In his opening address at the Public Service Commission Scholarships Award Ceremony, Chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC), Mr Eddie Teo, called upon public servants to prepare themselves to “speak truth to power” in the face of a new wrongful decision or policy. He further added that civil servants should be brave in questioning and challenging assumptions and prejudices in the effort to produce the best outcome in solving problems. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with these statements. It is important for those who work within the government sector to not simply be “yes men” as this could lead to stagnation within the workings of the government.
However, I cannot help but wonder if Mr Teo actually believes in what he said. Rightly or wrongly, many Singaporeans do have the perception that the government does not encourage statements of dissent and those who are paid for by the government would feel the need to toe the line more keenly given that they do not wish to “bite the hand that feeds”. Is this just a grand motherhood statement uttered to ensure a smooth retirement? Or is it genuinely a plea for more diverse opinions?
Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any civil servant who has ever vociferously challenged any policy however bad they may seem. Think of the price hikes of electricity and water on the same day. Did any public servant say anything or voice any concerns? What about the MP parking saga? Until today, this matter has not been officially discussed. Then, there is also the potential GST hikes between 2021 and 2025? These are but recent examples. I could go on but for the sake of brevity, I won’t, but you catch my drift.
If you really want civil servants to speak the truth, you have to create an environment whereby speaking the truth is conducive. To what extent have we created such an environment?
An environment that encourages open dialogue and discussions would not have a Speakers’ Corner that requires permits. It wouldn’t have a system whereby bloggers, commentators and opposition politicians are financially crippled. If you are a government employee thinking of speaking out, wouldn’t you reconsider in light of how critics are punished? Why would you upset the apple cart and provoke the ire of those in power who benefit from the policies that you wish to speak against?
Looking at the situation in Singapore, I can only come to the conclusion that Mr Teo cannot possibly believe in what he is saying. Either that or his speech was purely aspirational.
Does the government sector really want employees that would challenge the status quo?