Technocrats have to become politicians to push good policies, says Chan Heng Chee
By Phua Mei Pin
Nearly 40 years ago, a young political science lecturer at the then University of Singapore wrote an essay saying Singapore had been depoliticised into 'an administrative state'.
Singapore, she said, had seen 'the steady and systematic depoliticisation of a politically active and aggressive citizenry'.
On Friday, the writer - Singapore's Ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee - said it was time for her seminal essay to be revised.
'If I were to write now, I would talk about the repoliticisation of Singapore,' she said.
Professor Chan had earlier also argued that a depoliticised administrative state did not need a demagogue or charismatic leader, but called for a 'systems man'.
Today, she said, Singapore has an abundance of such men. 'We need more than that. We need politicians. Technocrats are not enough. Technocrats have to become politicians.'
While the country needs good technocrats to plan and design policy, 'good policy is also an understanding of how it will be received on the ground', she said.
Prof Chan was speaking to The Straits Times as her alma mater's political science department celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Last night, she was honoured as a member of its first student intake in 1961, as well as one of the most illustrious alumni of the university, now called the National University of Singapore (NUS).
At the interview, she drew a contrast with the politics she observed in the US. While the US has avoided difficult issues, Prof Chan said Singapore's strength lay in its ability to make difficult decisions that are beneficial in the long run.
'But you have to understand how it goes down on the ground. But the ground should not expect only easy things to be done.'
For Prof Chan, the evidence of repoliticisation is obvious, as seen in the heightened activity on social media platforms and the number of contested constituencies in last year's general election.
It has also shown up in her work as ambassador, when she visits US campuses to speak to Singapore students on trends in Singapore politics. 'They seem to be quite informed. They're engaged, and they feel for Singapore. That's a very good sign.'
Speaking to students is not a novelty for the academic, who taught at the political science department for 20 years, heading it from 1985 to 1987, before going on to found and run the Institute of Policy Studies in 1988.
But where she used to send her students out to the ground to conduct their research, she now finds herself telling Singapore students overseas that they should return to Singapore.
But they would ask what the Government was doing to draw them home. She would tell them: 'In the end, it is your family. It is your wanting to be back in Singapore. It's in your heart.'
[I think this speaks to the failure of both the govt and the students. The govt for inculcating an "incentive-disincentive" approach to problem solving, and the students for allowing themselves to be conditioned to such a problem-solving approach.]
She added: 'If you decide not to stay in America, America will not miss you. If you don't come back to Singapore, we will miss you.'
Recalling that she did not even consider not returning to Singapore, Prof Chan said of her generation: 'We had a sense of mission.'
In 1965, within two weeks of arriving at Cornell University in the US, she shortened her six-year doctoral programme to a two-year master's programme, letting her return to Singapore sooner.
In 1989, she was appointed Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations, then ambassador to the US in 1996, a post she still holds. She will join NUS' Board of Trustees next month.
But for all she gained from studying political science, one most-used skill as a diplomat was picked up when she wrote jingles for an advertising company in her pre-university days. It taught her the importance of projecting the image of Singapore.
If there is one skill set current political science students can do with, it is communication and people skills, she said. 'You have to engage people and you have to make yourself interesting. Otherwise, why would anyone want to engage with you?'