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The sandwiched class of PAP bureaucracy

G Hui /

A friend of mine who works in the civil service once commented: "If you think the ministers are high-handed, you should try talking to their minions!" This statement stuck in my mind because it encapsulates the mindset of the civil service, the PAP grassroots leaders/workers and the PAP MPs. This is of course a generalisation. Not all PAP politicians are drones who chant the party mantra without question. However for the sake of argument, I shall err on the side of generalising.

The prevalent system of hierarchy

I think it would be fair to say that most Singaporeans respect hierarchy. Take work for instance. We would hardly question the orders of our bosses, at least not out loud. We may inwardly disagree but a majority of the time, we would inevitably carry out the "orders" of our superiors without protest.  This style of management is certainly not unique to Singapore.

In most work places worldwide, there is a chain of command that is more often than not, obeyed. However, I would venture to say that in Singapore, blind obedience is not just "more often than not" but more of "it goes without saying". There is a lot of fear of authority. While this is not necessarily a bane, it certainly has far reaching effect on our relationship with our rulers.

Culture plays a large part. Asians believe in respect for elders, believing that elders have more wisdom and as such are always correct. While this may be true for parental relationships (mostly that is), this has translated somehow into believing that our elected government has more wisdom and is therefore always right. This is clearly not universally the case anymore, as GE 2011 has shown, but the ethos is still there.

There are many amongst us who still believe that it is a mistake to vote against the PAP, somehow believing that the party is always correct. There are also those who believe that we should vote for the PAP because we should be grateful for all that it has done for us. Somewhere between nation building and development into a first world country, there has been confusion about what constitutes a functional citizen-to-elected government relationship. Has our culture not caught up with democracy?

This unhealthy state of affairs is two-fold:

a. How the citizens view the government; and

b. How the government views itself.

The government and its citizens

Hitherto GE 2011, most would have assumed that a majority of Singaporeans were PAP supporters and looked up to the PAP. Indeed, most citizens did not even see a difference between the PAP and the government. The PAP was the government and vice versa. Of course, there were murmurings of discontent but these remained furtive up till recently.

For its part, the PAP/government was paternalistic, encouraging the belief in its infallibility, a "we know best" attitude.

In summary, Singaporeans accepted the PAP's policies without obvious dissent and the PAP/government held itself as exalted.

The attitude of superiority and the government-citizen disconnect

The "we know best" mentality is so rampant that most new PAP candidates do not even stop to question or think about the reasoning behind a particular policy. Take Tin Pei Ling for example. When asked what she would change if elected, she replied that she did not think that anything needed to change because everything was working fine! This attitude of unconscious superiority has filtered down from the early days of the PAP and is now so entrenched that the correctness of all party policies are repeated by all and sundry within the party as gospel truth. Even by those who clearly do not know best.

This self righteous stance is indeed hard to eradicate. PM Lee has publicly stated that "change must come" to the PAP and that he wanted to listen to the people. He even made a contrite public apology, no less! One would have thought that this rare act of humility would send a message to the rest of the PAP cadres that times have changed.

However, there have been many examples since then that have reaffirmed the fact that his own party members have not been listening to him. Take Lim Wee Kiak for example. He defended the high pay of ministers while using loose and flimsy arguments to substantiate his case. When faced with public backlash, he said his comments were taken out of context without explaining how and why it was taken out of context. How could he not have realised that this was a sensitive issue to defend? Did he lack political acumen or was he so schooled in the “we are always right” train of thought that old habits are hard to break?

Is this attitude of high handedness so prevalent that even PM Lee's contrite apology cannot hammer home the point that things have changed? Publicly, top leaders seem ready to embrace a different way of governance. The apology, the cabinet reshuffle and the ousting of unpopular ministers all point to that. This therefore highlights that while Singaporeans are ready for change and the top leaders are seemingly ready for change, the middle management (MPs, grassroots leaders) are not ready for change or seem too hapless to accept that things have indeed changed.

The problem of middle management

MPs, grassroots leaders etc are really the sandwich class of bureaucracy. To move up the party ranks, they have to please their superiors, the ministers. For the last 50 years, this has meant toeing the party line, repeating party policies like a parrot and above all, treating the ministers as holier than thou.

Elaine Ong in her article, "Little Things, not money or upgrading”, said: "Frankly speaking, while George Yeo was an efficient and likeable MP, unfortunately, we never saw or knew much about him except for the fact that he was the Foreign Minister and that he was constantly surrounded by grassroots members who did all the talking for him.” She also said, " To my surprise, the grassroots leader told me Mr Yeo would not be answering my questions on the LUP but would be addressing this question at his meet-the-people session (MPS) on another night the next week."

The subordinates are so keen to please the "boss" that instead of asking him what he would prefer, they made a decision "not to bother or trouble" him. Middle management is so afraid to displease its elders/superiors that it has failed in its duty to its citizens. They have choked the system of feedback by ensuring that it would never reach the top. Hence, Dr Tan Hooi Hwa's surprise at the resentment of the people. She had no idea!

The solution to this patronising attitude of MPs is yet again two-fold:

a) Singaporeans would have to develop the confidence to challenge authority when required. I do not mean violent protests and childish outbursts. Rather, we should collectively learn to distinguish between filial piety and respect towards the elders in our community and a healthy relationship with the government.

We are currently at a stage where we either blame them for everything that has gone wrong or are too afraid to question them. We need to reach a mature middle ground where we can both respect them as individuals elected by the majority (I am excluding candidates who have made it through hanging on the coattails of others) to public service but yet realise that they are not beyond accountability and hold them answerable for their decisions.

b) The change that the government is proffering must filter downwards.

Top leaders must devise a means of communication with their subordinates that is open and effective. Middle management must not fear preferring the needs of the citizens over inconveniences to their boss. The boss on his or her end must seek to weed out sycophantic behaviour. A good start would be to publicly castigate MPs like Lim Wee Kiak for his ignorant remarks and Tin Pei Ling for campaigning on "Cooling-off day". That would send a message loud and clear to middle management that change is nigh - get with the programme or lose your seat as an MP.

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Picture from Xin MSN.