Trust and the civil service, part 2 – engaging civil society

By Howard Lee

Let’s begin this article with a simple understanding: The public service does not own the public space. It is at best the custodian of that space, managing it on behalf of the people.

Within this space, there would have been a lively contest of interests, particularly in developed democracies where civil society groups can find it easy to grow and rally support. Sometimes called lobby groups, civil society sometimes also work with, or against, industrial groups in their efforts. The role of the public service is to allow such interactions to take place and use them to make informed policy decisions. Such is the healthy exchange that characterises an active and thriving public-private-people environment.

We do not have that kind of space in Singapore.

Jose Raymond, Executive Director of the Singapore Environment Council, recently opined that the government has been increasingly willing to engage civil society. He cited significant moves in the areas of animal rights and environmental conservation, where the government has been more eager to seek the views of civil society groups and factor their inputs into policy formulation.

These are certainly positive moves for those involved in the green movement, but such engagement needs to be taken in perspective. Indeed, we cannot deny that the public service is more willing to listen. But it can hardly mean that we have a thriving civil society space.

In the case of stiffer laws against animal abuse, there was much consultation, both at open forums and behind closed doors, with animal rights activists. The results were progressive and satisfactory to many who have lobbied for it, and was indeed a win for the activists.

The lobby for the conservation of Bukit Brown had a much different result. Despite the concerted protest of a number of interest groups, plans for the highway and exhumation of graves proceeded as planned. We also learnt that the government’s “consultation” was never meant to be a means of engaging the groups as equals in a consultative fashion, and was really to “share with the group background information and considerations, and to highlight the road plans”.

Two very different cases, with two very different results. Yet, there are two trends that can be identified running across both cases, and quite possibly all other recent efforts by the public service to engage with civil society, which demonstrates the lack in proper, or sufficient, engagement.

The first trend, which I have also written about earlier at the end of the Civil Society Conference organised by the Institute of Public Service, has that the rules of engagement remains firmly defined by the government – the public service can choose who it wants to engage, on what subject matter, and where the OB markers are. Should it decide to stop the engagement or to engage on different terms, the is very little that civil society groups can do. This is hardly a clear signal to those who have put much effort into their passions.

Indeed, as if to put proof to words, an animal rights activist I spoke to recently shared that the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority continues to ignore her emails about why they are not imposing stronger regulations on the import of certain food products that are harmful to both consumers and the survivability of the source animal. Why is AVA so eager to engage one group, but conveniently ignores another?

Another case would be the conduct of an environment impact assessment on the Cross Island MRT line which cuts through a nature reserve. Despite alternatives proposed by interests groups that would have minimised the destruction of the natural environment, it is not clear if the Land Transport Authority will ever take their proposals into account, or if plan will proceed even if the EIA shows that the train line will be detrimental to the environment.

The second trend is that, while the government seems to have relented by allowing such lobbying to take place, we do not see the contest of space that signifies the free play of civil society in the national discourse. In fact, at the IPS conference, the Law Minister said that “there are a lot of people who what nothing to do with animals, who feel that each time we do something here, that somehow impacts on their safety.”

In many other cases, from Bukit Brown to the anti-death penalty campaign, the public service sees itself as representing either the “silent majority” or some other interest that could very well be the industry – it does not matter, because that is not what the public service should be doing, anyway.

The public service is the custodian of the public space, and its role is to encourage discourse that would result in the negotiation between interest groups, not to represent certain interest groups. A case in point is Bukit Brown, where the government professed the “need to decide how best to allocate land to live in, play and work, land for catchment and defence needs, and how we preserve our environment, heritage and history.” Is this something that the Urban Redevelopment Authority has already taken it upon itself to decide for citizens, or was it an idea that evolved from listening to different interest groups stake their claims?

Granted, at the point where there is conflicting interest between parties, the public service needs to step in and decide for the greater good. Such decision will be difficult, and has to be made in the interest of the people, or those who cannot adequately defend themselves, more so than political or commercial interests.

But in instances where there is no such impasse, then the decision to proceed as planned can only be attributable to the intent of the government. In which case, what is really lacking is proper consultation, or consultation that is meant to achieve the purpose of the public service.

Such a lack of proper consultation is merely a lazy way of arriving at the quickest solution, rather than the best solution. We have the best brains in the public service, and it is sad to see instances where this capability is put on the back-burner, in preference for the tried-and-tested, the easy way out, the more economically efficient.

In truth, there is no easy solution to consultation, but that is chiefly because our public service has never been at the point of genuine consultation. It will be a steep learning curve, and it will have to learn not to constantly see its prerogative of “greater national interests” as the gospel truth. To break away from this mind-trap, it needs to listen.

And today, we have no lack of voices to tell the public service what it needs to listen to. What it needs is a mindset shift: To believe that it could be wrong, that the best solutions reside in the people who are passionate about their causes, and to enter every consultation with a completely open mind.

Without a doubt, the civil space will get a lot messier, which is really a better reflection of this increasingly complex society of ours. But the sincerity that the public service brings to the table will earn the trust of civil society, such that the tough choices it has to make will be made together with, not against, passionate souls.


In the next and last part, I will go back to the DPM’s original statement – engaging the people. Yes, that big chunk of humanity that is as diverse as each individual within, which our government somehow thinks it can have National Conversations with.