PM’s praise of naysayers sounds Orwellian, and I love it ironically

Feb 28, 2017 06.00PM |

by Daniel Yap

I CAN’T say it’s a bad thing when PM Lee and senior civil servants call out in praise of constructive naysayers. It is heartening to hear those words from him.

At no other time in our history has Singapore so needed Steve Jobs’ “crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently”.

But when I look around me, I see a civil service rife with yes-men, round pegs worn ragged into squares, and all the rebels on the outside looking in. I see a society that is unnecessarily harsh on dissenting voices, a situation where promising alternative thoughts are never voiced aloud in the upper echelons of the G, and where leaders are conditioned to mount a robust defence of the status quo (with nearly no admission of mistakes) in the face of failing policies and ever-deeper problems.

So then in that context, PM’s words become the deep irony (I’ll be kind and assume it’s simply a lack of insight; if deliberate, it’s propaganda) of Orwell’s Oceania. Naysayer means yes-man. Reform means status quo. Respectable means conformist.

His description of how they grade potential MPs and political office holders is telling – “very high marks” are given to those who have a coherent, strong view of policy areas that need Government change. At this point, my jaw drops and I have a little giggle.

It would have been my assumption that every single MP and office holder must have a coherent, strong view on policy areas they want to be changed all the time because no administration is perfect. And that’s not a throwaway line – it doesn’t mean that there are small flaws in any administration. Every administration has serious policy failures that beg to be changed (it’s not always an indictment of policymakers, but a reality of a harsh environment).

What should have been the baseline requirement for an MP is now cause for “very high marks”.  

Not that MPs should never defend policy, but every policy area needs to have its supporters and critics in Parliament. Without discounting the current small voices of dissent, we want for champions.

By my estimation, fewer than half of our current office holders and MPs appear to have coherent, strong views on policy areas that need change. Gone is the sharp-minded sparring of the Lee Kuan Yew era. The bulk of airtime and effort seems to be spent reading from scripts, raising petty issues and defending the status quo rather than pushing for urgent re-thinking and reform on issues such as our population predicament, education arms race, weak civil society, diluted national identity,  lack of innovation, low productivity growth, greying generation, and more.

PM is big on tech solutions, so why not write an AI “policy defence” cliche script and vocaliser that can replace non-functioning MPs? Win-win, yeah?

The marketplace of ideas that Parliament should be requires the energy of productive disagreement. Instead, a few questions are asked, lame answers are given, and nobody actually pursues the matter to the end. The opposition then shakes its fist helplessly at the supermajority.

PM rightly observes that big organisations like the G are obsessed with wanting to avoid malfunction. The truth is that they are currently obsessed to the point where they are effectively in denial of malfunctions where they exist, or are paralysed to the point of being unable to fix significant malfunctions.

The G’s insistence on using small tweaks to solve deeper, underlying problems is not only ineffective, but misguided. It then proves to Singaporeans and a watching world that this nation is not interested in meeting its fundamental challenges, but would rather spend effort upholding the status quo.

Case in point: The lack of effective naysaying in the public sector.

It’s now become “naysay-ception”, where the problem of a lack of constructive naysayers remains unsolved because of a lack of alternative ideas from constructive naysayers.

I have heard for over a decade from friends in (and now out of) the public service bemoaning their inability to effectively change or talk about the things they feel strongly about simply because their bosses are yes-men, or paralysed by the fear of other yes-men further up the chain of command.

The G actively puts a chill on not-yet-constructive naysayers in their infancy, depriving them of guidance and opportunity, relegating them to the fringes, teaching them to stay silent. In the words of a friend of mine, “we crush the caterpillars and complain there are no butterflies”. And we keep breeding worker drones to take their place.

And then there’s the irony of PM saying in the same session that “leaders must be able to acknowledge mistakes”. So far, there seems to be no acknowledgement on his part that he and/or his administration are the fundamental cause of, and finally responsible for, the lack of effective, constructive naysayers in public service. If someone’s got their hand on the lever, it’s the men at the top. Perhaps it takes a woman to pull it?

It’s always going to come down to these things: put your money where your mouth is and let the results speak for themselves. The day that constructive naysayers function effectively and openly in the public service is the day I’ll take the call for alternative views as a sincere one.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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