Reading about how current President, Madam Halimah Yacob has conferred the Order of Temasek (First Class) to former President Tony Tan (Tan)- “for his lifetime dedication to public service and his stellar service to his people and country” has made me wonder what this honour actually means and how one qualifies to receive such an award. Given that this award has only been handed out to 9 Singaporeans (including Tan), one can infer that it is extremely prestigious.
Tan, who is a former minister from the People’s Action Party, has been given this honour ostensibly for his contributions to public service. However, it is important to note that Tan had made these contributions as a government minister doing his job and getting very well remunerated for it. Does doing your paid job well equate to service that deserves the highest honour of the land? Does this not trivialise the weight and meaning of the award? Surely an award such as this should be handed out to people who have gone above and beyond the call of duty and against all odds? Has Tan done this?
As certain news reports have pointed out, Tan’s time in government has not been without controversies. Some of the controversies would arguably be directly against the ethos of public service. While these controversies have not been proven without a shadow of doubt, does it not give rise to concerns that handing out an award such as this without a thorough investigation would cheapen the very nature of this honour? Not investigating such controversies does not mean that they no longer exist. The award cannot be used as a whitewash for these potential inconsistencies.
The idea of public service is an altruistic one. it conjures in one’s mind the idea of a tireless volunteer or an indefatigable activist who puts the needs of society above self. What it does not conjure is the image of a highly paid minister simply doing his job (however well). Before detractors jump at my throat, I would like to say that I am not against wealthy or highly paid individuals for being recognised and rewarded. What I am saying is that the individual must do something more than just his or her job. For example, if there is a rich businessman who uses his wealth to create an education or medical fund to help something outside his normal job, he would probably deserve an award for he has done something outside his scope of work to benefit mankind. A minister doing well within his portfolio does not, in my humble opinion, qualify.
The risk of handing these out to people within government or affiliated with the government could give the impression of a mutual admiration club and cheapen the meaning of the award altogether.