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Civil Servants: Servile to the government or service to the country?

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With decades of unfettered power comes unfettered open support from the people who are supposed to be politically impartial – the civil servants.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad rebuked his country’s civil servants for wearing blue uniforms and blatantly campaigning for Barisan Nasional during the recent general elections.

“We question their loyalty, whether they are loyal to the previous administration or to us. This will disrupt the PH (Pakatan Harapan) government because we want to administer the country according to our methods and manifesto,” he said.

In Singapore, public sector organisations and statutory boards have long been accused of serving the political interests of the People’s Action Party. The most striking example is that of the People’s Association (PA) and the HDB.

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One claim (among several) from the Workers’ Party has been that the PA, funded by taxpayers’ money and chaired by the Prime Minister, “leverages on HDB to enable PAP candidates who lost at the last elections to re-emerge at community events as advisers to PA grassroots organisations.”

By allowing PA to control sites previously managed by the town council, PAP candidates gain a strong advantage by maintaining a keen presence even in Opposition-held wards.

The irony is that PM Lee Hsien Loong has cautioned specifically against civil servants acting in a partisan capacity: “Civil servants must be politically impartial: They must not campaign for or against any party, nor misuse state resources or powers for partisan purpose.”

This makes a mockery of the government’s long-held policy that Opposition Members of Parliament cannot be advisers to grassroots organisations under the PA. How else to view this other than the fact that the PA is partisan and working to further the interests of the ruling party and not the country? (To be clear, those who work for PA are public (not civil) servants, though the distinction is often blurred).

This whole issue also extends to the need for clear separation of powers between the Executive and the branches of government.

The Elected Presidency is one glaring example. It was mooted by Lee Kuan Yew, who likened the Elected President to a goalkeeper, the last line of defence against a rogue government wanting to fritter away the country’s hard-earned reserves or install cronies in key public positions.

It sounded good and great. But what about the execution of the idea?

Firstly, the Executive has authority over the membership of the Council of Presidential Advisors. Secondly, the Executive has control over the issuance of certification of eligibility for Presidential nomination. And thirdly, the successful Presidential candidate so far is the one “put up” and endorsed by the Establishment, who is then expected to check on and if necessary veto the Establishment.

Put one, two and three together and anyone will have a hard time thinking of where separation of powers and iron-clad checks and balances are coming from.

Malaysia has already moved on from the one-man show of Nazib Rajak and the unfettered power of his ruling party.

Is Singapore slipping and sliding down the road of ownself check ownself becoming entrenched as a mantra?

Augustine Low is a proud but concerned citizen. Voicing independent, unplugged opinion is his contribution to citizen engagement.

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