Civil servants – eunuchs or naysayers?

Civil servants – eunuchs or naysayers?
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Public servants and civil servants are not having it easy. In recent weeks, they have been subjected to criticisms in Parliament, to ridicule online, and even questioned by former senior civil servants.

These are the results of an ever-changing society, with ever-rising expectations of standards and service, and deeper challenges in governance.

Before we go further, it is important to be clear what are public servants and what are civil servants. The Government defines both as:

“The Singapore Public Service employs about 145,000 officers in 16 Ministries and more than 50 Statutory Boards. Within the Public Service is the Civil Service, comprising about 84,000 officers in the Ministries.”

In this article, we will look at what two former top civil servants themselves have to say about the challenges and problems facing the service. The two are Peter Ho, former head of the Civil Service; and Philip Yeo, former chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB) and special economic adviser to former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.


Mr Ho, in an interview with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in March, said “people have more complex needs, including needs of self-actualisation and transcendence, which are much more difficult for governments to address.”

This has come about because of Singapore’s success as a First-World Country. Mr Ho described the job of governing today as “managing success”.

“Governing such a place is very different from governing a third world country,” Mr Ho said. “In the early years, as long you made the right decisions and plucked the low-hanging fruits of policy, things would move forward.”

Now, he says, things are a bit different.

“There is a lot more at stake. You have to strike a balance between how much you want to go forward, how much risk you’re prepared to take, and your stomach for change. I think this is the real challenge of managing success.”

Governing, in short, has an added element of complexity here. However, Mr Ho said, this does not mean there is no room for civil servants to be bold, or to take risks, like the earlier generation of civil servants did.

“At that time, you either had to just do things as prescribed in the rulebook, or you had to be prepared to make bold decisions for which there’s no precedent,” he said. “Luckily for Singapore, we had a whole generation of civil servants and government leaders who felt that they were empowered to make such bold decisions, and they did – without, by the way, compromising on the basic requirements of running government in a proper way.”

He said that today, there is still a need for that spark – “that ability to think boldly about the future.”

“But the big challenge now is, how much risk are you prepared to take? These are serious risks because we’ve achieved so much, that a bad miscalculation can mean losing it all. The stakes are much higher.”

This was exactly what Mr Han Fook Kwang, a panellist at a forum organised by the Behavioural Sciences Institute (BSI) in February had said.

“Policymakers are unwilling to take bigger risks with policies and fear that making major mistakes will cause Singapore to lose it all,” he was reported to have said.

Another panellist, former ambassador to the United States, Professor Chan Heng Chee, echoed the sentiment.

“We need naysayers in leadership teams who can think the unthinkable,” she said.

Straits Times

Indeed, Mr Ho explained, the willingness to take the path less travelled, as it were, is more critical.

“[The] imperative of being bold and trying things out is in some ways even more critical now because you’re competing at the top,” he said. “You always have to find something new that will give you a lead over the competition — it’s very cut-throat and difficult at the top.”

Mr Ho advised that younger civil servants “must remember that your job is not to just follow the rules.”

“Your job is to find ways to improve Singapore’s position and the lot of Singaporeans in a period of accelerating change and uncertainty. Of course you’re not going to be criticised for following the rules, but if you want to lift the quality of your policies and plans, and raise the level of good governance practised in Singapore, then it cannot be just about saying: ‘I followed the rules.’ Instead, it should be that ‘I tried to make things better’.”

He added that “every major decision and every major policy is not an exercise in finding the absolute right answer.”

“It’s always an exercise in making the right judgment — not a hard right or hard wrong — but a balanced one that serves the best interests of the majority and the country.”

But that is where the rub is – civil servants in a system which values stability above all end up being paper pushers, in the opinion of Mr Yeo, someone who is known for being a rulebreaker himself.

“There must be a balance with some turmoil,” he said in the book, “Neither Civil Nor Servant”, published by the Straits Times Press.

“If it’s all about stability, it gets really boring and a maverick won’t want it,” he explained. “He will run away. You will get people who are honest and respectable, but you won’t get mavericks. These are the people who follow rules – ‘Yes, Sir, I will do this.’ They are your obedient kids in schools and teachers like them. They grow up to be good eunuchs.”

Mr Yeo said part of the problem with a civil service culture which is averse to risk-taking is that “the management [ministers] is too involved in day-to-day matters.”

“They become administrators rather than leaders,” he said.

“Today, ministers overwork – doing everything and appearing everywhere. When there were issues with CPF, the minister answered. Where was the CPF chairman? When the trains broke down, the minister answered. Where was the SMRT chairman? In the past, the civil servants would take charge.”

Mr Yeo said another problem is the lack of depth in knowledge in the Administrative Service, which is made up of the elite top tier of officers, the Administrative Officers (AO), in the Civil Service.

“In my time, permanent secretaries were permanent in their postings,” he said. “Today, we should call them ‘temporary secretaries’ because they get rotated every few years. There’s no reservoir of experience.”

Mr Yeo himself, as he said in the book, was in the Ministry of Defence for 15 years and had remained in the defence industries for another 8 years, making a total of more than 20 years in defence.

“Now, all the AOs are assistant director, then deputy director, shuffled from ministry to ministry with no domain knowledge.”

This, Mr Yeo said, is however not the fault of the officers.

“They are well-educated,” he said. “But they are constantly rotated and they have no depth.”

This was unlike the old days.

The Old Guard politicians would sketch the big picture and told civil servants what they wanted and would leave the officers to carry out the tasks.

“It’s based on trust,” the former A*star chairman said.

Mr Yeo, who was at the forefront of Singapore’s economic development miracle in the nation’s earliest days, reiterated this “very big serious issue” of AOs being rotated too often.

“When I was chairman of EDB for 20 years, it was my job to worry about industries and jobs for the next 5, 10, 15 years,” he said. “If I were an AO today, staying in a position for 3 years and then moving on, do you think I give a hoot?”

Mr Yeo said ministers also had the same problem.

“Even ministers move, move, move,” he said. “So now the backside moves and the head moves too. Where you sit affects how you think, right? Once you’re given the job, if you don’t sit there long enough, why should you care? It’s not that you don’t want to care. But it’s just not your worry. It’s the next guy’s problem.”

“I spent 15 years in Mindef,” Mr Yeo said. He had been instrumental in creating Chartered Industries and getting Singapore to manufacture its own ammunition and weapons, and to export them, instead of buying these things from other countries.

“I worked on weapons way before anybody else because I have to think of many next years,” he explained. “But if I’m in Mindef for only 2 or 3 years, you think I give a damn? The next posting, I’m gone.”