Please know that the world does not revolve around you, or your mom.

Ben Leong
12 min readNov 19, 2020

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed herewith are strictly mine as a private citizen and has nothing to do with my employer, the National University of Singapore.

There is this post by one G Kethlyn Gayatiri that has gone viral.

In summary, Ms Gayatiri’s mother is a widow and she applied to MSF as a foster parent and she has been rejected (ostensibly because she was a widow). Her mother is v upset and Ms Gayatiri is lashing out on MSF on being insensitive. Her post is being shared by people who apparently sympathize with her.

I think it is good for people to air their grievances if the public service has indeed done something wrong, so that feedback can be taken and steps taken to improve the system. However, it really bothers me that we now seem to have a whole generation of self-entitled brats who take to social media to complain just because things do not go their way. Doesn’t matter if they are right. Many in the population also cannot seem to be able to think and happily go along with them.

This is one instance.

The public service is today already scrambling with keeping things together during this v difficult time. Every time one of these stupid online scandal happens, some persons will be scrambling to deal with it — and this is a criminal waste of their time. Why does it bother me? Well, the people are paid for with my tax dollars and them wasting time is a waste of my tax dollars.

In this instance, because Ms Gayatiri writes well and we can all sympathize with her mother’s sadness, it is v v difficult for MSF to come up to defend itself and its officers without sounding unsympathetic and heartless. I decided I would do some public service today before I go back to dealing with my final exams.

I think we can all agree that MSF needs to ensure to the best of its ability to place vulnerable children into foster families that meet strict criteria.

If people have kids, they will now that raising kids is v stressful and that 2 heads are better than one. So is it not right that MSF would give priority to families with both a husband and a wife? What exactly did MSF do wrong there?

Ms Gayatiri correctly highlighted that MSF is doing lazy filtering, but SO WHAT? People think that our public servants are v free is it? Ultimately, it probably comes down to supply and demand. If MSF were short of foster parents, could they have done lazy filtering? If there is enough supply and lazy filtering works well enough, what exactly is the issue?

Allow me to highlight again that MSF’s responsibility is to take care of the welfare of the vulnerable children to be fostered out, not to take care of the feelings of Ms Gayatiri’s mother. In other words, it is not anyone’s god-given right to become a foster parent in this country, in case people are wondering.

Note also that every rule or policy that is made needs to be applied uniformly. If an exception is made for Ms Gayatiri’s mother, then it becomes a precedent and we will need to explain to every future single person who asks to be a foster parent why Ms Gayatiri’s mother was allowed to become a foster parent and they are not.

To people like Ms Gayatiri, I would like to highlight that the world does not revolve around you, or your mother. But I don’t want to sound unsympathetic to the mom either. If you want special consideration, you bring your mother to see your MP and get him/her to earn his/her pay. The MPs are the existing mechanism in the system to deal with such exceptions. Don’t be a public nuisance by spouting such crap publicly on social media without a sense of perspective and insinuate that our public officers “cannot think.”

To my fellow Singaporeans, please apply some common sense when you read such complaints and don’t be swayed by smooth-talkers. Be grateful that we have a honest and diligent public service that is working hard every day to do their best to serve their people and keep the lights on. Also, even if people don’t like the PAP government, please keep in mind that the public service at large is not the PAP. They are regular people like you and I who are just trying to do their jobs every day.

Some rules can be inconvenient, but most rules are there for a reason (some better, some worse). Just because we don’t like some rule, doesn’t mean that the rule is wrong. Sometimes exceptions are made, but it also doesn’t mean that the rules must change because of these exceptions.

In the present instance, I think MSF should be left alone as long as the vulnerable kids are being allocated to appropriate foster parents and there are no issues and instances of abuse. Whether MSF decides whether it would allow widows to serve as foster parents should remain MSF’s prerogative. Just think about this: if MSF rejects widows and doesn’t have enough foster parents, my problem or your problem? People also need to keep in mind who will have to answer if something goes wrong. The most important consideration is the best welfare of the kids. People please learn to take no for an answer.

Finally, I want to address the Ministers and senior public servants. As leaders of the public service, we need to have a backbone and stand up for our frontline officers. It is clear that we are working in challenging times, but cannot kuncheong spider and react or give in to such demands, just because some random kaypoh spouts crap on social media. This would be like feeding the gorilla. Consider yourselves warned.

In case people want to post comments, the discussion is here.

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I had some interesting discussions on this post and with those discussions, there are several new ideas/thoughts that I thought I would add/share:

1. One Zhi Wei made the following comment, “Personally the OP’s intentions are secondary, more importantly is whether there were valid points raised, which we have to acknowledge. Just like I thought some of your points were salient reminders to be less self centred and focus on the beneficiaries of the programme.

Benign or not I find it typically best to try not to attribute intentions in general because people are emotionally motivated in all sorts of ways, and it would be rather arrogant to think we got them perfectly read. It also just tends to lead to unnecessary character attacks eventually not unlike what we tend to see in political discourse.”

Another commentor Loo Wee Seng wrote, “Honestly I think your beef isn’t so much with the post but with the inflammatory explosion of social media abuse on the comment feed.”

I think they are both right. The original post might sound entitled, but it probably wouldn’t have provoked me sufficiently to bother to write. It is true that much of the vitriol cannot be blamed on Ms Gayatiri. While I had initially questioned her motivations for writing this post, I agree that it was not fair and I had since deleted the paragraph. She could v well have been a daughter upset that her mother was upset and just ranting online. For unfairly casting doubt on Ms Gayatiri’s motivations, I apologize unreservedly. Let’s just work with the facts.

Not sure if she is aware that the virality of her post would likely cause a lot of grief and distress to the poor MSF officer behind I would be charitable and assume that this is all an unintended consequence. I was provoked by the insinuation in her comment that the officer “cannot think.”

2. We all know social media is bad. I have been deeply disturbed by the recent trends with people lashing out at our public servants online. Granted, some complaints are likely fair. This is one instance that is obvious to me that the complaints are patently unfair. If I don’t speak up now, when do I speak up?

In case people don’t have a clue what happens in the civil service when events like this happen: well, a lot of people get scrambled to “get the facts.” Then Corp Comms is activated to figure out what to do. A lot of people talk, talk, talk, then something happens. Whatever. Generally, something comes out, wrong. That’s more or less the drill.

If these “scandals” happens once in a while, it’s ok. People also appreciate some excitement. But seriously, if this happens too often, then our Government doesn’t have to work already. Every day fight PR (badly).

It is thus contingent on the public kaypohs who know what is happening to try to bring some sense to this madness, so that the staff officers can tell their bosses, “not need to worry, nothing to see here” and people can do their work.

In this instance, that kaypoh would be me.

Having served time in the public service, I cannot help but feel v v sorry for my friends and colleagues who are toiling hard to keep this country together. They might not get *eveything* right, but people are trying their best and COVID is really not helping.

3. The last thing that I asked myself is, “why is this post viral to begin with when MSF did nothing wrong?” What happened there? This only became clear to me from some of the comments.

On Managing Narratives

First, allow me to say that this post is not about Ms Gayatiri’s mother. In fact, even though I am not enamored with the tirade, I am v much persuaded that she is a v sweet and kind lady and there’s a good chance that she would be an excellent foster parent.

The reason why people are misled is because we allow Ms Gayatiri to turn the narrative into one where her mom’s rejection as a foster mother is a judgment of her mother’s goodness. That, is why people got upset and the post goes viral.

Allow me to digress and just tell a story that I tell my students to illustrate a related point because for some strange reason, many Singaporeans dun seem to “get this” because of this flawed understanding of meritocracy.

Suppose we have a job vacancy and we have 300 applicants. What do we do? We will magically shortlist 10, interview them and decide who we want to hire. Why do we not interview all 300? Because no time!! How sure are we that we got the *best* guy in the 10 and won’t miss the *best* one among the 290 rejected? Truthfully, not sure at all.

But this is the reality, as an employer you are under no illusions that you can necessarily pick out the *best*. What you really need is just that *one* person to do the job. If we can interview the 10 and find one who ends up getting the job done, it’s good enough. So point to my students who end up among the 290 is not to be too sorry for yourself and not need to think that you are “not good enough.” Just try again another time and cannot always be so suay one.

So back to this foster issue and I don’t actually have inside knowledge of how things work exactly in MSF, but it’s almost certain that MSF would have a v stringent criteria for foster parents and it is patently reasonable for MSF to decide to give priority to 2-parent families, or in fact, to make it a requirement. Sources have told me that there are currently way more people wanting to be foster parents than MSF probably needs and that’s that.

Ultimately, I am certain that the children’s welfare is the most important consideration that trumps everything. If MSF is eventually convinced that Ms Gayatiri’s mother would be a suitable foster parent, then it will happen. In summary, the latest rejection is not a judgment of Ms Gayatiri’s mother’s “goodness” as a parent or foster parent by any measure. It is merely the outcome of current policy which to my mind is patently reasonable.

My point to the public officers reading this and trying to learn from this episode as a case study: we need to understand the narrative that is being spun, address it, and take control to explain to our people why what we are doing is patently reasonable. Singaporeans are generally a v fair and reasonable people. That gives me hope in our country.

4. A number of people have commented that single-parent families raise perfectly good children from the people that they have known. I don’t want to address this claim directly. Allow me to just share what I have observed in recent years.

I have observed a significant increase in mental health issues among (college) students in recent years. Enough for me to check with my colleagues who agree with me.

Then I of course went to check with MOE. If we can see it, I don’t believe they cannot see it. While people might want to think that maybe the profs caused the mental health problems, I really don’t think so — and sure enough MOE knows it v well and working hard on it. I encouraged MOE to work harder because by the time these kids come to college, probably a bit late.

This is not scientific, but one of the commonalities among many (most?) of these students with mental health issues is that of a broken family. Again, MOE says that they are well aware and it’s been documented in research.

In this light, while I do admit that being widowed is likely different from being divorced, I think to say that MSF should not care whether the foster family is a 2-parent family or not is hogwash.

The corollary to what I just shared (independent of this fostering issue) is that even while people are kiasu and want their kids to do well in PSLE and their studies, some amount of effort should also be spent to ensure that marriages are healthy. When marriages break up, it seems like the odds for the healthy development of the children are not so good — but this should hardly come as a surprise should it?

5. Finally, I have some advice for the people who don’t get their way with public officers.

Read my lips: kicking and screaming like some spoilt brat if you don’t get your way generally does not work. Why does anyone in his right mind think that it will help? You will irritate whichever officer at the receiving end and the person will find the book and throw it at you. People are generally not going to try to be helpful if they feel like they are under siege.

This is the deal: your civil servants are PEOPLE. Most of them are actually nice people. Really. Even me (when I am not in a foul mood)! :-) If you will talk nicely to them and you don’t threaten them, many of them will actually do their best to assist you.

This is not rocket science.

Sometimes they really cannot help you. In those instances, you go and see MP and make them earn their pay loh.

6. Someone reached out to express his opinion that the post was quite reasonable and that he didn’t feel that Ms Gayatiri was entitled. Fair comment. Appreciate that. I explained that even though 2 people might read the same words, it is possible that they might emphasize different parts. What struck me was this: “my mother told me that she had intentions to retire and care for children full time. I encouraged her to apply as a foster mum.” Sounded like someone wanted a retirement job for the mother and got upset when the mother didn’t get it, so kicked up a fuss. Sounded v self-serving. Am I right to have interpreted the post this way? I dunno, but that’s how it came across and after reading the post and the comments, I was sufficiently provoked to write. More or less like that.

Clearly an author cannot control how readers would react to his/her writing but that’s the peril of writing publicly on the Internet isn’t it? Allow me to highlight this v thoughtful comment by Shannon that suggests the same:

“Man, reading all these comments on this and the original post, I find it very sad people don’t seem to realize they sound like they’re commoditizing these children. Getting a foster child is not about “fairness” to potential foster parents, there are human beings (the child) involved… would be more persuasive if they focused on how having a larger pool assessed benefits the child.

IMO, MSF should not be giving any reason why applications are rejected to avoid drama like this. There are just too many ways people can argue why they think they are deserving publicly (valid or not). MSF try to be nice and explain, in the end get complaint. People will say transparency maybe, but MSF isn’t obliged to since it’s not like providing people with foster children is a service to wannabe parents. Foster parents are being entrusted with a responsibility, not being sold a product. It’s for the child.”

Moral of the story is this: if people are truly trying to agitate for positive change, they should be mindful of potential conflicts of interest. People are clearly welcome to say whatever they want, but where there is obvious conflict of interest, then one’s motivations might come under scrutiny (regardless of whether or not it is fair).