Lee Su Shyan
Mon, May 19, 2008
The Straits Times
Are you being served?

Exemplary public service officers were honoured last week for going the extra mile. Straits Times reporters Judith Tan, Eisen Teo & Lim Heng Liang put 10 agencies, who often deal with the public, to the test to see how brightly they shone.


At least three phone calls were made to each agency to gauge the level of service provided by three different people. Each good service experience earned one star. A competent - but not entirely helpful - experience got half a star.


'I graduate from junior college this year, but want to defer my national service for at least a year to run an online business.'

* 1/2


  • Human voice countdown (number of steps before caller hears a human voice): Seven, taking almost four minutes.


  • Only one officer was able to explain the deferment criteria and that they were granted only for exceptional cases such as for sportsmen and musicians. He read out the Enlistment Act and said deferment was unlikely.

The second told us to put in a request to the Central Manpower Base. The third was polite but could only urge the caller to make a trip to the base to explain the situation.


'I got a summons for driving across two lanes separated by double white lines. But I was not at that location on that date.'


  • Human voice countdown: Two steps, but the caller was then told that all operators were busy. After a five-minute wait, the line was cut off.


  • Five attempts were made to get through between 2pm and 5pm, but none of the calls was successfully connected to an officer.


'I want to enrol my daughter in Methodist Girls' School, but I live in Pasir Ris. She usually spends the whole day with my parents-in-law while I work and they live a stone's throw away from the school.'



  • Human voice countdown: One, to choose the language for the call.


  • All three officers could readily provide information on Primary 1 registration, the 'rules' and some solutions to the issue.

All three told the caller that as the father was the legal guardian of the child, his address would be used during registration.

But if the father and grandparents made a statutory declaration at the Education Ministry about the care arrangement a week before registration, it could be used as leverage to get the child into her school of choice.


'My parents are old and live in Ang Mo Kio. I live in Jurong and want to move closer to them. But every time a flat goes on sale, I am told they cannot sell it to a Chinese. Why the discrimination?'



  • Human voice countdown: Four steps, but the caller had to listen to a long list of options, none of which seemed to apply to the query at hand. No option was given for the caller to talk directly to an officer. It took another call to the HDB Hub for the caller to find out that he should have dialled another phone number instead.


  • All three sympathised, but could not help, saying that the racial quota was the 'law' and nothing could be done. None of the three was able to explain that this was in fact in line with the Ethnic Integration Policy, in place since 1989 to ensure a balanced mix of races within public housing estates. Only one made suggestions on nearby blocks and alternative estates we could look at.


'My mother says my younger sister's childcare centre should be shut. There have been cases of hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) there.'



  • Human voice countdown: 0. No button-pushing required.


  • A senior public health officer named Lalita calmly explained that closing down all childcare centres was not the answer and that the Health Ministry had a stringent procedure to decide when a school should close.

She offered to divert the call to an HFMD expert to explain it.

A second officer said the same thing, but the final one said we were calling the wrong department and hung up when asked to transfer the call.


'The water pressure in my flat is very low and the water seems a bit dirty when I first turn on the tap.'



  • Human voice countdown: 0. No button-pushing required.


  • nly one of the three officers provided useful advice. One said that while she could not diagnose the problem, she was happy to ask technicians to make a house call as soon as possible. She volunteered the fact that PUB had a 24-hour hotline and that we could call back any time. Unfortunately, the caller was unable to get through to the hotline after 5pm.


'Why don't your dengue inspectors come and check for mosquitoes and fog the place where I live? There might be dengue spreading.'



  • Human voice countdown: 0. No button-pushing required.


  • Two out of three officers established the address at the outset and then took pains to explain how the agency decides where fogging is needed. They also explained that fogging was not a fix-all solution.

One officer, though, was extremely short when pushed on when exactly inspectors would make the trip and hung up after mumbling that the query would be referred to 'the people in charge'.


'I want to renew the passport of my boss who travels all the time. His passport expires in nine months, but he does not have the time to renew it himself.'

* 1/2


  • Human voice countdown: Six steps, with a wait of between seven minutes and 10 minutes. It took at least four attempts each time to get through.


  • The officers were polite and went by the book. They explained that the secretary may apply online for a new passport on behalf of the boss, but it had to be collected personally.

Only one officer among the three was able to explain that it had to be collected personally because, with biometric passports, the applicant's thumbprint is collected on the spot when he goes to pick up the passport.


'I have been out of the country for the last 10 months. As a result, I was late in filing my income tax. Is there any way I can still file my taxes and have the penalty waived?'



  • Human voice countdown: Three steps.


  • The first two calls were taken by officers who sounded very young. They tried to be helpful and suggested e-filing, but could not provide advice on the needed passwords or say whether or how the penalty for late filing could be waived.

The third officer, a Miss Rasiah, was most helpful. She explained that the taxpayer's previous password would have expired, so SingPass should be used to log on.

She also suggested sending an e-mail to the authority to provide valid reasons for the late filing, so as to get the penalty waived.


'I was told to go to the traffic court as I had received some summons. Can I just pay the summons and skip court?'


  • Five attempts were made to get through between 2pm and 5pm. All calls were diverted to answering machines.


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