Once in a while, we get these retired senior civil servants or diplomats who emerge from the woods to try to tell the current Government and the civil servants how to suck eggs. The message invariably would be – be bold, take risks, break new grounds, challenge your bosses, be a maverick. These are usually the same people who would instinctively bow and ask “How high?” when Lee Kuan Yew asked them to jump. Now that the old man is gone, they suddenly become the enlightened lot.
So I read this piece by our esteemed diplomat Ms Chan Heng Chee. Silly of me to not think deep enough and forward it to my civil service friend to tell him to wake up his idea. My astute friend was quick enough to dissect the piece for me and point out how contradictory the commentary (or was it a speech) was.
Here you are – a now self-anointed elderly stateswoman – I guess I can call her elderly since she must be like 75 – with all the swagger and trying to tell civil servants to be gung-ho, be the maverick, not to be scared, speak up without fear, go for broke with taxpayers’ money. And then within the same editorial space, committed the same kiasu, kiasi cardinal sins which she herself is accusing her civil service colleagues of!
Why do I say that? In her piece on what is needed for leadership in today’s global environment, she talks about the uncertain world, black swans or outlier events. And then, she went to name all the events which didn’t exactly look like black swans to me. Invasion of Crimea? Blockade of Qatar? Airbnb? Amazon? Lehman? Despite her years in diplomacy, her threshold for geopolitical and business surprises is really low.
But I digress. That’s not quite the point. She talks about the need for diversity and youth in leadership in the modern world. She names Trudeau, Macron and Varadkar, all in their late 30s and 40s. And then, to protect herself in case she ended up like her old friend Kishore Mahbubani, she had to spend the next paragraph painstakingly assuring the public she thinks Lee Hsien Loong should continue in office well beyond an old age. Talk about still wanting to hedge your bets when you want to come across as bold. Just when you think you going to have another maverick hitting home another strong commentary, we are immediately brought down to earth: she is no different from the people she is slamming.
Next, she laments the lack of courage among the civil servants in taking on new, bold and huge initiatives. Like, for instance, she related the story about how some civil servants will only do stuff that have been tested. Anything not done before would not be accepted. I actually share her sentiment, having had to deal with some B-less civil servants in the past. So you think you are on to something good. Break a leg. Make a big splash, you think she’s going to bark at her civil service colleagues.
Alas, she went on to the next point about sandboxes! Sandboxes which others are doing and we’re copying? Start small, controlled experiments. And when they succeed, then go big! In short, when not sure, don’t take big risks. Look at what the Chinese are doing in Shenzhen, Guangzhou in their special economic zones, she preaches. Er, have you read your own previous paragraph, Ms Chan. The special economic zones are probably the classic “Let’s copy someone first, not take too much risks, start small and then when sure, then expand. (In case Ms Chan has forgotten, the SEZs came after Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and took ideas from us and went home and unleashed that economic reforms. Again, see what others have tried and succeeded.)
Isn’t that what the civil servants are doing? Mind you, they are not entrepreneurs dealing with their own money. They are using hard earned taxpayers’ money. A little conservatism is not a bad idea sometimes. In the same vein, we have also read of how some government departments are wasting money on new untried technology or dabbling in businesses they have never done before and losing millions.
So there you have it. What a let down from the good professor. And what an irony. If she succeeds in anything, she inadvertently confirmed she is none other than one of those gutless digits herself – always looking not to be caught offside with the establishment and trying to keep herself in the good books with her bosses. And to think she is at the end of her career runway with little to lose. If she can’t even go all the way in her pronouncements and take some risks like Kishore or Bilahari, then can we really hope our younger civil servants can do better?