ETHOS Issue 15, June 2016
Of the key constituents of society, the public sector is the most directly accountable, through the various institutions of state and the political process, to the people and the national good. Yet by popular reckoning it has also been slowest to adapt to the shifting pulse of a modern, diverse polity as well as to the emerging technologies that have enabled sweeping changes in the marketplace and other spheres. In Singapore, this criticism may be less than fair — bound since the earliest years of independence by the necessities of nation-building and survival, our people and their government have co-evolved an intimate and intricate, mutually reinforcing relationship often described as familial.
On its part, Singapore’s public sector has been at the forefront of laying the groundwork — in terms of infrastructure, education and other long-term investments — that has enabled our citizens to thrive and better determine their own lives. It has gone about this with characteristic purpose, yet with a relatively light touch: Singapore’s lively online culture today testifies to this. It is in part because we have been able to support a world-class network and commercial environment, for example, that we can become accustomed to the latest advancements in global communication — including Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter — and now find our own time-honoured domestic systems perhaps sluggish in comparison.
Public impatience is not necessarily bad: it can, for example, spur greater effort and hence higher standards of service, or point to areas that warrant greater attention. At the same time, it is the public sector’s accountability that often stays its hand: it must be more circumspect about due process, privacy, security and equity than profit-oriented corporations, for instance. Is it reasonable to expect a more educated, empowered public, less dependent on government direction than in past decades,to appreciate the constraints under which the public sector must operate, and to parley accordingly? As a young nation, Singapore has yet to fully cultivate the social apparatus for civil public discourse that many other developed nations have taken centuries to nurture. Yet as an open society and globalised economy, we find ourselves in circumstances as complex as those faced by any global city, if not more so: we must therefore be quick learners, and find new ways to relate to each other civilly, productively and meaningfully as a nation.
Remarkably for an institution that has played such a leading role in national life for decades, the public sector is taking firmer steps towards more purposeful engagement and collaboration, seeking to fold the public into the governance process in intentional and integrated ways that may demand core changes in the way it operates. There is a tendency for the public sector to presume it knows best what is in the broad national interest: although it often has the clearest grasp of the big picture, agreement about the most pressing issues, or what is to be done about them, cannot readily be assumed in society at large. Instead, consensus has to be sought and built upon. In this, the tone and tenure of interactions will matter — McLuhan’s adage, that the medium is the message, is still worth heeding. While digital channels have come to the fore in recent years, it still behoves government agencies to pay attention to all points of contact they have with the public, whether online or offline, transactional or deliberative, in routine or exceptional circumstances. When the goal is to engender goodwill and trust, particularly in realms where the government is not the primary arbiter of behaviour, transparency, humility and good humour seem appropriate, at little risk to professional integrity. It may be more useful for the public sector to serve as referee, ensuring fair and safe interaction, rather than try to determine the flow of discourse, which has grown increasingly kaleidoscopic.
But engagement should not be confined to the savvier, more assertive cohort of Singaporeans alone: the launch of the Pioneer Generation Package has demonstrated that the public sector is still best placed to convene and scale up efforts to reach the less well-connected but no less valued members of society; it can also help bring different segments of society together (in this case, different generations), in effective yet deeply personal ways. A maturing society that becomes more diverse and complex can grow more robust, if its sense of shared destiny can accommodate these various personal stories. The challenge is to do so without overgeneralising for administrative convenience: just as the Pioneer Generation is not homogenous, neither are our ethnic communities, families, or households. Meaningful participation generates its own commitment. When individual citizens feel that their unique needs and aspirations are acknowledged, that they have a place in society, they are more likely to feel a stake in the national wellbeing, and more prepared to contribute to the common weal.
Other articles in this issue explore the nature of public trust in government — and why Singapore should value the broad respect its institutions enjoy,as well as perceptions of fairness in public policy, suggesting that there are many implicit, unspoken assumptions, beyond the measurable indicators, that may influence and inform public opinion, depending on whose view is asked.
The good news is that our national relations remain strong: the higher expectations placed on our Public Service reflect an underlying confidence in its capability, trustworthiness, impartiality and excellence; for the people of Singapore, ours is a government worth engaging with. This should never be taken for granted.
I wish you an insightful read.