Wednesday, August 26, 2015

I Know Your Boss and I am from a Government Department

August has been party month for Singapore. We have officially made to 50-years as an independent nation. Not only did we survive, we’ve actually thrived. While our neighbours struggle through Third World issues, we’re basking in the admiring eye of nearly every country of the world. Singapore, is pretty much a model for the rest of the world, and its’ not the third world backwaters in Asia and Africa that look to us as a model of development but even the developed nations of the West have started to look to us – think of the way former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair started talked about the “Stakeholder” society after a visit to Singapore prior to winning his historical election in 1997. London’s former mayor, Ken Livingston has even gone as far as to try and implement things like road pricing.

It also helped that as we were busy sprucing up for the big party, our neighbours had the misfortune to suffer from rather visible mishaps. An Indonesian plane crashed, thus highlighting that Indonesia, our biggest neighbor is still a third world country with dubious infrastructure. Malaysia, our closest neighbor went one better, their Prime Minister was caught in an embarrassing position of trying to justify how some 700 million US Dollars ended up in his personal bank account – a position no politician in Singapore would ever be caught in. These incidents made our virtues stand out all the more. We remain a clean, well to do and honest nation in a sea of third world filth, poverty and corruption.

While I’m happy to enjoy all the good things that Singapore and being Singaporean has offered, I’m inclined to think that we shouldn’t get too smug about our success. Yes, we’ve done well but we shouldn’t get too smug about our place in the world.

One of the areas that we need to be particularly careful about is the area of “corruption.” We’ve been lucky thus far in that our political leaders have been men of high integrity. Say what you like about the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew but he held himself to high standards and demanded the same of his ministers. The late Mr. Lee also held his own children to high standards. If our Prime Minister has benefited from being Mr. Lee’s son, he deserves it – Mr. Lee by every account was a man who expected the best, even from his own flesh and blood.

Singapore also remains a place where you do not bribe public officials. A few bucks to the traffic cop in other parts of the region gets you off a parking ticket – in Singapore, you end up in jail.

While Singapore remains “corruption free” in nearly every aspect of the word, there’s one form of “corruption” that we are not free of – power corruption. While people don’t try and bribe you, they’ll try to intimidate or impress you by how close they are to certain people in certain positions. Furthermore, the system seems to perpetuate itself. Take a close enough look at the companies that make up the stock exchange and you’ll find that sooner or later the same names keep cropping up. I think of SIA, our world-class airline, which has started to be retirement village for former air force chiefs.

Singapore is not the only country where power influence gets you places. In China they have “Guanxi” and children of Communist Apparatchiks do very well as board members of companies hoping to get places.  In the Western World, you have Old School Ties. Where you went to school usually determines who you know and that can often be the factor that decides whether you make or not.

What is unique about the Singapore system is that it blends the best of East and West. Like the Western Democracies, our elite have come from the nation’s best schools. These elite schools are “elite” because by and large they manage to get their students to achieve good academic results. Like the Confucian ideal, we select our top civil servants by a rigorous process of scholarship
The idea behind the Singapore system is that we do our best to make sure the best and brightest rise to the top and since they’re in government, they work for the nation rather than some profit driven private company. There are however, two key problems.

Firstly, there is the issue of “cookie-cutter” perpetuation. The good schools are good because they produce kids who get good grades. To get the kids who get good grades, they have vigerous entrance exams. More often than not, it’s the kids from the families that can afford to provide their kids with extra tuition to get past the exams. Kids from these families do not have to worry about taking part-time jobs to help support the family – they worry about passing exams to get into the right school and into the right government job. So while the idea is to find the best and brightest, what you usually find is that the same people end up rising through to the top and staying there. The chances of fresh blood breaking through is slim.

It goes without saying that the people at the top don’t want to lose the top spot and after a certain period of time, the system tends perpetuate itself for the same people. Instead of making good people better by exposing them to more problems, the system protects them from problems. Like any muscle, the brain tends to rot when it’s not challenged.

Then there’s the problem where the elite tends to think that it is entitled to be the elite. After all they have succeeded so brilliantly in the system for so long. While you can argue that much of the success is deserved, this type of thinking closes one from the many possibilities that life can throw up. One can be successful in one scenario but not in another. 

The second problem concerns the chaps who aren’t quite in the elite but want to get ahead. For them, the easiest way is to trade on their proximity to the elite and by crushing those beneath them. The system states that we, the underlings need to know our place in the scheme of things.

One of the organisations, which was supposed to be the great equalizer is the army. Everyone, regardless of family background is supposed to serve two-years in the army and to be treated the same. Well, that might have been the case in the early years but by the time I joined in the mid 1990s, there was this thing called the “White Horse” system. If you were related to someone or perhaps a selected scholar, you were somehow ….treated differently.

I remember one senior government official trying to justify this as a system of ensuring that the sons of the well to do did not get special privileges. His efforts in trying that explanation launched his career as a stand-up comic.

The worst case was during guard duty, when you were a junior commander trying to enforce the rules. Mid ranking officers (captain and below) would be offended when you insisted on seeing their ID. I remember asking a group of reservist for ID when they tried to book in after mid-night, the RSM of the group stuck his military ID in front of my face so that I could see his rank. I am ashamed to admit that I caved in and let them in – it was the easiest thing to do. It was a way of avoiding trouble. To be fair to my era in the army, I actually had good senior officers who applauded me when I stood firm on insisting on seeing ID, even from senior officers driving in and out of the camp.

This goes beyond the army. I remember working on a trial where one of the sides in the trial actually produced evidence showing a prominent government official who was at the time, CEO of our port telling someone the short cuts to get citizenship. It helped that her father was Comptroller of Immigration.

I think of the restaurant where I work at. I remember taking a reservation for someone who kept insisting that her brother knew the boss very well and would justify giving her special dishes. I remember telling the restaurant owner that he seemed to have lots of friends. He told me that many of those friends didn’t recognize him.


I don’t think the problem is going to go away as long as people are easily impressed with name dropping and don’t question. When they’re easily intimidated, they are easily influenced. Not something we as a society should look forward to.