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“Greater uncertainty” as to whether 4G leadership has “what it takes to be as competent and farsighted as their predecessors”: ST editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang

While the attribution to “a general slacking in the public service” is “too sweeping”, there will be “grave consequences” if the pattern of serious lapses in public service in the recent months is not rectified, opines Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Editor-At-Large with The Straits Times Han Fook Kwang.

Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao, in a recent editorial last month, had listed a number of major lapses that had taken place in the past several months such as the SingHealth data breach, leak of HIV patient data and multiple National Service training deaths, all of which have eroded Singaporeans’ confidence in the public service sector.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, in his response to the Chinese-language daily’s editorial, rebutted “the suggestion by some that the political leadership has allowed the whole system to go slack” and the idea “that we have gone soft on ourselves and the public service, failing to hold senior people accountable when things go wrong”.

In a commentary written for ST on Mr Heng’s response to the Lianhe Zaobao editorial, Mr Han observed that the daily’s comments “are reflective of the sentiments of a fair number who worry that these recent events were symptomatic of a general decline of standards here”.

Noting that the Government has been providing “quality public housing now more readily available to young couples”, “competent healthcare” despite high costs, and “a very credible armed forces” in spite of the NS training deaths, the Government must nonetheless remain vigilant of the pattern of serious lapses in public service, as there will be “grave consequences” should the pattern remain unchecked.

Illustrating the no-nonsense approach adopted by the pioneer generation of leaders, Mr Han opined that the founding prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, in particular was “famous for telling it as it was, scolding Singaporean managers for their lack of imagination, lamenting the low productivity of workers, highlighting shortcomings in the civil service, and the many areas that needed shaping up,” which has in turn set a benchmark for leaders of Singapore to live up to in the decades to come.

“Greater uncertainty” as to whether 4G leadership has “what it takes to be as competent and farsighted as their predecessors”

Touching on the 4G leadership poised to govern Singapore next, he highlighted what “appears to be greater uncertainty” as to whether the new crop of leaders have “what it takes to be as competent and farsighted as their predecessors” in comparison “with the last two handovers”.

Citing Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s response to the alleged Jemaah Islamiyah-linked terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari‘s escape from the high-security Whitley Road Detention Centre in 2008, branding Mas Selamat’s escape as “a very severe lesson of complacency” and a demonstration of how “stupid” it is to assume that Singapore is an “infallible” nation, Mr Han expressed his hope that “Singaporeans and their leaders will stop telling themselves how ahead they are of others and talk more often about how behind they are in many areas”.

Noting that the 4G leaders bound to take over the reins of Singapore’s leadership “will need to earn the respect and trust of Singaporeans that they are up to the task”, Mr Han wrote that “the founding generation of leaders earned” the respect and trust of the people of Singapore “through tackling the many challenges facing a young country and delivered on their promises, making Singapore secure, providing jobs and solving basic problems in housing, education and healthcare.”

“An important part of this trust-building,” added Mr Han, “is how open the Government is about discussing issues and problems that confront the country”.

“When there is trust, people will cut some slack over the occasional incident.

“But if it is lacking, every mistake will look like further confirmation that their leaders are not up to it,” he stressed.

“Now, Singaporeans are constantly reminded how the country is the world’s best in this and that area and how well it is doing compared with others.

“This is fine if it truly is so and there is nothing left to improve. But, of course it isn’t. And the worse thing that can happen is if Singaporeans and their leaders believe their own propaganda,” warned Mr Han.