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Did Leon Perera Get it Wrong about Singapore Being One Nation under the Civil Service?

HAROLD CHAI: “When our leadership core comes overwhelmingly from one kind of career background – lifelong civil servants – the risk (of dependence on a small group of people) becomes greater… I respect our civil service, and the civil servants who have devoted their careers to serving the needs of people. But to have a core leadership to have very few with any other kind of career profile – that opens up the danger of group-think, self-rationalisation, and self-congratulation.”

That’s Worker’s Party NCMP Leon Perera speaking in parliament today on the need to broaden our shelf of leaders, so that we don’t wind up one nation under the civil service.

A commendable and rational issue raised, because its those from the private sector that know how to fight the economic wars that threaten to tip over the Singapore ship today:

Or as Senior Minister of State Dr Koh Poh Koon put it (also in parliament today):

“Many say business is like war; our SMEs are like warriors on the battlefield. They must train hard, burn off all the fat. In a competitive business world, enterprises must continually seek breakthroughs in technology and seek unique weapons.”

A balance is necessary – cold, hard and gritty men from the world of business to take on the job of steering this country, balanced with personnel from the civil service to steer focus to public goods.

But isn’t that what Singapore has in place already?

A count shows that 11 out of 20 Cabinet ministers (including the Prime Minister) are lifelong civil servants. That isn’t a drastic tipping of the bar towards the civil service, and does show a diversity of “hires” from different backgrounds.

Perhaps the issue that we should be concerned with is the number of lifelong army men in Cabinet – 6 in total, and comprising more than half the number of civil servants in Cabinet. Army leaders demand compliance, instruct with an iron-fist and lead by virtue of status – hardly the traits you can expect to have you survive in the corporate world, or the world outside of the military.

Outside of the army, there’s a variety of “lifelong civil servants” in Cabinet who have held various portfolios over the years – from a computer geek (“Zorro” Lim) to a cop (Heng), to a negotiator (Kung Kung).

And to add to the mix – doctors, lawyers, engineers and financiers from the corporate world.

So did Perera get it right? Hardly. He should have specified what he meant by “overwhelming”. Is 50 percent overwhelming?

Was this a cheeky attempt to say there’s “too many PAP people in power”? Maybe. But Perera’s statement does highlight the need to examine the diversity regarding the number of civil servants that form our leadership core. 30 percent of lifelong armed forces people in Cabinet alone is a pretty high figure.

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