Pity the poor civil servants

Apr 27, 2016 01.00PM |

by Bertha Henson

THE Prime Minister gave an interesting speech last night about the role of civil servants. You can read it here.

PM Lee Hsien Loong tried to tackle that hoary old chestnut: the impartiality of civil servants. In a, well, nutshell, he’s making it clear that civil servants carry out the political agenda of the G of the day, but stay above the fray. It’s a tall order for civil servants, who have always been attacked for being an arm of the G (which they are – and must be, actually).

He tried to set the civil service in the context of a unique Singapore system, detailing how the role has morphed from not even being allowed to shadow politicians to serving at the frontlines. The civil service and politicians were one in the nation-building days when politics was on hold because of the total dominance of the People’s Action Party. But things have changed.

Here are some quotes and some things to think about:

PM on the current political climate:

“Elections are fiercely contested and it is not clear on Nomination Day who will form the government. The political leadership and the civil service have to work hand in hand in this new environment, with each understanding its respective role.
What is it that enables our system to work under these circumstances? The basics have not changed, the political leadership and the civil service must still share major beliefs, values and ideals. These are fundamentals and if a civil servant disagrees and does not accept them, it would be very hard for him or her to be effective. But we have to now be clearer about the different roles of the Ministers and the civil service.”

So if the G shifts to the left, the civil service moves along with it to carry out new policies. If the civil servant doesn’t think the G is doing right, then it is better that he goes. This adds a new dimension to anyone who wants to climb the public service ranks. You need to identify with the G’s agenda. Then again, given that top civil servants have spent some time in the civil service system already, it’s likely that they would have imbibed the values along the way. It’s not like they are mid-career entrants.

PM on people who think nothing will change if the G changes:

” They imagine that with a system in place, all we need is to do is to hold elections. Some party will win the elections, it will form the Government and those who are elected will automatically be able to lead and run the country. After all, we have a good civil service and the civil service will always be there to make things work. So, we do not really need to worry about stabilisers, safeguards, checks and balances or a good government. The system will work and produce a good outcome, automatically and forever.
This is a complacent and a mistaken view. No system is fail-safe, and impossible to crash.”

This is what opposition political parties have been saying to those who worry about the system breaking down should there be a change of G. But those political stabilisers need not be institutionalized structures like elected presidency or NCMPs or NMPs, no? It may well be just more opposition politicians in Parliament who are a reflection of the will of the people.

PM on ministers in their ministries:

“At the same time, the Minister must also master his Ministry, and the policies he is responsible for. He is not a non-executive chairman, this is a double negative, so listen carefully. He is not a non-executive chairman, one presiding passively over an organisation that runs fine without him, while he busies himself with political affairs. He has to be hands on, articulating a clear strategy for his Ministry to serve the needs and aspirations of the people, making sure his PS does a good job in implementing policy and operating the ministry, helping the PS to do that.”

Which is why there are some people who think that the place will break down – because the minister is a super PS. It’s no wonder that opposition parties try so hard to counter the view by saying it will be business as usual whoever is in charge. The Singapore system has politics and policies so intertwined that they can’t be divorced. It’s okay if the G has a strong mandate, but not if a huge segment of the population doesn’t give its support.

PM on how civil servants should relate to their political masters:

“You must be equipped and able to translate political goals into workable policies, or if it is not possible or absolutely impossible, you must have the tact and the skill to explain to your Minister why it cannot be done. The civil service is not independent of the elected government, unlike the judiciary, which is a different branch of government. Under our system of government, the civil service must serve the elected government of the day. Therefore, the civil service must understand the political context, and the thinking of the political leadership so that it will not come up with policies that are non-starters, so that it can design policies that are not only sound, but are well-supported and can be well implemented. Civil servants have to be politically impartial.”

The civil service here is not like the American system, where a new President sweeps in with a new set of advisors. Even in the United Kingdom, the civil service has found itself having to prepare a shadow team in case there is a change of leadership. Nor is it like the Chinese system, whether politicians rule the roost and the roots. PM is calling on civil servants to make some fine distinctions on their role rather than look to other role models which have simply led to fraying and incoherent pendulum-like policies.

PM on detachment:

“There will always be a fine balance – between the civil service being neutral and non-political, and the civil service being politically sensitive and responsive. It is inherent in the role of the civil service, to work with and for political leaders, in a political environment, and yet maintain a certain detachment from politics. It is a fine balance which has always been required, and which we must continue to maintain.

There is a third angle no? A civil service that has been politically co-opted to prolong the longevity of a political party. Besides barring key officers from being political party members, how else are civil servants detached from politics? It’s a bit hard to envisage when top civil servants are catapulted into politics every GE.

PM on an abnormal country:

“Sometimes I read people saying that, arguing that they want Singapore to become a “normal” country, I think that is most unwise. If we ever lose it and become “normal”, like any other country, where the politics of division takes hold, and policies oscillate from one end to another with the political winds, we will have lost a precious competitive advantage and it will be very difficult for us ever to become special again.”

So, in the end, it’s about giving one party a strong mandate to lead. PM cited European countries with coalition governments trying out consensus politics which turn out wishy washy policies. This is why some extreme groups can take root because of the people’s dissatisfaction with the political system.

Pity the poor civil servants. They need a new political philosophy for these changing times and perhaps, a new instruction manual that goes with it…


Featured illustration by Natassya Diana.

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