Should a non-People’s Action Party government take over, they are going to have a lot of problems with the ministries — this seems to be a common view expressed by many whenever I pose the question of transition.
The belief that the higher levels of the civil service have been thoroughly politicised is widespread. My friends speak of obstruction and covert undermining. “They won’t be able to trust the top two, three or four layers of the administration,” says one.
The senior civil servants “will block new initiatives, making the new government ineffective, waiting for the return of the PAP,” says another.
I’m not sure that calling the top levels of the civil service ‘politicised’ is completely apt. I think it’s more a case of the seniormost civil servants sharing similar worldviews as the PAP. This would be no accident; they’d have been selected because they shared the same worldviews. They would also be personally invested in the policies that the previous PAP minister carried out, policies that they themselves helped design. Thus, any non-PAP minister’s attempt to depart from those policies would strike them as “rash decisions”; there would be a natural resistance, one bolstered by a feeling that they’re the only bulwark left defending “sanity” and “Singapore’s best interests”.
Bending over backwards
This topic came up following the Workers’ Party’s unexpectedly strong victory in the Punggol East by-election. Party leader Low Thia Khiang was quick to downplay the national significance of the result.
“You can’t take the by-election result as one that is going to be the trend in the future,” he told reporters before the WP went on a thank you parade with new MP elect Lee Li Lian, who won with 54.5 per cent of the vote.
“It is a by-election, it is not a general election,” said Mr Low, adding that voters did not have to worry that the Government would be voted out.
Mr Low said this was why he had taken pains to stress to voters the role the WP is able to play at this stage in its development. The party is “not ready” to form an alternative government and come up with a full set of alternative policies yet, he said.
— Straits Times, 27 Jan 2013, Low: Don’t take by-election result as sign of future trend
As you can see, he was also quick to tell voters not to expect the Workers’ Party to be ready to form a government.
Even more surprising was his comment that the PAP is a “competent government”. In the course of last week, a foreign diplomat mentioned this remark to me, saying it seemed very strange for the Leader of the Opposition to be saying this. A foreign correspondent told me that in his country, you’d never find an opposition leader saying anything like this, and if he did, the rest of his party might want to impeach him.
Yesterday, Mr Low sought to inject a further dose of reality, bringing up a point that he had made throughout the campaign.
His party, he stressed, is not ready to form an alternative government and come up with a full set of policies.
Rather, at this stage of its development, it will point out problems in existing policies and offer policy suggestions.
“I think we have a competent Government… we need to allow time for the Government to work, and I hope, eventually, the policies will take effect on the ground, people’s lives will be improved and we have a better Singapore.”
He added that while the WP will keep the Government on its toes, “it’s also not productive to politicise everything”.
— Straits Times, 28 Jan 2013, By-election win not sign of trend for GE: Low, by Leonard Lim
Party chair Sylvia Lim also repeated the ‘we do not politicise everything’ statement at a conference held 28 January 2013.
Workers’ Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim said yesterday that she makes submissions on government policies away from the public eye, as she believes that political parties need to avoid partisan politics.
And the ministries have treated her feedback objectively, she added.
Ms Lim, an MP for Aljunied GRC, said that as political parties, “we need to constantly check ourselves to avoid getting too embroiled in partisan politics and miss the wood for the trees”.
The wood here is the people’s well-being, she added.
— Straits Times, 29 Jan 2013, Parties need to avoid partisan politics: Sylvia Lim, by Tessa Wong
Aside from wanting to temper public expectations, one of my friends had an unusual theory for this almost-contortionist bending over backwards to re-assure the PAP. He said Low and the party would be highly conscious of what happened to former Workers’ Party leader J B Jeyaretnam soon after winning the Anson by-election in 1981. The PAP saw him as the thin end of a wedge, threatening their eventual hold on power. They investigated Jeyaretnam for his handling of party accounts, charged him, disbarred him and disqualified him from parliament. Low might also be mindful that more than 20 persons were arrested and detained without trial in 1987/1988, and some of them had links to the Workers’ Party. He would want to avoid frightening the tiger again.
I am not convinced that this lies behind Low’s and Sylvia Lim’s unusual words; however, I don’t have a better explanation.
Not enough people
By contrast, the statement that the party is “not ready” to form a government is probably a straightforward, honest assessment. The party doesn’t even have enough experienced people to head all 14 ministries, let alone provide depth.
If the Workers’ Party is not ready, what more of any other opposition party?
Yet the day will come when the PAP falls and other parties take over. That said, coalition government (with the PAP) is more likely than an outright opposition victory. But even in coalition, a non-PAP minister taking over a ministry is going to face resistance.
I’ve heard some people say that by that time, enough good leaders will have joined the winning opposition party to give it the resources to take over government. This is too sanguine. Politics doesn’t move in such methodical ways. There are many examples from other countries of small parties catapulted into power after an election.
It is less of a problem when a country has experienced regular changes of government. The civil service is not much wedded to any party’s philosophy. But in Singapore’s case, one can almost say the PAP has remade the civil service in its own image through the last 50 years. Setting new directions and executing new policies will be immeasurably more difficult here.
And that’s provided the incoming party has new ideas. What is worrying is that even Low Thia Khiang admits that his party does not yet have a full set of alternative policies. Of the other opposition parties, only the Singapore Democratic Party is consistently working on developing new policies. Even so, it’s still very much a work in progress.
The danger with a new minister walking in to a ministry without clear ideas of his own lies in bureaucratic capture. This, I suspect, occurs even when PAP boasts of “renewal”, inserting newly-elected members of parliament into cabinet. As a comment in a previous post pointed out, how much would an ex-military general or rear-admiral know of manpower, transport or social services?
Whether of the PAP or an opposition party, a new minister will want to read up as much as possible. But who would be giving him the papers and the briefings? The seniormost civil servants of course. By this process, the new minister is quickly inducted into existing perspectives and priorities. Before long, the minister is seen to be defending the status quo; at best he speaks only of “listening more” and “incremental change”.
If this has been damaging, time and again, to the PAP’s claim to being responsive to people’s concerns, imagine how much injury it is going to do to a non-PAP minister elected on a wave of hope.
To succeed, a changemaster needs two important assets:
- a clear-eyed view of what he wants changed, which means a prepared sense of what’s currently wrong and the direction he wants to take;
- people available to him, who are (a) like-minded or (b) not necessarily like-minded, but equally skeptical of the status quo.
It is thus worrying that opposition parties — with the possible exception of one or two — aren’t investing enough in formulating alternative policies. Without them, an incoming minister will not have a clear-eyed view of what he wants.
He will also need a pool of advisors, preferably experts in the same field as the ministry is in charge of, who can provide input and fresh perspectives. But it is hard to remove civil servants. The rules are designed to protect them from the vagaries of political change, at least in the short term, and so the new minister cannot rely on replacing uncooperative civil servants.
Then what else is he to do?
Quite obviously, he will need to ignore and bypass the obstructive civil servants. In an informal conversation I had recently, someone suggested that the new minister would need to freeze out the top two, three or four layers. The minister may need to find ways to deal directly with the fourth or fifth layer to get his wishes implemented.
More importantly, he needs to make sure he continues to get good advice. Unable to replace his top civil servants, he will need informal ways to tap outside expertise. Either directly or through his Political Secretary — from the name, you’ll know that it is a political, not civil service appointment — he will need to maintain regular contact with three groups: his own party’s think tank that develops policies; academia; and civil society. The latter two often contain people who know the issues as well as (perhaps better than) civil servants. The new minister can send to them data that the ministry has collected and ask these experts what other interpretations are possible from the data. What other solutions should be considered?
Hence, it looks obvious that to prepare themselves for the day when they are catapulted into power, opposition parties need to build trust and communication links with academia and civil society. They need to be able to draw on these pools of expertise if they are to avoid being captured by the bureaucracy soon after taking power.
I don’t really see that happening. I don’t see opposition parties reaching out.
At the same time, I suspect there is great fear among many in academia and civil society to be seen talking to opposition parties. Fifty years of PAP rule have made many people ultra-sensitive to accusations that they are consorting with the PAP’s enemies. Some might argue that as opposition parties win more votes, this fear will lessen. But the opposite argument may well apply: as the contest between the PAP and other parties intensifies to the point of winning or losing power altogether, the PAP may become even more suspicious of any academic or civil society group who gets friendly with opposition parties.
And thus is tomorrow uncertain. Even as PAP governance fails, and the need for an alternative becomes more pressing, we do too little too late to prepare for a different dawn. We spend too much time reassuring people that things won’t much change (“not ready” to take over the government, the PAP is a “competent government”), and not enough time thinking about and preparing for change.