ticket for the offender. If left unattended despite several reminders, it could snowball into thousands of dollars by the time it reached the Night Court stage. The process may seem heartless, but it is the only way to manage recalcitrance. For those of us who begrudge the payment of money to government, or who are great procrastinators especially in making payments or filling up some forms, let’s admit it, this is the bureaucrats’ big cane that enforces discipline.

There are avenues for approaching bureaucrats to plea for one’s case, whether for wrongful fine or on hardship grounds.

By and large, however, I believe the various departments have their own way of  meeting the public to address their individual issues. Take the case of traffic summons which I do know from personal experience. When I was running my own small business, the number of traffic summons for parking offences that I received was crazy. Considering the number of tickets, from different agencies – HDB, URA, LTA, and the several reminders that each generated, it added to the confusion and overlooked payments. When I was making plans for leaving the country, I had to make sure I cleared all these fines to avoid getting stopped at the airport because I didn’t know if any offence had reached the summons stage. I settled all HDB & URA tickets. LTA was a problem as my unpaid fines had ballooned to more than $2,000. I visited the office at Sin Min, pleaded on hardship grounds but that I wanted to settled all offences, and was very surprised at the leniency offered to me. The officer was able to reduce all my fines except for one which had reached the court proceedings for which I had to pay in full. All-in, my damage was reduced to about $600.

Once, I received a parking ticket for an offence that I refuted. I had parked properly in a parking lot which was over a manhole. When workmen needed to access the manhole, they lifted my small 2-door Honda Civic and placed it partially out of the parking lot. They did not reposition my car after completing their work and I received a fine for improper parking.  I marched down to the URA office at the old multi-storey carpark at Market St. It was an office solely for hearing parking fine complaints. Hundreds of offenders with all sorts of summonses waited in line to unleash their grouses. You hear ‘Next’, then you enter the office to pitch your side of the story, and the officer chopped and wrote something on the summon to reduce the fines. Summonses, once issued, are very rarely cancelled. The officials pretended to listen sympathetically as the offenders poured out. They have heard all excuses and stories ever invented. It dawned on me then that the whole process was in reality, an invention by the government for public stress relief. In the end, almost everyone gets some reduction on the fines. Offenders felt they had won something. Everybody goes home a lot happier.

Verily, it is often a case where efficiency has no time for empathy

The incidents of unpaid school fees and conservancy fees is a matter of ecce homo. Meritocracy to its illogical concslusion, delivers the bureaucrats intoxicated with his standards, rule books, bye-laws, or regulations, often in flux where parameters are ambiguous. Whilst these two long outstanding fees are certainly delinquent, they could be a case of severe recalcitrant, or red alert of family in financial distress. Knowing the correct situation determines the appropriate follow-up action. This makes the difference between a good bureaucrat and an excellent one.

Allow me to illustrate with another personal experience. When in my pre-U days in Swiss Cottage Secondary School, I suffered fractures on my wrist and right leg. After a couple of months rest at home, I returned to class. Picture me climbing up the stairs to the class on the third floor with those old, clumsy, heavy, wooden clutch. Imagine up and down four times daily for more than a month. Compare this to a nephew of mine who was knocked down by a car and suffered serious hip injury. After hospitalisation, he returned to Maris Stella Secondary School where his class was on the upper floor. On his return, the principal had the class relocated at ground level just to accommodate him in his clutch.  Therein lies the difference between a bureaucrat from a public school, and an executive from a private school.

The MOE had indicated withholding PSLE certificates if fees remain unpaid. The Town Council said they were not the ones that called in the police. To its credit, MOE has relented and expressed their willingness to review their procedures. It is however, disheartening to note that a simple case of lack of individual initiative of a bureaucrat requires a ministerial review of procedures.

The two unfortunate incidents highlight the underlying cause is the lack of individual initiatives. This is however, deeply rooted in our suffocating culture of too much government and a conforming Confucianist proclivity. It is the psychology of the government knows best in everything and so bureaucrats simply withdraw internally and concern themselves with being the most efficient administrators as stickers to the rule book. The bureaucrats had delinquent receivables listings. Red flags would already have been shown much earlier. Had they checked they would have found two single mums struggling to make ends meet. Had they worn the constituents’ moccasins, they could have done something to assist, just like the principal of Maris Stella.

Pat Low

*The author blogs at




12 Responses to “Debt Recovery In Public Services: Should Constituents Go To Jail?”

  • Harder Truth:

    The point is that $G has a completely money-centric authoritarian system that punishes you for being poor. You are here to serve them and their needs. You die your business.

    Putting people in jail because they cannot pay is a basic communist ideology where the people have no rights.

    If this was done in any other SEA nation some politician or bureaucrat will lose his/her job. In $G? Promotion.

    GD Star Rating
  • Have a heart:

    Its good that such cases are aired and discussed by the public online .
    This somehow also forces the hand of the ministries to lower their tough stance.
    Not everyone is rich like the miws to not miss payments , or educated enough to understand their legal letters sent to them.
    Life is tough in sg these days for ordinary sgs altho we read that our country is the richest city !
    Most of us dont feel [email protected]

    GD Star Rating
  • REGIME CHANGE is the solution:

    Many foreigners study in local schools on a full scholarship paid for Singapore taxpayers. But Singaporeans still have to pay $6.50 monthly school fees. WTF.

    Another good reason for REGIME CHANGE.

    GD Star Rating
  • Yudai Yobisnus:

    You do, you know.
    You don’t do, you don’t know.
    Looks like no one can empathise anyone until he is in the same sinking boat.
    No rich can understand the poor and the
    needy until he becomes a bankrupt.
    Truly, people are becoming bankrupt of
    Humanity. What noble ground is there left.

    GD Star Rating
  • RDB:

    Quote from article:
    “The MOE had indicated withholding PSLE certificates if fees remain unpaid. The Town Council said they were not the ones that called in the police. To its credit, MOE has relented and expressed their willingness to review their procedures. It is however, disheartening to note that a simple case of lack of individual initiative of a bureaucrat requires a ministerial review of procedures.”

    Will the minister tell Singaporeans that it was their fault and that they are just applying their gumption common sense. Common sense that they a a ministerial group DO NOT have? LOLLLL… Lor! And remember to cast a blank vote for them or the opposition candidate is in your constituency lor!

    GD Star Rating
  • Uncle John:

    Appealing to the good sense of the civil servants is totally useless.

    One must look at the root of the problem.

    TOP civil servants are either related to Ministers or have family connections. That means they are beholden to their political masters.

    The civil service is NOT independent. It serves the ruling party the PAP regime whose mantra is COLLECT MORE MONEY.

    Hence it chases AFTER every cent.

    The solution is simple. Eradicate the virus PAP and make the civil service and the justice system truly independent.

    GD Star Rating
  • Uncle John:

    When it comes to collecting money, the one party state in SG is Super efficient and flawless.

    But when it comes to protecting our lives it’s very slow eg tackling the current coronavirus.

    GD Star Rating
  • Tremendous:

    MOE is a place full of people who think they can do no wrong and if they do, they will try to cover up.

    GD Star Rating
  • Bobo:

    “Life is tough in sg these days for ordinary sgs altho we read that our country is the richest city”

    Are you 100% sure that life is tough in sg? Don’t you afraid of POFMA from PAP sure win? 70% are living in fantancy island. There’s no such thing as tough life. Every price hikes, GST up from 7% to 90%, HDB zero value at 99, CPF not our money, population to reach 10 millions, MRT signal faults, FTs stealing our lunch box etc. are all welcome with open arms and no question asked.

    GD Star Rating
  • Robin:

    Say what you like about Malaysia, but at least they have a heart compared to our heartless one.

    In Malaysia, they give a discount on traffic fines up to 50% during an amnesty period.

    If a stretch of road has already collected enough toll and covered the cost of construction then it is toll free.

    But in SG, everything must make money for a profit seeking government.

    If you did not vote for PAP, I sympathise with you.

    But if you voted for PAP, then I say serve you right. And may you continue to suffer.

    GD Star Rating
  • Mercy:

    Be merciful to those in need or in hardship.
    No need to add to their trouble.
    Crazy to send and add legal costs to their debt.

    GD Star Rating
  • TruBlu:

    $ before The People means MORE $ for the PAPple?!

    Whats wrong with collecting money from poor sgs so we can spend on OUR$elves n some ALIEN$?

    WHY poor sgs so daft and love getting $crewed GE after GE?

    PAPple from TOP ELITIST schools like RI will grow up to screw PEOPLE from Kampong schools,like it or not?
    Politicians,doctors,lawyers,accountants n BANKSTER$?

    GD Star Rating

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