Thursday, 22 January 2009

Discordant note - Pax Singaporeana

Civil servants should remember the values of the Singapore Public Service: 'Integrity, Service, Excellence'. Our first duty is to serve Singapore and Singaporeans, and we should always conduct ourselves with decorum and humility. Everything takes its marking from this.

- Minister Teo Chee Hean

Remember the values. But how are these values evaluated? Through the billions in Singapore’s economy. To serve Singaporeans. But in turn, what do Singaporeans serve? To increase the billions in Singapore’s economy. Who holds the key to those billions, and where have all those billions... gone?

To serve Singapore. But what is Singapore?

Remember the values. Just do not forget Singapore’s economy: everything takes its marking from this. Remember to remember. Singapore is an economy.

Minister Teo’s words were a rebuke to Perm Sec Tan Yong Soon, not so much for his unbecoming deeds, as for revealing a fact that is the ivory echelons of the State. Revelations that have political ramifications in these sensitive times. Because the ruling regime and the state have become one. In fact, there is nothing unbecoming of what Tan did. In order to uphold the values of Integrity, Service, Excellence, the Civil Service, it has been argued, needs to be remunerated well. And when you are remunerated well, you shall find well-heeled places worthy of your munificence. If one reads Tan’s article more carefully, one would find little, if nothing, boastful about his vacation. It was presented rather as a matter-of-fact. Earnestly, he presented another world of Singapore. One that eats her cake in Paris. He was only and truthfully being himself.

MP Charles Chong offered a gem of wisdom:

Maybe it made lesser mortals envious and they thought maybe he was a little bit boastful.

He tried to clarify these scorching words afterwards, replacing ‘they' with ‘us’. But it was already too late. He had unwittingly let slip an ‘us’ and ‘them’, as there indeed is. And MP Charles is not with us. Whether or not he is 'they' or 'us', or even whether such a binary is meaningful in the first place, is not as important as what those words signify, what that very slippage conveys. His words encapsulate the meaning of Singapore: your worth as a citizen as measured by your economic utility. Your value as a human being as determined by your wealth. Otherwise, you are merely a lesser mortal. It is no less generous a sobriquet than a mere ‘digit’. If you can ignore the politically incorrect-ness, you will see that these otherwise innocuous tropes carry the simple ontology that is Singapore. The essential core from which such lexical violence and contempt are regularly, earnestly, and impudently unleashed upon Singaporeans, and essentially the same core that explains why Singaporeans regularly, earnestly, and resolutely accept such treatment.

This is a natural outcome of ‘meritocracy’. Because the logical conclusion to meritocracy is elitism (from elitism), what more elitism in an authoritarian regime based on eugenics and fascist ideology. And meritocracy lies in the heart of the Singapore Dream. Meritocracy, the supposed backrock of Singapore’s civil service, exemplified to perfection in the generations of schoolkids pressured to ace the successive decades of imperial examinations, enticed with scholarships, entrapped by high salaries, before finally entering the permanent, cloistered halls of the government elite.

Serve Singapore and Singaporeans? Conduct myself with decorum and humility? But why should I? I worked for it. I made it. I am the nation’s best, without whom my nation shall perish. I deserve all these. Why should I be denied, or hide my rightful entitlements? The Civil Service is the Singapore Dream. And the Singapore Dream lives to be flaunted. The Singapore Dream makes the idea of Singapore possible. It makes the Singaporean life bearable. This is the pact that Singaporeans have willingly signed.

But what if, for the majority of Singaporeans, our meritocracy is a farce, and the Singapore Dream an illusion?

Meritocracy, another form of elitism, appearing more legitimate; the parallel maneouvres of 'intelligence' over 'wealth' AND 'intelligence'=wealth. Thus harder to displace. But as a mode of organising society, it is untenable over the long run. And our initially 'meritocratic' structures are showing signs of atrophy. But until then, our ‘meritorious’ will continue to rise and lead, according to narrow, pre-demarcated categories of merit, within restraining structures that reinforce these categories. Categories that are, predictably, an exact replica of our founding fathers: male, heterosexual, mostly Chinese, English-schooled, overseas-educated. Categories that have replicated themselves in the successive decades, entrenched the system, systematised the government, governed a nation's mind. Categories that reproduced the power that spun its own silk of power, power that strengthened its own silk web. Arachnidan power that stultified a nation's growth. Let these meritorious ones ‘rightfully’ rise to riches. And the remnants shall deservingly fall back, lucky just to live. Just be thankful you're a Singaporean.

This is the discordant note: rich civil servants – the meritorious, the elites – serving the people. No, the lesser mortals. There is little disagreement that civil servants need to be rewarded well. The concerns in these Straits Times Forum letters, writing in support of Tan Yong Soon, they are mistaken. The point is not about civil servants spending their own money during their own time.

What is harder not to pick apart, is the plethora of false justifications proffered, so that they could be remunerated excessively. Without high salaries, no capable minds would join the service, and therefore Singapore would perish? Laughable that a bureaucracy brimming with the best and the brightest cannot hold up the country. Or has the ruling regime monopolised the bureaucracy, indeed the Singaporean society, and held it all hostage? Or is it a case of Love thy country, But love thy money more? Or see, hear, and speak no politics perhaps? Singapore is not the only country fraught with dangers and feeding only 4 million mouths. But while others institutionalise a democratic form of government, and create a more egalitarian society, our successive cohorts of supposedly well-educated Singaporeans are made increasingly dependent on the ruling regime, made increasingly materialistic. That we have no natural resources? People are natural resources, and natural resources do not necessarily ensure prosperity and progress. Singapore is vulnerable? It might be less so if you reduce your overwrought sense of siege. Singapore is no longer that vulnerable. Singapore is unique? So is every other country. But that has not stopped us from trying to export our 'Singapore Model' to China and the developing world. The spreading wings of Singapore. The Singapore Flyer; Pax Singaporeana. Cheered on by our happy fellow Singaporeans, drunk with false nationalistic pride, numbed with collective fear, fed on fallacies and spin.

We do not like to hear the elites saying, "Let them eat cake." Yet, we like to have our cake, and eat it too.

Strip away all these hollow justifications, and that kind of salary figures would be difficult to justify. The ruling regime's achievements no longer that stellar, and in fact, you realise Singapore can survive without the ruling regime. That it is strong only because it deliberately kept everyone else weak and dependent. That it is holding Singapore back.

When top civil servants are paid according to market rates, they naturally live and think like kings. Especially when our civil service have been subsumed under the one-party system. Especially when the civil service is not the free market. Permanence and protection, along with the other usual perks. Why not? Thus, decorum, humility, and public service will be tokenistic, belaboured, if not incommensurable. If not a facade. In Singapore, there are few civil servants. Mainly mercenaries and elite mandarins. Every man for himself. No Singapore nation, but Singapore Inc. And the mandarins serve the king. Everything takes its marking from this.

That is why the likes of Tan Yong Soon will always be simultaneously envied and resented. Not because Tan and the elites have succeeded, but because the system that produces them is unjustifiably unfair. And because the system of rewards is fundamentally based on misguided values. That is why there shall always be two Singapores residing in two different worlds, hopefully the twain never shall meet. That is why the inaugural words of President Obama will always make the self-serving leaders of Singapore feel small. Undeserving. And phony.

Two days ago, in Washington D.C., there were no flashy special effects, no flamboyant promises, no contrived flourish of letting a hundred flowers bloom. There were no need to. Just a man and his single dream to serve. Just a man standing in front of his country, graceful to those he defeated, thankful for His grace, and grateful to his country and her people for this opportunity to serve and to lead. This is heartfelt sincerity. Obama is a priceless symbol of America. A pure inspiration.

His words spoke to Singapore too, not to criticise, but to show how she could be better. Truer. Greater. Perhaps that is why when Singaporeans watched Obama’s inauguration, they rivered more than a tear. They forgot for a moment that they were Singaporean. For a few breaths, it was as though everyone was an American, and Obama was their president. They were lost, and Obama was leading them home.

Then, they remembered to remember. They were Singaporean. They were all that Singapore today stood for. And for what and for whom does Singapore stand? The way Obama rose to power, he would have been persecuted in Singapore even before he started. Passion, idealism, inspiration. Persecuted. Thorns on the side. And so those Singaporeans, perched in front of their LCD screens half a world away, imagined, if only, that Singapore was a place where thorns could grow with roses. Thorns supporting that cusp of enfolding petals and sweet nectar. Thorns protecting the very life of that rose.


Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

- President Obama, Inauguration Address, 20 January 2009


  1. "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified." On this score the PAP has failed miserably, and deserves to be sacked from office.

  2. But our system works. And we're unique. And welfare is a dirty word, so fare/well on your own. And retirement is death. And if they're sacked, the country will die ... etc.

  3. We need to make a distinction between the rank and file civil servants (100,000+)who are NOT in the Administrative Service (200+). It is this group of mandarins who benefit the most from the close relationship with the pappies. The real hard work is done by the rank and file.

    To be fair, there are Admin Officers who are worth their weight in $$$. But many climbed up the path the scholarship open sesame that lead them to the halls of ELITE-land.

    The rank and file civil servants will keep Singapore Inc moving even if there is REGIME change.

    Majullah Singapura.

  4. Perhaps one needs to completely rethink the evaluation, selection, grooming, and promotion criteria of civil servants and politicians.

  5. 太喜欢你的文章了,掷地有声。