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Malaysia: Wake up call for Singapore’s civil service

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Can Singapore learn from the latest Malaysian experience? Should the day come when there is a change of government, will the civil and public services be up to the task of carrying out a smooth transition?

They have to, unless they seriously and naively believe the People’s Action Party is going to be around forever which even the party’s leaders acknowledge is not possible in a system where there are free elections. We are neither China nor North Korea.

I quote Lee Kuan Yew: “There will come a time when eventually the public will say, look, let’s try the other side, either because the PAP has declined in quality or the opposition has put up a team which is equal to the PAP and they say, let’s try the other side. That day will come.”

He added: “No system lasts for forever, that’s for sure. In the next 10 years to 20 years, I don’t think it’ll happen. Beyond that, I cannot tell. Will we always be able to get the most dedicated and the most capable, with integrity to devote their lives to this? I hope so, but forever, I don’t know.”

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Any dominant party will have all the levers of power to entrench itself as long as it could. The Barisan Nasional (ex-Alliance) was in charge for 61 tears in Malaysia. It had all the advantages of an incumbent versus an untried opposition. It looked untoppable. In the end, all the so-called advantages did not matter that much. It was the party’s own toxicity – one that it self-created – that brought itself down. Plus perhaps a whole new generation of voters – all races – who are just frustrated that such a resource-rich country could be held back for so long. And, much as I do not like to sound like a broken record, in the smartphone age, nothing can be hidden for long.

There are two things Singaporeans can do.

The first is learn from Malaysian GE14. It has happened right at our doorstep.

If we count our self-government from 1959, the PAP has been in power for just two years short of the Barisan Nasional. LKY and his team grew up together with their government agencies until they passed the baton to Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong. In fact the first generation leaders practically created the agencies (and GLOs), including Jurong Town Corporation, Economic Development Board, Housing and Development Board.

The top civil servants have either been absorbed into politics or put in one corner in one think tank or another. It will be an awkward situation when the change of government takes place. They owe their loyalty to the establishment, their former boss.

This intertwining of government and political leaders elite, top civil service and mainstream press apparatchiks is very Japanese – as written about in Ezra Vogel’s Japan As No 1 – where he described how everyone totally trusted one another as one big happy family. One big happy family.

Hence, we may have a problem in a government transition. But, now with the Malaysian power change, there must be a total mindset transformation – or we will be caught unprepared. It has to be ingrained into everyone that no political leader or party is bigger than the country. Nothing is impossible.

For example, Pakatan Harapan’s takeover in Malaysia does not seem to have killed the press there. In fact, newspapers and online media which were once slavishly pro-BN are now competing with one another to be objective.

AFP reported: “State-linked media, which had seemed increasingly out of step with the views of many Malaysians yearning for change, wasted no time in switching their support to the new government.

“They had spent years backing ex-leader Najib Razak – reporting in only a muted fashion on a massive financial scandal that helped to topple his regime – but quickly began giving blanket coverage to a flurry of fresh revelations related to the controversy, and to the new government of 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad.”

If there is a will, there is a way. I think the Singapore civil service should not waste time to learn as much as possible from its Malaysian counterpart just how to carry out a smooth and professional transition of power – when it is Singapore’s turn to do that.

The second thing Singaporeans can do is to wish our Malaysian relatives and friends well and celebrate with them every step of their well-deserved new dawn.

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah 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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