By Howard Lee
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam emphasised the need for the civil service to engage the public, if it were to gain its trust to continue governing the country.
“If we fail to manage public trust and if we end up with the deep scepticism about government seen in many other countries, it will reduce our space (to) manoeuvre, both in making difficult domestic policy decisions in Singaporeans’ long-term interests and in managing our external relations,” he was reported in media as saying.
The comments coming from this DPM, made at the Administrative Service dinner and promotion ceremony, might have surprised some – rightfully, it should be Home Affairs Minister and Minister In-Charge of the Civil Service, Teo Chee Hean, who should be saying these words. But let’s leave that be for now.
There is, indeed, some truth in what Mr Tharman said, although much of it has to be taken in perspective. General Election 2011 has brought to the surface a lot of unhappiness and mistrust in the government, but a great part of it can be traced back to the political process of the country, which has led to the unchallenged rule of one party since independence.
Such a system has allowed our political leaders to pretty much do as they wish, to the extent that government policies are taken for granted as “this is what the people want”, and forced down our throats whether we really like it or not.
In this view, we need to understand the position of the public service in this particular situation. The public service plays a dual role – first as the advisor on policy matters to the elected representatives of the people, and then as the implementer of the same policies that have been approved by the political leadership.
In any particular policy, it is difficult to tell at what point the public service is leading, and at what point the political leadership is pressing for its implementation. Singapore does not have a policy of openness with regards to the public service, such that their disagreement with the elected representatives can be made known. Much of what we see is the “final product” of a cohesive model of governance.
This cohesion is at once a position of solidarity, and also a position of weakness, as the public service is often seen to be hand-in-glove with their political leaders. Of course, much can be said about certain “confluences of interests” as top civil servants are often ear-marked for political careers. But again, let’s not dwell too much on that for the moment.
What is in greater need of discussion is how the public service, when and where it has the option to be independent of the political leadership, does indeed reaches out to the electorate and do what is right for the people. It might be a purely academic discussion, but given the current social climate, particularly with the backlash against proposals such as the Population White Paper, we are today in a very good position to define for ourselves what is the right attitude of the public service, if it wishes to do the will of the people.
It cannot be over-emphasised that the political attitude of the public service will make or break its ability to engage the people, because it helps to put in perspective what the public service should really be about. Its focus cannot be on political play, but the everyday management of the system that is Singapore.
To that end, the public service will succeed if its attitude towards politics is one of indifference. That is, no matter which political party is in power, the key focus of the public service is to serve the people. Such an attitude gives it permanence, relevance and authority.
This might seem simple enough, since it is taken for granted as what the public service should really be about. However, human rights group MARUAH published a position paper in 2013 about GE2011, indicating that a number of those who voted out of fear were public officers or have family working in the public sector. If public officers can be swayed to take a political stand during elections, might it not stand to reason that they would hold such prejudices on the job, day in and out?
The truth of the matter is, ask any public officer who has been on the job long enough and you might hear similar stories of political preference.
Might there be an officer from URA, HDB or LTA who has been given a raised eyebrow from a senior officer if he/she has proposed for the development of an area that falls within the constituency of the opposition? Or perhaps one who has ever refused information to a member of an opposition party, even if such information is clearly within his/her right to give? Has a request signed by a Member of Parliament from the ruling party led to “queue jumping” for a particular process?
We are not even talking about preferential treatment given to affiliates of the ruling party, within the service – impossible in Singapore, for that would surely be cronyism – but the everyday tasks of making public services equally and unrestrainedly available to all, regardless of their political affiliations. We are also not referring to decisions made at top of the public service, but actions that start at the highest level of policy owners, down to the rank and file involved in policy execution.
Why is political indifference so important, you might ask? After all, we are all entitled to our political beliefs, and be it the individuals within the public service or the organisation as a whole, such biases must surely be inherent and allowed, if we were to respect individual rights.
The problem lies with the fact that the public service does not act in an individual capacity, like casting a vote at the polls. It represents the people, and the diversity of the people means that the public service can only represent the best possible choice, which might not always come from the ruling party.
Time and time again, we see how the public service would have reached a policy conclusion much sooner and with better results, if it has consulted opposition political parties on their policies. The Singapore Democratic Party’s healthcare policy paper included proposals similar to MediShield Life, and the Workers’ Party has proposed honouring the Pioneer Generation much earlier than Budget 2014. Was there consultation there? Why are they not able to openly engage these parties, to get the best possible results for the people?
Hence, if our public officers can remove such political inclinations from their jobs, they would be one step closer towards serving the people fairly, which is the first step towards building trust.
In the next part, I will discuss how such a different attitude might also be applied to how the public service engages with that raucous and highly suspicious nebula broadly known as “civil society”.