ETHOS Issue 11, Aug 2012
The language of public engagement is no longer foreign in Singapore’s Public Service. Many senior civil servants speak it and do so quite eloquently.
But speaking about public engagement is, of course, quite a different thing from carrying out public engagement. And this is where there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and practice in Singapore. For instance, government officials recently met selectively with concerned members of the public to discuss a controversial decision to build a road through a historically significant graveyard. When criticised for not taking the public’s views seriously, the Government explained that the meeting was never meant to be a “consultation”.1 So it is important to ask why such a gap exists and why it might be difficult to close it, assuming of course that closing it is what we want to do.
Firstly, the gap may exist for ideological reasons. Highfalutin
descriptions of one’s practice can be a nice way to obscure a rather more prosaic reality. Bureaucracy, after all, remains a necessary institution to tame and harness the chaotic energies of society and to rationalise and limit social variety as a means of establishing some measure of predictability and stability in a complex world. To re-assert control over rising democratic pressures while maintaining its legitimacy to do so, the Public Service may initiate public engagement exercises that are, in reality, forms of non-participation or tokenism at best. The bottom half of the citizen participation ladder, Sherry Arnstein famously argued, consists of efforts to manipulate, correct, inform, consult and placate citizens, a far cry from the citizen power that comes from partnerships, delegated power and citizen control.2 In this sense, public engagement platitudes serve to disguise a basic reality that is resistant to change and power-sharing.
Secondly, the gap may exist simply because of real practical challenges that attend to even the most genuine desire to engage the public. Here the gap is really between what public service leaders (and preferred public management gurus) may say their organisation should be and what the organisation at the rank-and-file level is truly capable of being. It could take a long time before the practice catches up with the ideals expressed in the leaders’ idealistic and sometimes even “revolutionary” rhetoric. Mid-level and frontline officers, who are confronted by a different set of risks and rewards in their daily challenges, are likely to be more sensitive to the practical limitations in the day-to-day choices that they make. Genuine public engagement is difficult to account for. The risks of failure, traditionally conceived, are high. And the work that it entails is much more complicated, troublesome, and slow in achieving results (which an officer needs to show at the end of each reporting year). What will all of this contribute to a promising officer’s career prospects? Celebratory talk at the elite levels of the Civil Service about inclusiveness could trivialise real concerns that anxious mid-level bureaucrats have about being able to reconcile the new-fangled rhetoric with traditional goals of efficiency, consistency and results in the practice of policymaking.
The gap between rhetoric and practice may exist because of deeply entrenched public sector mindsets rooted in Singapore’s political culture.
To progress towards genuine public engagement, it is important at the very start to acknowledge and work through its ideological and practical obstacles. This, I suggest, requires critical understanding of a third factor: the gap between rhetoric and practice may exist because of deeply entrenched public sector mindsets rooted in Singapore’s political culture, unique historical development, and the public mythologies that have nourished (or perhaps impoverished) our understanding of them.
Prospects for Public Engagement
As a neo-liberal global city, Singapore has been witnessing rising popular pressure. Politics has come to the fore again, prompting the policy establishment to pay greater heed to the demands of a new and more variegated citizenry, with political leaders now more sensitive to the real prospect of losing elections. At the same time, the cultural, ideological, practical and institutional legacies of the earlier survivalist and development stages continue to be a source of tension in the evolution of Singapore’s political culture. By no means has this been a simple and linear story of liberalisation.
However, are these recent developments enough to shift the deeply entrenched public sector mindsets that have been formed out of historically shaped ways of thinking and reasoning? Will a new generation of leaders in the public sector, whose horizons of experience may differ from the survivalist and developmental preoccupations of a previous generation, lead to fresh opportunities for new terms of engagement?
I have argued elsewhere that pragmatism as a public service value in Singapore has over the decades lost its flexibility, adaptability and open-mindedness. Hardened in turn by the survivalist, then developmental, and now even neo-liberal global-city stages, Singapore-style pragmatism has, ironically, become ideological.3 It is now a label that reinforces and then obscures certain policymaking rigidities and fundamentalisms. Some of these rigidities — such as risk-aversion, hyperbolic reasoning, obsession with economic growth, elitism, and scepticism towards the public — have made it difficult to close the gap between the rhetoric and practice of public engagement.
Although some officers speak grandly about its worth, others still find it difficult to envision a practice of public engagement beyond simply a public relations exercise; or a means of appeasing increasingly emboldened people who are essentially unreasonable and uncivil; or a necessary evil that can lead to the worst excesses of populism if not managed with care. The elitist proclivities of the public sector, reinforced by top-level salaries that are comparable to the private sector, are unlikely to incentivise real public engagement, since they reinforce the sense that public sector leaders, possessing superior intellect, knowledge and insight, must defend the public interest against irrational and dangerous mass populism. The public, according to this mindset, needs to be educated to think correctly rather than present themselves as equal participants in policy formulation and implementation.
So how can we go beyond rhetoric and improve our political culture?
A deep cultural change is necessary to disencumber our minds of these rigidities. We need to return to the original spirit of pragmatism that made Singapore so successful in the first place. Neo Boon Siong has, for instance, argued for “dynamic governance” that involves “thinking ahead, thinking again, and thinking across”.4 But culture is notoriously challenging to transform quickly.
We need to return to the original spirit of pragmatism that made Singapore so successful in the first place.
There must also be a congruous incentive structure in place — designed not only to reward officers who take public engagement seriously and can demonstrate genuine progress in their efforts, but also to signal strongly its importance, in ways that go beyond organisational rhetoric. We could commission studies that aim to identify appropriate indicators of successful engagement in the Singapore context, and develop tools for measuring them sensitively. We can adapt for our purposes the numerous models available around the world for evaluating public engagement. Furthermore, there needs to be adequate training for public officers, and a repertoire of effective engagement strategies that they can adopt, so that they will have the confidence and competence necessary to engage effectively. There are many case studies of successful and failed public engagement exercises from around the world that can provide concrete examples and inspiration.
With holistic attempts to encourage public engagement through cultural management, incentive structures and capability building, we can begin to redesign our public administration in ways that can revitalise a sceptical public and a distrustful strong state — forging a new, complex, perhaps at times open-ended, and yet productive relationship based on an expanded mode of public rationality. By necessity, it will be a slow process, with mistakes and failures along the way: impatience for results and intolerance of failure are two habits that will have to be unlearnt.
The Evolution of Singapore’s Political Culture
Singapore’s history, and how that history has been understood, shapes the limitations and prospects of public policy as a discipline and as a practice, and has influenced the evolution of Singapore’s political culture as a whole.
The Survivalist Stage
A number of features of Singapore’s political culture today may be traced to the period from Singapore’s independence to the mid-1970s, when the focus was on coping with an acute sense of national vulnerability and building upon the institutional foundations that the colonial government had left behind. To achieve this, the nascent state strengthened and expanded public administration to take over and centralise the provision of public goods and services that the relatively more laissez-faire colonial administration had generally left to community leaders, social groups, and even unlawful secret societies. This survivalist stage in Singapore’s history, characterised by a state-led determination to succeed against difficult odds, may have habituated a craving for immediate tangible results and fear of failure that both manifest as an aversion to taking risks in public administration and policymaking. The sometimes coercive muscularity of the nation-building project in the early decades may have led to a hyper-masculine paternalistic state that tends to privilege growth and achievement over “soft” options, emotional input, intangible values, and the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of life. The paradigm at work is of a heroically proportioned state, often couched in hyperbolic language, which pits apocalyptic imagery against opposing views, presenting all-or-nothing arguments that sometimes culminate in claims about slippery slopes to devastating failure. The public is often informed that “Singapore cannot afford to be or do X”, where X is a suggestion from the public that does not sit well with orthodoxies prevalent in the policy establishment.
The Development Stage
In the 1970s and 1980s, the impressive growth rates of the “Asian Tigers”, including Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, confounded conventional debates between proponents of the free market and centralised planning. A common trait among these East Asian “developmental states” was the role played by a technocratic state bureaucracy in directing economic development towards the achievement of growth and economic competitiveness. These were high performance state agencies — such as Singapore’s Economic Development Board — well-coordinated in responding to opportunities and threats, enjoying a great degree of insulation from interest group and other political pressures, even as they themselves were embedded in the domestic economy as major players.
As the end of the Cold War approached, the liberal West began to direct its criticism more pointedly at the human rights and democratic deficiencies it perceived of regimes in Asia. Singapore mounted an ideological defence by constructing a discourse of Confucian and then Asian values as an alternative to Western liberal democracy — an alternative that was also appealing because of the implied connection between these supposedly communitarian values and high economic performance. A Singapore model of governance was gradually being codified, including principles such as meritocracy, pragmatism, and intolerance of corruption.
Some features of Singapore’s political culture today can also be traced to this developmental stage, characterised by the primacy of economics and economic growth in determining contours of policymaking, and the significant role of the state as a director and major player in the economy. As the Singapore Government’s palpable developmental achievements formed the material and ideological basis for a hegemonic one-party dominant state,1 politics became a dirty word in the “administrative state”.2 Policy implementation is a relatively straightforward matter in Singapore, rarely confronted by effective political and popular resistance. The meritocratic talent management policies of the Public Service3 have produced not only a cadre of highly qualified and self-confident officers in the policy establishment, but also an elite strata of decision-makers distrustful of the public’s ability to offer any input to the policymaking process that is not ill-informed, short-term and self-interested.4
The Neo-liberal Global-City Stage
Since the late 1980s, Singapore as a global city has become more deeply entrenched in the logic and dynamics of neo-liberal globalisation. Singapore was liberalising economically (through the openness of its economy and privatisation measures) and culturally (through the relaxation of socially conservative regulations). Its Public Service was reimagining itself through the prism of private sector values, rewarding its officers according to their performance and taking a customer-focused approach to serving the people. The more concerted effort by the state since the 1980s to institutionalise official channels of communication between government and people, and to de-concentrate decision-making powers to unelected local councils in an enhanced grassroots sector reflected, in some ways, the state’s attempts to gradually dissipate pressures for political liberalisation.
The irony of Singapore’s success is that the direct beneficiaries of that success now have higher expectations of their Government and have become empowered by education, affluence, and global exposure to articulate these expectations and present their demands to a state that can no longer afford to be as insulated from popular pressure as it once was. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily the case that Singapore’s growing middle class is politically liberal in its outlook, since its fortunes are still largely dependent upon the establishment. However, economic and social tensions in the past decade, brought about in part by rising costs of living, accelerated flows of foreign labour, and the threat of widening income gaps and urban pressures on an already densely populated city, have bred popular dissatisfaction.
In the 2011 general elections, the PAP’s performance was its worst since Singapore’s independence. The opposition parties were able to field well-qualified candidates. The electorate included younger first-time voters, many more sceptical of the establishment and in the mood for political change. In the new spaces opened up by social media, ideological leadership emerged to amplify voices of discontent, mobilise oppositional thinking, and instil a widespread interest in local politics.
In Singapore, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was able, decade after decade, to secure a significant majority in parliament; all seats, in fact, from 1968 to 1981. The Westminster legacy helped to concentrate tremendous power in the executive, to such a degree that the alignment of the political leadership and the public service saw the eclipse of politics by public administration.
In the Singapore context, the term was coined by Chan Heng Chee, “Politics in an Administrative State: Where Has the Politics Gone?”, in Trends in Singapore: Proceedings and Background Paper, ed. Chee Meow Seah (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1975).
Most obviously demonstrated in the system of bonded public sector scholarships and high salaries for senior civil servants.
See for example, Tan, Kenneth Paul, "Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore", International Political Science Review, Vol. 29, No. 1 (2008).
- Goh, Chin Lian, and Sim, Royston, “Bukit Brown meeting ‘not a consultation’: Tan Chuan-Jin”, The Straits Times, March 21, 2012.
- Arnstein, Sherry, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, Vol. 8, No. 3 (July 1969).
- Tan, Kenneth Paul, “The Ideology of Pragmatism in Singapore: Neoliberal Globalization and Political Authoritarianism”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 42, No. 1 (2012).
- Neo, Boon Siong, Dynamic Governance: Embedding Culture, Capabilities and Change in Singapore (Singapore: World Scientific, 2007).