Friday, October 27, 2006

How Long Will Spring Last

I wonder if Spring will last beyond April next year?

I am referring of course not to the spring season here in Singapore, but the name of our statutory board in charge of standards, productivity, innovation and growth. I ask this question because it was reported last week that Mr Philip Yeo, the high-flying superstar chairman of A-Star is going to take over this stat board that was formerly known as NPB or National Productivity Board, and later renamed Productivity and Standards Board or PSB; and later renamed yet again to SPRING Board. You might recall that some MPs even poked fun at the name in parliament saying they thought it was the name of a karaoke lounge.

As it appears that every time a top civil servant or new minister takes up a new appointment, one of the first things he or she does was to change the name of that organization, I anticipate that there might just be going to be another name change at Bukit Merah Central.

I often suspect there is some kind of institute for public administration and government in this country where they teach these top guns how to think out of the box and fix things even if they ain’t broke. In preparing to take over a new ministry or department, the first of the 10 steps is to change the name, preferably to something catchy like Spring or A-star. For example, the chairmanship of the Feedback Unit was recently taken over by Ms Amy Khor, and the first announcement to come about was a name change to REACH.

I admit that I am rather old-fashioned and resistant to change. So I am quite prepared to accept that people younger and more dynamic than me should like to change things for the sake of progress. But don’t you think that we have too many name changes in this country. Haven’t they heard of Shakepeare’s famous line, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”? I am really hard-pressed to think of a stat board or ministry that has not undergone one or more name changes in recent years. Just the other day, I overheard my colleague telling an overseas associate about the ROC (Registry of Companies). I had to tell him that he was at least 2 generations behind time. ROC has been renamed RCB (Registry of Companies and Businesses) and recently to ACRA (please don’t ask me what it stands for; I only know it is some kind of authority).

Personally, I find that most of these name changes are unnecessary and irritating. And they must cost a bundle to implement; quite apart from the additional stress brought on our already highly stressed and over-worked public sector employees. I have met some of them in the course of my work, and they often complain about having to attend so many training programmes on topics like creativity and innovation, GEMS (not jewelry but customer service), Singapore Quality Class, Innovation Class, Quality Control Circles; which by the way has undergone 2 name changes, first to Quality Circles or QC and later Innovation and Quality Circles or IQC and so on. Anything those consultants come up with, our ministries want to implement.

The type of name change I really dislike are those where the original meaning is lost. I give you a couple of examples.

SAFTI originally stood for Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute. Later they wanted to build a new one next door. However, they want to retain the name SAFTI, so what did they do? They called it; Safti Military Institute. So now the acronym SAFTI has lost its meaning because the new institute certainly isn’t called Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute Military Institute in full. So if some foreign military trainee were to be attached to our new Safti and asked the instructor; “Sir, what does Safti mean?” the poor instructor is going to have a tough time explaining.

Second Example: The training and consultancy arm of PSB was privatized when the new name Spring was adopted. The new organization was called PSB Corporation. Likewise it certainly does not stand for Productivity and Standards Board Corporation does it? Recently, it was acquired by a German company and things got even more confusing; it’s now TUV SUD PSB.

Third example: SAFRA. It used to stand for Singapore Armed Forces Reservists Association. But the powers at Mindef did not like the word reservist because it suggests that our civilian soldiers are not operationally ready; so the term Reservists was change to Operationally Ready NSMen. But they want to retain the ‘brand’ SAFRA. So they renamed it Safra NS Association (or something like that) and the word Safra lost its meaning.

I am sure you can think of several more.

But there is one type of name change I dislike even more. You might recall some years ago, the government was trying to promote the use of Mandarin over Chinese dialects. Overnight some over smart-alec civil servant decided to rename places like Nee Soon to Yishun, Ow Kang to Hougang, Tekka to Zhu Jiao etc. But then they probably received feedback that it was a stupid idea (maybe they did not ‘Reach’ far enough for feedback) and so they stopped the job halfway. And today we have a mixture of Hanyu Pinyin and Dialect names like Ang Mo Kio, Choa Chu Kang, Yio Chu Kang.

But anyway, we should be thankful they did not engage some Hollywood-trained consultant to advise us on how to fix our names that ain’t broke. Otherwise, we could very well end up having our Chinese ancestors’ names being reversed, like what they did to the famous film star Zhang Ziyi. Just imagine being admitted to Tock Seng Tan Hospital!

But the name change that takes the cake is the one that went one full circle and cost us the taxpayers a whopping 240 grand. I think you probably know I am referring to the famous Marina Bay branding exercise. They paid that obscene amount to a consultant to come up with a new name. But the poor guy could not come up with a better name and so they retained the old name.

But don’t give up yet, all you name-change fans. Just send in our A-Star, I mean superstar chairman and who knows, he just might be able to pull something out of the box; sorry I mean outside the box.

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