Whither the civil service? The risks of the loss of PAP dominance

IN HIS article published in The Straits Times on Oct 1, “The politics of dominance: Don’t take it to the limit”, Mr Han Fook Kwang identified the consequences of prolonged dominance by the People’s Action Party (PAP): complacency, disconnectedness from the public, and groupthink. He also highlighted the implications that the unbroken incumbency of the PAP would have for the civil service:
 
“This is a pertinent risk in Singapore because the ruling party has been in power for so long, the public service has known no other political master. Public servants are supposed to be politically neutral in theory, but in practice it can be difficult to draw the line.”
 
This issue is not new. It was raised by Mr Eddie Teo, former Permanent Secretary and current Chairman of the Public Service Commission, in a May 2010 interview with Challenge magazine (a publication of the Public Service Division):
 
“In Singapore, where the same political party has been in power for 45 years, can and should the Public Service be ‘politically neutral’? After such a lengthy cohabitation, is the Singapore Public Service totally politicised and just an administrative arm of the People’s Action Party, as alleged by some critics?”
 
At stake are questions about the neutrality and politicisation of the civil service. Politicisation of the civil service causes anxiety because it jeopardises the neutrality of the civil service. So the theory goes.
 
Frankly, such anxieties are misplaced. Civil servants are “political” because they advise on and then execute political decisions. All public administration is political, despite whatever theoretical fictions we have contrived. Singapore is no exception. It is just a matter of degree.
 
Mr Han suggested that the PAP’s dominance risked compromising the neutrality of the public service and the integrity of public institutions. But the civil service being loyal to the PAP government, often unabashedly so, is not a problem. It is supposed to be, under our hybrid Westminster system. The real problem is, can the civil service be just as unabashedly loyal to a government formed by a different party?
 
From the outset, the PAP’s priority was getting the civil service aligned with itself. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said at the opening of the Political Study Centre in 1959:
 
“If the future is not better, either because of the stupidities of elected Ministers, or the inadequacies of the civil servants, then at the end of the five-year term the people are hardly likely to believe, either in the political party that they have elected, or the political system they have inherited.”
Mr Lee had always seen politics and administration as inextricably linked. To him, civil servants needed to appreciate the political underpinnings of their work beyond the technocratic dimension. In the same speech, he said:
 
“If the Political Study Centre achieves nothing else but the awakening of your minds to problems which you may have overlooked before, if it opens your minds to political riders which you had formerly regarded from purely administrative eyes as tiresome problems, then it would have succeeded.”
 
However, over the decades, the consolidation of PAP’s power ironically relieved civil servants from having to appreciate “political riders”, since the politics seemed to have been settled once and for all.
 
That is, until the return of politics in this so-called age of contestation. Mr Han asked, what happens to the civil service when the PAP remains so dominant? The question I ask instead is, what happens if the PAP does not?
 
If the PAP loses its dominance, it will prove to be truly unchartered territory. However, the experiences of the Japanese and Australian civil services can provide some insights on what we should do and what we should avoid.
 
Japan in the early 2000s is a cautionary tale of how the relationship between politicians and civil servants can break down. When the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power in 2009after the long-term incumbency of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the DPJ’s distrust of the bureaucracy led them to marginalise the civil service. Worse, the DPJ government tried to score points with voters by publicly bashing the bureaucracy. The DPJ interregnum was marked by mutual sabotage between ministers and their civil servants. When the LDP returned to power in 2012, further deterioration occurred. The LDP could not trust those civil servants who had seemed too cosy with the previous DPJ regime and so acted to purge them from the service.
 
In Australia, a country more used to political contestation and changes, the civil service routinely prepares two sets of policy briefs during the national elections. One is for the scenario of the incumbent retaining power and the continuity of existing policies. An example is the brief to the incumbent Prime Minister Julia Gillard for the 2010 election:
 
“Please accept my warmest congratulations on being returned as Prime Minister. My department is very much looking forward to continuing to serve you… Since your elevation as Prime Minister on 24 June 2010 and more recently during the election campaign, you have laid out a comprehensive program to secure Australia’s wellbeing now and in the future. The attached Incoming Brief provides your department’s professional advice on how to implement that program successfully.”
 
Another brief anticipates a change of government and the likely shifts in policies, and is addressed to the possible incoming Prime Minister (in this case, Mr Tony Abbott):
 
“During the election campaign, you outlined some changes to the machinery of government that will be necessary to implement your election commitments… As the Secretary of the Department, I look forward to providing you with the highest levels of service. Our advice will be proactive, strategic, practical and, above all, honest.”
 
This mechanism reflects the Australian civil service’s anticipatory mind-set and political savvy in building trust with all parties without eroding the trust of the one in power.
 
The possibility of the PAP losing power, right now, is a remote one. But what seems improbable in the short term is inevitable in the longer term. We need to acknowledge that there are also risks to the civil service due to the loss of the PAP’s dominance. This means having to ask questions such as: How much thought has gone into building processes and structures to minimise the disruption of a change of government? Is the relationship between the PAP and the civil service robust and enlightened enough to allow the bureaucracy to reach out to the most viable opposition party, if a change of government seems imminent? Or how does the civil service adjust to a world where the PAP’s dominance is only merely diminished?
 
The civil service’s deserved and much-vaunted ability to think long term needs to be turned on itself, to figure out how it is to manage transitions of power. This is not only for the good of the nation; it is also a matter of self-preservation.
 
By the same token, its current political masters need to go beyond mere acknowledgement that its incumbency is not unending, and to work meaningfully with the civil service to ensure that such transitions are as smooth as possible. Perhaps it comes down to loosening the bonds between the PAP and the civil service, to create space for the latter to develop its own mechanisms for dealing with a change of government, in a similar manner to the Australian civil service.
 
Whatever it is, it cannot be that if a new democratically-elected government comes to power, its policies and administration are bedeviled by mutual suspicion between the incoming ministers and flatfooted civil servants, and thwarted by legacy norms and systems. Ensuring a smooth transition of power: any government in power in a democratic system owes this duty of care to the nation.
 


This piece was first published on The Middle Ground on 7 October.