Government must adopt mindset of 'servant leadership'

~ By Ng E-Jay ~

A few days ago in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that his government has changed the way it engages the electorate in determining policy outcomes.

Describing it as a “two-way” process in which both sides work together to make Singapore succeed, Mr Lee felt that the change has been necessary and helpful. He said that this process calls for Singaporeans to not just speak out, but also to participate and to feel the responsibility to do their part.

Mr Lee also identified two social trends that worried him — a self-centered “mind your own backyard” attitude, as well as what appears to be a growing gap between Singaporeans and new immigrants. He cited the example of angry reactions to Chinese student Sun Xu who made derogatory comments about Singaporeans, and urged Singaporeans to maintain “a certain balance and not get worked up every time someone misspeaks”.

Result of voter pressure

The reason why the ruling PAP under PM Lee’s leadership has been trying hard to portray itself as being more responsive to the electorate is because the electorate has, through both the ballot box as well as through various feedback channels, put pressure on the government to loosen up and listen up.

The concerns of voters – from the rising cost of living including medical costs, to the high prices of property, to the rapid influx of foreigners who compete for jobs on equal terms with Singapore citizens – are not frivolous concerns of a fickle electorate, but genuine concerns of an awakened body politic that has been hurt by poorly administered and lop-sided policies that favour the elites over the less fortunate.

The government has felt sufficient pressure to change, or at least, to give the semblance of change, because the citizens have bravely spoken their minds and cast their votes accordingly.

Paradigm shift needed

If the government wishes to engage the people more effectively and elicit a greater degree of participation and active citizenry, it must first start by changing its own mindset and attitudes.

Not too many years ago, playwright and author Catherine Lim was told by the ruling authorities that if she wished to comment on political issues, she should join a political party and identify herself as a politician.

In the 1990s, former minister George Yeo was once quoted by the Straits Times as saying that one should know one’s place in society and show deference to the authorities when engaging on policy issues.

In Singapore, freedom of speech has not come easily, but only recognized grudgingly when the ruling party realized that the rapid technological progress has made censorship and many oppressive methods outdated and ineffective.

Starts with respect

If the government wants to earn the respect of the people and encourage them to step forward to engage the government constructively, it must first learn to respect them and treat them as equals.

It must learn to be tolerant of dissent and differing points of view, and not adopt the mentality that it can sometimes be “deaf to criticism“, as Lim Swee Say once famously remarked to Low Thia Khiang in Parliament.

The government must stop viewing the citizens as economic digits who need to “have spurs stuck in their hides“, or as people who should “repent” if they voted in the opposition.

If some have adopted a “them and us” mentality with regards to the relation between the government and the people, or between Singaporeans and foreigners, it is not because they are closed minded or xenophobic to begin with, but rather because they are angry that government policies have been so skewed and have at many times been pushed to such extremes.

If some Singaporeans appear self-centered, it is because the government has emphasized materialism above all else, and left them in the lurch in the face of global economic competition and uncertainty.

In order to effectively arouse the passions of Singaporeans and foster constructive dialogue between government and people, the ruling party must first adopt the attitude of “servant leadership“.

Embrace servant leadership

The term “servant leadership” was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf (1904–1990), a management guru. Servant leadership implies a holistic view of the people under your charge and a sense of community. A servant leader regards himself first and foremost as a servant of those he commands, and places their interests above his own. Essentially therefore, servant leadership is leadership through service, and the emphasis on the well-being of others before one’s own.

Inherent in the idea of servant leadership is the principle that a leader must respect those he leads, and regard himself as their servant rather than as their master. This means he must not coerce his followers into accepting his methods, but instead educate, persuade, guide and nurture. Tolerance and inclusiveness are key in servant leadership.

Thus far, has the PAP made progress towards adopting the principles of servant leadership? That remains to be seen. They must strive to do so if they wish to be respected by the people. Or else, the people will continue to feel disillusioned and disenfranchised, and it will be the PAP which will lose more power over time at the ballot box.

This article first appeared on the author's website, sgpolitics.net