The public service, political impartiality, and the future of the nation

By Howard Lee

Don’t we have a roof over our heads? Three meals a day? We can improve many things around here, but enough is enough? Really? Then what? Vote the government out? Are you going to run the country? Do you have the alternative proposals needed to run the country? Can we even promise that we have a critical mass of the right people to run this country? It’s a responsibility that is easier said than done.”

Oddly enough, the statement above came from a member of an opposition party. The implications of the statement was to leave running the country to the people who know best, fuelled by and further fuelling the fear that we do not have enough political leaders to form a “second Team A”. At the base of this view is a preference for the status quo, hence usually made by ardent supporters of the ruling People’s Action Party.

Such a statement is worrying because, if an opposition party member can say it, what more does it say about the average Singaporean, who would in all likelihood see the ruling party as the be-all and end-all in bringing the country forward.

But this statement belies an important fact that we usually forget. Before every general election, Parliament is dissolved, which means that the political leaders we have last voted in to run the country are “in hiatus”, so to speak. It is also important to remember that after the elections, we might not have the same party back in power to continue running the country.

While this idea seems foreign to us, it is an accepted reality in most other democracies. To be perfectly honest, we are not that far from the idea either – following the fall of Aljunied GRC in GE2011, the loss of a few key appointment holders in the last Cabinet led to much reshuffling and readjustment. For better or worse, we are still feeling the effects of these readjustments.

Meanwhile, who holds the fort and keeps the country running, while politicians slug it out over who has the best ideas worthy of the people’s votes?

I will always remember this remark that a work acquaintance made, by now more than four years ago: Our Ministers can go to any other part of the world and declare to their counterparts that the will do this and that, but what sets them apart is that our public officers will be back at home getting the impossible job done.

Indeed, my faith in the public service remains strong. We have some of the best brains there, even if at times they are not able to connect with the ground. The running of the country, no matter how temporal or difficult, is safe in their hands. The public service will be the one to keep our roofs over our heads, ensure we can afford three meals a day, make improvements to our lives and move things along.

Indeed, Singapore’s results in the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer were fairly telling. While 75% of Singaporeans trust the government, only 26% would offer the same trust to individual leaders. It appears that we do not see “the government” in the same way as our political leaders.

However, recent events might put a damper on this trust. We are seeing signs of the public service increasingly speaking in one voice with our politicians. Might it also imply that they are of one mind? How distinct is the public service now from the ruling party?

The Ministry of Health saw fit to issue a statement condemning blogger Roy Ngerng, after he has been fired by Tan Tock Seng Hospital, although they are neither Ngerng’s direct employer nor should they be in any position to determine the “appropriate conduct” of hospital employees. Why has MOH gone out of the way to support Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in what is essentially a civil suit between PM Lee and Ngerng? Will any dent in the PM’s reputation be of any consequence to MOH, or cause a loss of faith in the healthcare system?

Another example was the letter by the counsul-general of Singapore in Hong Kong, Jacky Foo, to the South China Morning Post, to rebut the Hong Kong-based newspaper’s publishing of excerpts of the letter by writer Catherine Lim to warn the PM of an “unprecedented crisis of trust”. Why did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs find it necessary to also defend the rights of PM Lee in his libel suit? Does PM’s right to sue really uphold the level of trust that Singaporeans have in their political leaders? In any case, why should the people’s confidence in the PM as a leader have any implication on what the MFA does in Hong Kong?

Even more worrying are simple things like the CPF forum organised by Member of Parliament Hri Kumar and his grassroots leaders. In his Facebook post, Hri Kumar indicated that, “Opposition politicians who want a platform to share their ideas should organise their own forums. If their ideas are really better, people will support it. That’s how things work.” Why was there a need to clearly define political ownership of a simple forum event? Are political sides that important in a discussion on a matter of national importance? Why should the work of grassroots leaders, who assist with the efforts of the People’s Association, lend itself to such politicisation?

And the latest – the PM’s press secretary picking a bone with The Economist for alluding that “the government may well see short-term benefits in the effect of the (lawsuit between PM Lee and Ngerng), if its critics think twice before committing their thoughts to the Internet”. Press secretary Chang Li Lin’s rebuttal was that, “What is at stake is not any short-term positive or negative impact on the government, but the sort of public debate Singapore should have.” Indeed, if the issue has nothing to do with the government, but is essentially a case of someone making “false and malicious personal allegations that impugn a person’s character or integrity”, why is Chang so eager to defend one person, when her duty is not to the reputation of one private citizen Lee Hsien Loong, but to the people of Singapore?

These recent events might imply a fairly worrying trend – that our public service is unable to distinguish between the political leadership, and what the public service is supposed to do for the benefit of Singaporeans. It is no longer just a matter of biased policies such as the estate upgrading issues of old. The public narratives that we witnessed recently seem to indicate that the public service truly believes that their role is to support the ruling party.

This has seriously unhealthy consequences for Singapore, both in terms of how the public service wishes to operate today, and for the future of our nation.

We need to recognise the possibility, no matter how remote we might think it is, that the PAP will not always be the party in power. Aljunied GRC was lost because the PAP lost contact with ground sentiments. Is the PAP wiser now? Have the risks abated? How many more GRCs will they lose, how soon? It remains to be seen.

What is more important, however, is that the public service gears itself up for the contingency where the PAP will not be in power. It must remember that it’s duty is to the people, no matter the party that has been voted in. When it is increasingly unclear that one party has the absolute mandate, the public service cannot assume that it has. Will it be ready to take up the mantle of working with a new ruling party, should that become a reality?

It is not a just matter of believing in “slow evolution” over “sudden revolution”. Being completely impartial to the political process is the only way that Singapore’s public service can guarantee the future of the nation.

The hard truth is that, while political parties come and go – yes, even the PAP will have it’s sunset days – the public service will still be the ones holding the keys to keep Singapore running. Its biggest blunder now would be to hand the keys to the ruling party, and then throw the spare keys away in exchange for a comfortable ride, when clearly the road ahead is about to get bumpy.