Today’s complex world calls for judgement and discretion

In his maiden Parliamentary speech in 2015, then Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung spoke about having “Faster legs, stronger hearts and wiser minds”. As the world continues to become increasingly complex, it is imperative that Singaporeans exercise judgement and appreciate the nuances.

I have vivid memories of conversations in my family when I was a child when we were living in our little flat in Bukit Ho Swee. Getting demerit points for bad driving or a summons for late utilities payment were major family affairs involving family conferences. We will gather around and the adults would discuss whether to appeal to the authorities to waive the summons.

Inevitably some auntie of mine would say there was no point in appealing because the Government operate “law by law”. That is the most often cited argument. As a kid, I hardly knew any English, but even then I know that that made no grammatical sense. But gradually I realised it means that rules are transparent, consistently applied with no quarter given.

Similarly, throughout the government administrative system, decisions are often made by strict adherence to rules and criteria, or comparing scores and numbers. We allocate school places, and we are quite used to this, by PSLE T-scores and aggregate scores, and award tenders at the lowest price if we are buying – or highest price if we are selling.

At a time where our nation was nascent, certainty of rules and consistency in application were critical. It is an approach that leaves little or no room for personal favours, and hence no scope for corruption.

We must continue to emphasise integrity and stand firm against corruption. But we must also exercise judgement and discretion. This is because the world is now too complex to be reduced to rules and numbers. Rules are made for Man, not Man for rules.

Abiding by rules is part of standard operating procedure, but so too, must be the exercise of judgement.

Singapore is successful today partly because at the crossroads of our nation’s history, our founding fathers and pioneer leaders made the right and important judgement calls. In time to come, robots and computers will take over many human functions. But one thing they can never take over is our ability as humans to exercise judgement.

There is also the risk that we excessively view ourselves in numerical terms – whether it is scores or rankings. This is our society and culture today. What we need is a clear focus on what truly matters – the worth of an individual, the standing of institutions, of people, of country, which can only be captured in part by numbers.

Indeed, we are already seeing greater exercise of judgement today. Social assistance schemes, for example, they are means-tested with criteria, but on the ground lots of qualitative assessment and judgment are taking place. Who is to say a person earning S$2,500 with two aged and sick parents to support is less deserving than someone living alone earning S$1,500?

Similarly, in many public tenders now, the consideration is no longer just price, but how compelling and attractive the entire proposals are. Such contests can only be decided by judgement.

Judgement is most needed when it concerns people. I have spoken of a need for a broader definition of merit. All the qualities, attributes, interests, achievements and moral grounding of a person cannot possibly be expressed in one metric.

One big caveat – judgement and discretion sounds good but can cause great discomfort, because when things are not ‘law by law’, when there is no comfort in numbers, there is always the fear that the system is not transparent and therefore unfair. But relying on one number to make decisions when life is so complex cannot be fair, cannot be just. A well-calibrated, greater exercise of judgement must permeate throughout our system.

Exercising human judgment does not mean we simply use our gut, or bend rules willy-nilly. Good judgement is exercised through training, years of experience, and assumption of accountability. This is far more difficult – but far superior – than simply sticking to rules and numbers. Our human resource system must recognise people who are able to exercise judgement, who know when it is time for man or woman to make rules.

This involves courage, heart, purity of intentions and a very human touch.

Cover photo credit: Ravi Kumar on Unsplash