Vote Wisely -YK Ong

The Age of Anxiety

According to pollsters, the UK was set for a hung parliament with no majority and no Government. Three top civil servants – the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, and the Private Secretary to the Queen – the “Golden Triangle”, stood ready to steer politicians to form a coalition government. As it turned out, the Conservative Party won with a majority. The civil servants were spared their heroics.

This scenario reminded me of what our Prime Minister Lee said during the May Day Rally earlier this month where he outlined the views of those who felt there was no need to worry about political leadership renewal in Singapore: we have a good system which can go on autopilot, civil servants know what to do to keep it going. So by that logic, Mercedes has an outstanding Formula 1 car, it does not need Lewis Hamilton. The car drives itself.

What the PM said provoked a moment of soul searching on the role of civil service. Can the service keep the system going even if PAP is not in power? It is a valid question. Singapore is in fact defying history – all over the world, political parties that stayed many years in power – LDP in Japan, Congress in India, KMT in Taiwan, PRI in Mexico, Golkar in Indonesia – all lost eventually.

I think should the PAP lose power, the civil service will adapt. But adaptation means that the animal is essentially a changed creature. Let me explain.

I worked 15 years as a civil servant. As a young officer, I was advised that civil servants need to be political, but not politicized.

To be political means to be sensitive to the political, not merely technical, needs of the Ministers. Their authority comes from the electoral process – they put their political beliefs and plans to the people and won the mandate to govern. It is not for civil servants to decide to build parks instead of HDB flats, or tax more to fund social welfare programs.

As civil servants, our job is to provide ideas as many ideas as we can, help the Minister implement his plans effectively, and help ensure policies are well-explained to the people. But it is the job of Ministers to judge which ideas work best, since he is answerable to the public during elections. And whatever we do must be grounded in public interest.

But at the same time I was clear that I do not get politicized. I cannot join a political party, go campaigning, deliver rally speeches, act as political proxies, or make any disagreement with my Minister public to seek support. If I want to take part in politics, I have to resign, which is what I did when I decided to take part in the general elections in 2011.

This is the code of honor by which I lived quite comfortably for 15 years. Based on this professional ethos, if a different political party takes over as Government, civil servants can be expected to carry on their work.

However, emotions and relationships matter. For a long-lived sitting Government to lose must mean that it is replaced by another party with a radically different vision and direction. If senior civil servants have gone through thick and thin with their Ministers, and feel for a policy with his guts as well as his head, running a new policy under a new Minister that is diametrically opposed to the old, may be difficult and demotivating.

In the private sector, people resign because of this. That is why business consultants say that we resign from our managers, not our companies. But in the civil service, part of the ethos is to stay neutral and carry on, and preserve the holy grail of the system, which is its stability. Hence the word ‘Permanent’ in front of ‘Permanent Secretary’. Notwithstanding, we cannot underestimate the destabilizing impact of a sudden change in the leader of a Ministry to one from a different Party with different beliefs.

The US has kind of a solution. When a newly-elected Democratic Administration takes over from a Republican Administration or vice versa, it is not just the Minister that changes. Civil servants a few levels below the Minister also change to party members of the new Administration. The US’ way of adaptation, in essence, is to politicize the civil service.

But I think what is more likely to happen here is the UK’s way of adaption. To cope with Government changing hands, the civil service distances and insulates itself from the Ministers. Civil service will do what it thinks is right and provides continuity, while ruling parties and their Ministers come and go. In the UK parody of public life ‘Yes, Minister’ (pictured), the Minister is not a political leader with a vision, but an inconvenience who needs to be managed. Or perhaps that’s just Jim Hacker.

When I was in Canberra Australia recently, it was a revelation to me that the offices of the PM and his Cabinet are in Parliament, not the ministries. Political office holders are constantly running in and out of the chambers, to answer questions, to cast their votes, to debate against opposition. Each Minister also have their own policy staffers, on top of those in ministries. It is a system that has evolved to suit their circumstances.

As we wish for the civil service to be resilient to change in Government, we do need to consider how it will be different, if Singapore becomes a two or multi-party system with frequent changes of Government.

As citizens, we vote for political leaders, and not civil servants, to lead and take our country into the future. We cannot be sanguine about our choices thinking that the strength of the civil servant can make up for any weaknesses of the Minister.

In Formula 1, as in running a country, the driver matters.



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