Opinion Yes, Prime Minister, Singapore’s civil service should grow up – faster, the...

Yes, Prime Minister, Singapore’s civil service should grow up – faster, the better for all

Sense & Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Should Singapore’s civil service continue to take its cue unquestioningly from the political leadership? Or should it grow up and be more nuanced and circumspect in carrying out its duties, given the maturing political environment and voters’ new expectations of how a civil service should behave?

At Friday’s (Jan 17) inaugural Public Service Leadership Annual Dinner, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dwelt on two themes – building a deeper and more diverse public service leadership corps to cope with our changing operating environment and how the public service should work with the political leadership to deliver good government for Singapore. Yes, diversity is good. And no one is against good government.

There should, however, be a third theme: learning to be (more) non-partisan and neutral when dealing with elected Opposition parties voted in by Singaporeans to represent them in Parliament and to take responsibility for the municipal affairs of their ward. This seems rather straightforward and, as some people would say, a no-brainer.

PM Lee himself alluded to this fine balance – “for the Public Service to be neutral and non-political, insulated from the hurly-burly of party politics, and yet politically sensitive and responsive to the nation’s priorities and aspirations”. But tell that to Chiam See Tong when he was MP for Potong Pasir and the Workers’ Party in Aljunied GRC and Hougang and ask them what happened to THEIR aspirations for the people who voted for them. They did not get a fair deal.

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It is not even enough to be fair. The civil service – be it the HDB or any government ministry or agency – must be seen at all times to be professional in a very transparent manner. It should not hesitate to be openly critical of the ruling party’s omissions if necessary, in the exemplary way that, for example, the Auditor-General’s Office does its job in fine-combing the accountability of government operations – with no fear or favour.

Only then can the civil service of today gain respect and trust and not be perceived as being nothing more than a club of self-serving elites and an appendix in the larger service of so-called “natural aristocrats”.

The government has always complained about how challenges to or the casting of aspersions on its policies can slowly erode public trust in the integrity of government. Similarly, the Public Service must do everything it can to make sure members of the public do not become cynical about the neutrality of the service. Resist pressure to make things unnecessarily difficult for duly elected Opposition MPs. Smooth the path for and fully assist them instead, for voters expect no less. No stonewalling, no half-hearted measures.

Such professionalism is good for the country. The People’s Action Party itself has not sprung up overnight, neither will it be in power forever. A growing and learning loyal Opposition served by a strictly professional civil service may become tomorrow’s government. After all, the PAP itself did not create the civil service overnight. The then new government inherited an existing and well-functioning service from the British – lock and barrel, including an already excellent judiciary system.

I quote Wikipedia:

“Thomas Friedman of the New York Times considers the Singapore civil service to be one of the most efficient and uncorrupt bureaucracies in the world, with a high standard of discipline and accountability. It is also considered a key contributor to the success of Singapore since independence.

“Others contend that the long-time dominance of the PAP (in) civil office can lead to complacency and groupthink, with the supporting ministries being resistant to alternative views and fundamentally unprepared for a change of government.”

The Public Service should begin to prepare itself for a government change, if not in the coming General Elections, then, one in the not too distant future.

With a larger picture in mind, it is therefore risky and certainly not in Singapore’s interests to have all its talents embedded in an unchanging administration or in the ruling party.

Kudos then to the Workers’ Party for having built up a core of credible talents who have become household names, people who appeal to a very sizeable of middle ground swing voters who are uncomfortable with ranting politicians who do not talk sense. Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s Progress Singapore Party has just introduced an impressive batch of talents, who have been achievers in their own right before their entry into politics.

The political landscape is clearly changing, judging by the quality of new candidates willing to put themselves in the fray.

The civil service must also keep up and not be stuck in a high-castle bubble created by leaders who may be out of touch with the problems of the real world.

PM Lee said the hilarious TV series, Yes, Minister, was an excellent parody of the bureaucratic British civil service which was unresponsive to political direction. Overpowering direction may also be stifling.
I would prefer that the PM refer to the title of Philip Yeo’s book: Neither Civil Nor Servant. At the risk of overstretching my point, our civil service should just serve the public and be correct and neutral in its attitude to others who themselves have also been elected to serve the public.

With that, I wish all Chinese readers Gong Xi Fa Cai. There will be no column next Sunday. You will be too busy welcoming and visiting relatives, throwing your yee sang and exchanging ang pows, I’m sure.

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of The Independent.SG, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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