Complain must give suggestion one ah? Siao.

I want to put paid to this idiocy of insisting that people give solutions if they want to complain. It is a foolish sort of logic, bred by Orwellian elitists in ivory towers. Two comments in TODAY, one fueled by the illogic of the other, demanded that Singaporeans stop complaining unless they have constructive suggestions to offer. They derided Singaporean’s complaints as the whining of “petulant children”.

While Lim Sing Tat’s letter was directed at the Punggol Rooftop Childcare Centre issue, he borrowed heavily from Charles Tan Meah Yang’s piece and offered no new insight except a call for the government to be harsher on those who voiced unhappiness. Talk about regressive.

Tan’s article is better and contains many salient points, his reasoned tone shows that he probably does not mean to inflame. Still he trips over his logic at some point and perpetuates the unsubstantiated claim that complaints must be accompanied by solutions with a call for the government to listen more, communicate more and engage.

The flawed logic runs deep, concealed by a veneer of faux-constructiveness. Tan believes that taxi drivers (and I suppose every unhappy Singaporean, regardless of education and background) ought to be able to “offer pragmatic suggestions/solutions and defend them vigorously against scrutiny” before he will give them license to voice their “emotionally-charged, one-sided complaints”.

Granted, there are many whose complaints are unreasonable. Many are inflammatory. They should be ignored. But that is no grounds to insist that all those with complaints offer up solutions on the same platter. This is the worst kind of censorship, akin to Goh Chok Tong telling Catherine Lim to join a political party if she wanted to comment on politics.

You see, there is a reason why we don’t expect every pakcik and makcik to be able to offer suggestions for policy. Was Mr Tan expecting to have to drive the taxi himself when he got in? Did he not pay the taxi uncle to drive him? Why then does he think that the taxi driver is beholden to come up with policy suggestions when others are paid to do that job?

If a taxi driver is going too fast, can we not say, “You’re going too fast”? Must we suggest he make use of the second lane, let the engine brake kick in a little and stop trying to catch those mat rempit? Voicing out the complaint in itself is enough. Sure, I can offer more, but I don’t have to.

If I tell a chef that the food is too salty, should I be expected to suggest that he cut back on the kosher salt and the cheese? Not at all. I simply say it is salty and leave it to the chef to correct it. If I were an expert on cooking myself, perhaps I could suggest something, but is it a prerequisite for a complaint? No.

That, in essence, is what the dear taxi uncle was saying about “inflation, immigration and income disparity”. Should we expect a draft policy paper from him and 20 minutes in Parliament? If he doesn’t produce a paper and debate it, is it right to ask him to quit behaving like a “petulant child”? That’s intolerant.

My young children give me feedback like this – “I’m cold”, “I’m hungry”, “I need to pee”. Is that petulance? Shall I ask them what they think the solution is? At their age, it is not their responsibility, but mine. At some point in the future they will take it upon themselves to solve more of their own problems, and I will teach them to do so, but only a cruel, cruel man would call them “petulant”.

I’ll spell it out – complaints ARE feedback. Corporations know this and trawl through surveys, social feeds and recordings of customer service hotlines in search of precious complaints that they can use to improve the way they do business. They don’t want to miss this opportunity.

Even our G is more tolerant of complaints than Tan. They rarely tell you to shut up these days. The PAP is trying to reform for the sake of our nation and the myth that “complaints must be accompanied by feedback” is holding us back.

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42 thoughts on “Complain must give suggestion one ah? Siao.

  1. Daily SG: 21 Mar 2013 | The Singapore Daily

  2. Perhaps it is not so much the suggestion itself that accompanies the complaint that is important, but the acknowledgement that there is no simple solution to the complaint? i.e. complaining, but also taking a balanced point of view

    • I think we have to learn to acknowledge how people feel, and not reduce it to some exercise about problem-solving. We are a nation of people, not numbers or puzzles waiting to be solved.

      • Yes, I agree. The govt does lack that ability to connect, or appear at least, to connect emotionally with the people. But then again, there is a self re-enforcing effect when one laments about a situation continuously, to the point where we believe the situation is worse than it is, to the point where we place excessive attention on our own complains. Yes we need to acknowledge negative feelings. But we should also acknowledge the upside, or the difficulty of resolving issues, so that we don’t forget the larger picture.

      • Which is really why I ended the post by nothing that the PAP is making progress. To ask people to shut up now just because it is tiring to hear will undo any progress we have made in terms of the government’s ability to connect.

  3. by and large, my issue with the complain-therefore-suggest model is that it’s an old refrain. we’ve all heard that before from the mouths of those horses, and therefore associate the phrase that-a-way.

    the mouths of other horses have said that we can be part of the problem, or part of the solution. somehow, we think that sort of positive thinking is okay, even admirable.

    but when someone suggests that complaints should come with constructive criticism, it sounds, to our constrictive brains, like an invalidation of our complaint.

    now upset enough to complain about, and still must think about solution arh? wah lau. why complaining also so hard one? cannot be easier meh? you know, cos we this type super fucking lazy one.

    there’s certainly nothing to stop any individual from complaining, without offering a helpful (or otherwise) solution, but doing so differentiates a thinking man from a whinging one.

    by all means, complain. hell, even admit that you don’t have a solution, and appeal to others for assistance. that’s allowed you know. helping define the problem, and thereby helping develop a solution.

    what’s allowed, but incredibly unhelpful, is that moron you never invite to lunch. you know the one. har? japanese arh? very expensive leh. har? chicken rice arh? no air con very hot leh. har? cheap japanese restaurant with air con? very far leh.

    the flawed logic here isn’t that complaints aren’t valid feedback. it’s assuming that all complaints are equally useful feedback. because you know, some complaints, and complainers, are just… for want of a better term, idiots.

    • Hey elusive logic, thanks for writing.

      What you’ve said is true, and I’ve mentioned that in passing in my blog post. Some complaints do come from people who are just part of the problem. The TODAY commentary didn’t seem to address one of those complaints (although the Punggol rooftop folks may come close to that definition). Such complains will ultimately be ignored, but is entirely different to say that how they feel is invalid.

      Your friend who wants a cheap Japanese restaurant with sitcom nearby may be irritating, but maybe he really does want that, but can’t have it and is waiting for someone else to tall him that he can’t have his cake and eat it because, well, that’s his shortcoming.

  4. I think the issue here could be ownership and acknowledgement of a recommendations. A complain, is but, a part of a feedback, but coupled with a suggestion, becomes useful, and won’t end up as being treated as noise.

    They can simply acknowledge that the improvement comes from a user, yet companies are too caught up in the whole intellectual property rights race that they rather say that the idea is theirs.

    If they acknowledge, there will be ownership and grow a loyal customer base. Hence the product becomes user centric and driven. If a complain is lodged without a solution or suggestion, won’t that contribute to a general spiral of silence towards any discussion, and effectively adopting “your problem, not mine” mentality that we are complaining about?

    Also, i disagree with the author that we should not expect any pakcik and makcik to give solutions. They should be expected to give solutions, regardless of what quality they are, any feedback is an opportunity to extend and expand on a discussion.

    It is also a golden opportunity to grow the capacity of said pakcik and makcik.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      Those who complain may own a problem much more than you think. They may simply lack the ability to solve it. Hence the complaint.

      Of course it would be good if we could train every single person to be able to suggest solutions for every single problem. That, however, is rather unrealistic.

      I really think that if that taxi uncle had a good idea, he would be very very happy to share it. I think he does have a good sense of ownership. His problem is empowerment.

  5. Fully agreed! Well said. In fact, when someone complains, the person better listens hard and should try his best to understand what causes the complaints. Complaints don’t disappear just because one does not listen (like the political leaders who fail to listen to real ground people “complaints” for many years). In fact, over time, complaints, without being listened to, become grievances, resentment and distrust.

    • Hi Ground Sentiments, thanks for your support! In the end we are trying to avoid that situation where there is a lack of trust and rising resentment. That is why we must give validity to complaints and try to empower people to offer solutions. It is clear that the ground feels quite disempowered. Hence the “distance”.

  6. “My young children give me feedback like this – “I’m cold”, “I’m hungry”, “I need to pee”. Is that petulance? Shall I ask them what they think the solution is? At their age, it is not their responsibility, but mine.”

    You have chosen the best analogy possible to demonstrate the root of the problem. No real change can ever happen in policymaking if the people themselves – as exemplifed by you – choose to subjugate themselves to paternalism. Essentially you’re saying, “in exchange for my right to complaint, I shall abdicate the shaping of my country’s future to the government whom I assume will understand what I want cos’ I’ll kickup a fuss if it doesn’t and neither will have point them to a direction of what I want simply cos’ it’s their job to do so”. Are you entitled to do that? Of course you are. Will it infantilise our civil society (or whatever’s left of it) from more mature policymaking? I dunno, you tell me, it’s not my job to think…

    • Hi Junyi, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      There is great depth the the analogy, which I think you miss. Many Singaporeans are underdeveloped and unempowered when it comes to their citizenship, but children do not have to stay children. They always grow up. Of you spoil them, they will be immature. If you do not validate their options, they may become resentful.

      Raising children, and people, requires a firm, nurturing and compassionate hand. They should not be so easily dismissed.

    • @ Junyi,
      There are many folks who have been giving feedback and suggestions of possible solutions to the governments … but do the political leaders listen, or even acknowledge them? or do they just dismiss them?

      There are many folks who have been asking for more data from the government, in order for them to make sensible suggestions to solutions … but do the political leader ever response with data, or do they simply dismiss them the way they dismiss the alternative parties questions in parliament?

      Of course, there are folks who complains, without giving suggestions. What do our political leaders do?

      • Political one-upmanship is really holding solutions back. When other parties offer suggestions, the Government dismisses them. For example, Lim Chong Yah called for wage reform and the G labelled his idea as dangerous. Then it turned around and tried to implement more or less the same thing with the PWM and WCS. It is pretty daft.

      • Hi Ground Sentiments, I hear a lot of people, especially the opposition, complaining (yes, the topic of our discussion here) that the Government is not listening to the people, not acknowledging the problems. But is that really a fact?

        Are our government really not listening? Or is it that those who oppose the government have not accepted the reality (or refuse to accept) that the government does listen and is making changes?

        For example, they complained about too many foreign workers here. Opposition parties like WP and NSP (remember Nicole Seah’s rather anti-foreigner response?) were hitting the government during GE2011 for letting in so many of them. So, the government decided to tighten the foreign manpower because they heard the will of Singaporeans. But look what is happening now? WP, NSP, etc, changing their tune about foreign workers…

        So, back to my point…is the government not really listening to the people?

      • I see changes being made. They are good but there are three things I am concerned with.

        One: is it a real change of direction to do the ‘right’ thing or is it just to appease voters?

        Two: is it going to be fast or big enough to ensure a stable government in 2016?

        Three: political bickering and one-upmanship is bad for Singapore. I would rather the PAP give the opposition credit for good ideas. It is no shame to compete with qualified opponents.

      • @ Kevin. Yes. We do see change. But are these changes what most Singapore citizen want and/or agree? Or these are changes required by political leaders to change perception for political gains, without any real change in the underlying thoughts and directions. There is another similar thread here. Some good comments here as well that points to this.
        http://sgthinker.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/of-petulant-children-are-you-a-customer-or-are-you-a-citizen/comment-page-1/#comment-686

  7. Yes, complaints are perfectly fine, but if one was to grumble and bickle about how the government is getting all its policies wrong, woudnt it be good to at least voice out how and where the government is doing things wrong? No, a draft paper and 20 minutes in parliament is not required, but if you can come up with grumbles and complains about the government, surely it’s perfectly logical that you can come up with your own point of view of what the government is doing wrong?

    To compare a complaint regarding the incompetency of the government and a complaint of a kid is not the same. ‘I’m hungry’ Well, that’s easy. Feed the kid. ‘HDB flats are overpriced and expensive’. This isnt something that can be solved off hand. The thing is, the solution to being hungry, or having your meal being too salty is clear cut. The solution to lowering down HDB flat prices or decongesting roads and public transport however, is not. What’s the point of mindless complain about how inefficient our government is? Everyone’s complaining about how crowded MRTs are, how expensive flats are. WE KNOW. As you say, whats the point of adding on to everyone’s grumble without offering anything substantial? It’s regressive isnt it? Now if the taxi driver was trying to build rapport with Tan to make his commute journey more pleasant, now that’s a different matter altogether.

    I do however, agree that complains do serve as feedback. They give policymakers a sense of direction, that something somewhere is amiss. Yes, the myth that “complaints must be accompanied by feedback” may be holding us back. But surely needless complaints do not necessarily count as feedback? They simply count towards cluttering up the feedback box with noise which the government is already aware of.

    • Hey Alex, thanks for sharing your views. There is certainly a class of complaints that is unhelpful, but I think the taxi driver did not come close to it. Sure, we may have heard his gripe before, but the frequency of complaints is also an indicator of the severity of the problems. Repetition is not in vain.

      Of course it would be better if solutions came attached, but I am trying to say that people need validation of their emotions, even if they are wrong. Validation is not agreement.

  8. Of “Petulant Children”: Are you a customer? Or are you a citizen? | sgthinker.wordpress.com

  9. Hi Daniel,

    I read your blog post with much interest and felt that you made some valid points. Complaints indeed are a kind of feedback, and while the analogies that you draw are easy for us to identify with, my opinion is that they don’t quite capture the complexities of government. Yes, I take your points about the taxi driver and the chef and in these situations, simple feedback is perfectly adequate – because you’ve used binary examples. If I say you’re going too fast, the encik knows I want him to slow down; if I say the food is too salty, then the chef knows to use less salt; and in any case, you’ve only got to handle 1 or 2 customers at a time, not 5.5 million. Policymaking is never that easy; every action has its pros and cons, and results in winners and losers; you simply can’t please everybody. That’s why I stick to my view that complaints need to be accompanied by suggestions. It helps to maintain a certain “standard”, it helps to weed out the complaints rooted in “wants” from the ones rooted in “needs”, and most importantly, it moves us closer to a shared solution rather than trying to foment unrest.

    Regards,
    Charles

    • Hi Charles, thanks for your view! I don’t think the complexity of the task makes it more incumbent on complainants to include solutions. If anything, it lessens the expectation for solutions/suggestions, simply because we understand that the issue is so complex that it would be unrealistic to expect everyone to come up with one. What if the uncle simply rehashed what other commentators like myself have been proposing? Or offering the SDP plans as alternatives? Will that make their complaints more valid? I don’t think so.

      • Well, my opinion is that it is more valid because at least it demonstrates a more considered grievance/complaint (even if this is sometimes illusory). You may disagree, but rehashed complaints, to me, certainly have more destructive potential than rehashed solutions. I can see we will find it difficult to convince each of the other’s views, but I appreciate the debate nonetheless. It is all a promising sign of Singapore’s push toward greater democracy, and political debate, in my mind, is preferable to political apathy. Thank you for accepting my friend request on facebook, and I look forward to engaging with you further in the future.

      • Hi Charles,

        Reasoned debate with those who hold an opposing view can only be a good thing. It is a sign of earnest, maturity and inclusiveness. This is what I hope the online sphere can help foster, even if our politics descends into partisan bickering.

        I look forward to engaging with you more, and working on solutions together. 🙂

  10. i think one of the issues is how we have all been numbed by the inundation of mindless complaints circulating online, until we have reached a point where it would be certainly be refreshing to read something more constructive. and, for me at least, i get irritated by feedback in the form of complaints because, really, they are just stating the obvious, and it does make me a little depressed knowing there are so many unhappy people around me.

    suggestions do not need to come in the form of papers or jargon. if the taxi driver is going too fast, i ask him to “go below 100” without having to know how to drive. when my child screams “he is hungry”, i expect him to tell me what he wants to eat before i ask him the same inevitable question.

    i have read really interesting suggestions before. rather than complaining about the high COEs, some have suggested pegging the COE to OMVs instead. i don’t think you need any stats to back this idea up. it’s an interesting paradigm shift that will stimulate further discussion. otherwise, the buck merely stops at everyone moping at how they can’t own a car now and demanding the minister to “do something about it”. honestly when i look at it this way, such behaviour does mirror that of a petulant child.

    • Hey JT, its good to hear your view.

      One reason why I am against the expectation of a solution is that it unnaturally silences complaints that allow policymakers to properly assess the effects their policies are having.

      True, those of us with low tolerance and who are very eager for solutions may tire quickly from hearing repeated complaints, but if we have good analytics and empathy, then even repeated, unreasonable complaints can be very valuable in terms of data for ground emotion, voter sentiment, psychological Defence, etc. which leads to great advances in policy planning.

      • agree with your last paragraph. but with the way our social media is structured, i feel that “ground sentiments” are often magnified inaccurately and taken out of context. so, while we allow our people to “complain”, i think we should read these sentiments carefully, cos i still hold on to the hope that Singaporeans are really less unhappy than they appear to be. 🙂

      • I think it depends on which social media circles you hang out in. 🙂 didn’t we score well in social media happiness recently?

        I hope that the Internet will become a place where good data can be gleaned. We need to develop it to be more representative, not try to control it. Right now because of our lack of press freedom it has been the venting ground for the opposition.

        I blame the NPPA.

  11. Daniel, you wrote, “Granted, there are many whose complaints are unreasonable. Many are inflammatory. They should be ignored. But that is no grounds to insist that all those with complaints offer up solutions on the same platter.”

    Actually, the main problem is that many complaints are unreasonable, inflammatory and sometimes, ‘complain for the sake of complaining’. These distract people from finding solutions, sometimes. That is why, amidst all the cloud of complaints, people are calling for suggestions and constructive feedback so that there is clarity and so that something can be done to address the problems.

    We don’t just want hot air. Yes, people complain to vent, to give feedback to organisations. But don’t we get tired listening to complaint after complaint about this and that? And to hear a suggestion actually brings the issue to another level from just identifying (and complaining about) the problem…we are moving on to problem solving and making things better.

    If people just complain and complain and make so much noise, then in the same vein, there is no grounds to insist that the Government or any organisations act on every complaint or feedback.

    • Thanks for sharing Kevin. I think it is better to let complaints continue and igniter those that are in constructive than to try to shut them down by demanding that they all come with solutions. It hasn’t held the G back from coming up with answers. It hasn’t held me back either. Unreasonable complaints can easily be dealt with.

  12. Well done, sir, for demolishing the invalid arguments of two “petulant” writers.

    It is unfortunate that they do not understand the fundamentals of a democratic society (or unless they are just shills engaging in agitprop), that every member of the electorate has the right to ask the government to do better with the option not to provide a solution.

    We pay the government (a lot of money, at that – our PM earns more than the US President, the German Chancellor, and the French PM combined) to come up with solutions that cap a balance between pragmatism and populism (though both need not be a dichotomy), so it is rather humorous that two dunces who don’t know any better insist that those who complain are mandated to come up with their own solutions.

    Jeez. It’s as though we don’t have our own jobs to do, and I’m sure that the government doesn’t want the electorate to incessantly tell them how to do their jobs – without the chance for them to do it right first.

    • Hi Daniel, thanks for writing in here. I don’t think it is as sinister as agitprop, but more of a case of impatience. Maybe a bit of high-handedness combined with elitism for those who can think of solutions themselves or are working on solving it.

      I agree that while we take ownership of our country, we vote in MPs and ministers to do policy work as well. We pay them well. Add to that a long history of disempowerment and a lack of trust and it is no surprise that people complain.

      It is perhaps best not to get too judgmental about the two writers – they themselves need validation, as much as we may refute their erroneous points.

  13. i’m unsure about using simple arguments to explain not a very simple topic. complaints of ‘too fast’ or ‘too salty’ are easily corrected by slowing down (opposite of too fast) or using less salt and/or any salty ingredients (opposite of salty).

    saying too much income disparity is not so easily corrected with less income disparity. how is less income disparity to be achieved? every country in the world struggles with this. do not reward those who work hard with more money (or insert any other incentive here), and we end up with communism or a more extreme version of socialism.

    granted, feedback is important – too many immigrants (slow it down), too high coe prices (cooling measures or increase no. of coe’s [too many care on road]).

    i’d guess the main problem is inflammatory or unreasonable complaints and perhaps the aim is non-destructive complaints which is not necessarily feedback + suggestions (constructive complaints).

    • Simplified arguments illuminate complex issues.

      I am saying that clamping down on complaints, even inflammatory and unreasonable ones, is a loss of valuable data. Of course, it grates on one’s senses, but the value if knowing, for example, how large a proportion of the population is complaining because of a lack of understanding and information, is considerable. It should not be dismissed out of hand just because it is uncomfortable.

      Most of all, it makes no logical sense to demand that complainers, even bad ones, give solutions. It may serve a social control objective, but it wastes valuable data.

  14. Complain-ception – Signs of Struggle

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