Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ties between civil servants and ministers

Nov 22, 2010
This is an edited excerpt of a speech by Foreign Minister George Yeo at the launch last Friday of a book, Dynamics Of The Singapore Success Story, by former permanent secretary Ngiam Tong Dow.

IN THE popular mind, the relationship between ministers and civil servants is often simplified in one of two extreme ways. In one, civil servants implement what their political masters want. That is the impression that good civil servants try to project, and maybe ministers too, when there is credit to be gained. The opposite simplification is the one caricatured in the British satire Yes Minister, where the title belies the truth, which is that civil servants manipulate their ministers and are the real masters.

The real relationship between ministers and civil servants falls somewhere in between. It is not a static relationship. A new minister should take good counsel from his permanent secretary to avoid making unnecessary mistakes. A more experienced minister may know more about his portfolio than a new permanent secretary, and so should give closer guidance to his civil servants.

Depending on the ministry, the issues of the day, and the relative experience levels, personalities and capabilities of the minister and the permanent secretary, that relationship can be at different points on the continuum between the two extremes. I believe the constitutional position is that while it is the Prime Minister who appoints permanent secretaries, the minister to whom a permanent secretary is appointed to serve must agree to the appointment.

Our formal system is inherited from the British. It makes a clear distinction between political appointments and the permanent civil service.

In practice, however, principally because the People's Action Party (PAP) has been the governing party since internal self-government in 1959 and independence in 1965, many aspects of Singapore's governance resemble the Chinese bureaucratic state that (John King) Fairbank, (Joseph) Needham and other scholars of Chinese history have written about, in particular, the practice of meritocracy in both the political and administrative elites. The induction of administrative talent into the PAP has become a Singapore hallmark, and is likely to persist. In the Singapore reality, the formal British system is built upon what is essentially a Chinese political and cultural substrate.

One illustration of this is the word 'scholar', which is used to describe a civil servant, Singapore Armed Forces officer or police officer who was chosen on the basis of high academic achievement and given a scholarship at the point of recruitment. It is an English word that in a British, American or Indian context would be incomprehensible. For them, a scholar is a scholar doing academic research. In Singapore, the scholar is often an administrator not doing academic work at all.

In fact, this is a Chinese idea expressed in English that has become a part of our vocabulary in Singapore. Singapore, of course, is only three-quarter Chinese and has to be multi-ethnic in its deep structure. However, the dominant political culture remains recognisably Chinese.

Seen against this common cultural background, it is perhaps not surprising that a China intent on reforming its public administration should take so much interest in the grooming of Singapore's administrative and political elites. In a curious way, the counterpart of our Public Service Commission and Public Service Division in China is the COD, the Central Organisation Department of the Chinese Communist Party - but only up to a point.

The Chinese government is increasingly concerned with its own relationship with ordinary people, more and more of whom now live in cities. It is therefore experimenting with democracy at the lower levels, seeing it as an important feedback loop against corrupt, despotic or unresponsive local authority. Study visits to the PAP's Meet-the-People sessions have now become almost compulsory for visiting Chinese delegations. Chinese leaders are convinced that Western or Indian democracy can never work in China. However, the hybrid that they see in the Singapore bonsai fascinates them.

All this is by way of background to Mr Ngiam Tong Dow's book. He speaks and writes like a mandarin. When he was in the civil service, his views were expressed within government walls. In retirement outside those walls, he speaks and writes publicly, which sometimes raises eyebrows. But - and I can personally vouch for this - it is the same self-confident, high-minded individual whose starting and end points are what is good for Singapore and Singaporeans.

When I was at the Ministry of Information and the Arts, Mr Ngiam was the permanent secretary at the Finance Ministry. He almost killed the Esplanade project, about which he paid me a high compliment years later. On the revolutionary transformation of our National Library system, he gave his fullest support. The acquisition of knowledge has always been his passion.

Could he, like Hon Sui Sen and Howe Yoon Chong, have joined politics? I don't know. But what I do know is that he is well aware of the pressures and constraints which political leaders face and which civil servants have to factor into their recommendations and in their implementation of Cabinet decisions.

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