Singapore Civil Service – The Ins and Outs of the Iron Rice Bowl

singapore civil service 2018

Whenever you read about the Singapore civil service in the news, half the time it’s about whatever civil servant bonus the government is awarding those lucky civil servants this year.

To private sector workers, they have it good: An iron rice bowl, a good pay check and not having to suffer abuse at the hands of heartless SME bosses. But the perception tends to be that if you don’t have a degree with a good class of honours, you’re never going to be appreciated even if you do make it into the service.

But the government has been implementing some changes to steer the civil service away from its image as a bunch of paper pushers who’re a little too good at following orders. So what does this mean for those who are trying to decide whether it’s worse being a private sector or public sector slave? Here’s what to consider:


1. Civil service grades & paper qualifications

The Singapore civil service has traditionally been very picky about educational qualifications.

Didn’t graduate from the “right” schools (here’s looking at you, private school grads)? Then you’d have to go elsewhere, even if you have more talent, drive and experience than all the other applicants.

Civil servants used to be placed in groups according to their education levels, and these groups determined their career progression and pay. What is this, Imperial China? Uni graduates were placed in Division I, while those with diplomas and A Level certs were relegated to Division II. A talented, high-performing diploma holder would never have been able to get on the same path or pay scale as a mediocre Division I civil servant.

But in 2017, the civil service announced it would stop using the division status to describe civil servants in their policies and official publications like manuals and so on. Outwardly, these changes are designed to enable officers to be remunerated and promoted based on their abilities rather than their educational qualifications.

In addition, there have been some attempts to attract young talent by creating a “cool” startup-like atmosphere in the form of the Government Digital Service, which has its own blog and where their employees’ office is called “The Hive”.

While that’s a good start, whether these changes can exploit the full potential depends on the mindset of those in charge. As it’s still early days, it might take some time before the hierarchical, qualification-centric approach changes.

What’s more, educational qualifications are still important for fresh grads with little work experience when they apply for entry-level positions.


2. Job stability, a.k.a. iron rice bowl

The stability of civil service jobs is a big plus to many, especially as some Singaporeans are still reeling from 2016’s seven-year high in retrenchments.

Well, it is actually possible to be retrenched or fired from the civil service. The difference is that it’s a lot rarer, and we’re not likely to hear about in the news.

In the private sector, if your company decides it’s better for their bottom line if they stop giving their employees a free flow of stationery or, better yet, get rid of these employees altogether, there’s nothing stopping them from doing so.

Not so in the civil service, since there is no “bottom line” in the sense that they do not need to be profitable to survive.


3. Other perks, e.g. Civil Service Club

Local bosses are often accused of trying to squeeze their employees dry, and you often hear horror stories of companies resorting to dirty tricks like these.

In the civil service, a lot hinges on whether your boss likes you or not, to be sure. At the same time, however, you never ever have to worry about being fired for getting pregnant, your medical benefits being withheld, your salary arriving late or dodgy clauses being written into your contact (e.g. making you pay back your bonus if you quit). You also get to use facilities like the Civil Service Club and take advantage of numerous discounts for civil servants.

The civil service always tends to be the first to promote family-friendly and work-life policies, and unlike private sector employees, you won’t have to worry about your boss staring you down because you had the audacity to take advantage of them.

For instance, civil servants will soon be offered four more weeks of unpaid infant-care leave. Many civil servants also enjoy staggered hours, which few in the private sector get to enjoy, and some get to work from home a few times a month. Unlike in the private sector, you are rarely marked down for taking advantage of these initiatives.


4. Rigid & hierarchical working environment

While there are many perks of working in the civil service, be prepared to work in an environment that some find stifling.

There tends to be a very strict top-down hierarchy and things are done 100% by-the-book, so if you’re a young upstart who’s dreaming of doing great things, be prepared to know your place, shut up and just do what your boss tells you to.

This can be frustrating for those who join the civil service with hopes of improving the system for the better.

For instance, many teachers complain that despite the fact that a lot of feedback has been given to the MOE about the problems plaguing the education system and the challenges that teachers face, their pleas fall on deaf ears as the people at the top are reluctant to make changes.

Some people are happy to just be quiet and do as they’re told in exchange for a stable job with good pay and perks. But if you’re the type who wants to be a superhero and change the world, you won’t find the outlet you seek in the service service.

It’s ironic that MPs are calling for civil servants to be “less rigid” and to “think outside the box”. Recently, MP Dr Lee Bee Wah in an interview even suggested that civil servants give “cut and paste” answers.

Ask any young civil servant and they’ll tell you that their superiors frown upon those who speak up or try to introduce fresh ideas.

But be warned that there are many private sector jobs that are just as stifling and hierarchical as the civil service.

Given the fact that employment laws in Singapore largely favour the employer rather than the employee, private sector employees are often placed at a disadvantage, especially those working in SMEs that do not have an overseas barometer for their HR practices.


Is a career in the civil service for you?

Considering there are private sector SME employees who work till 1am, retrenchment is a big worry for middle-aged hires and most local employers are not family-friendly or work-life balance friendly, the civil service doesn’t look so bad.

However, don’t overlook the fact that there are more lifestyle and career options available these days thanks to the rise of freelancing and startups. You are no longer forced to choose between a career in the civil service and a corporate job at Raffles Place.

Traditionally, there was a high educational barrier for entry into the civil service, with private degree holders often unable to get hired or being passed up for promotions.

However, now that they’re making attempts to reduce their emphasis on education qualifications, let’s hope this changes so that those who want that iron rice bowl have a better chance at getting it.

Would you consider a career in the civil service? Tell us why or why not in the comments.