Lydia Lim Associate Opinion Editor

Respect is key amid dissolving hierarchies

Power can no longer be preserved through distance as IT effect changes relationships

If Mr George Yeo is right, top-down relationships everywhere are being turned on their heads.

In a speech at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy 10th anniversary conference last Friday, he spoke about a crisis of institutions worldwide, caused by the "disintermediating" effect of information technology.

The former foreign minister, who is now chairman of Kerry Logistics and a visiting scholar at the school, said of the growing role of social media in shaping perceptions:

"The most profound impact is in the way hierarchies are being corroded by information technology disintermediating what kept these hierarchies intact in the first place - sometimes by ignorance, sometimes by hypocrisy, sometimes by rituals, sometimes by selective information and disinformation.

"In the past, a child could become an emperor because he's all dressed up, protected by courts, by music, by distance and people bow. Today, the cameras are everywhere; the microphones are everywhere and if you're not authentic, well, you will be laughed at. The emperor has no clothes.

"This has changed relationships in a profound way: between parents and children, between teachers and students, between doctors and patients, between priests and laity, between government leaders and voters. This disintermediation of hierarchies has led to what I would call a crisis of institutions around the world. And the more pyramidal, the more elaborate - Byzantine - institutions are, far away in Beijing, in Washington, in Brussels, in Tokyo, in Delhi, the less the public affection."

In other words, power can no longer be preserved through distance. Instead, leadership has to be exercised through nearness.

What might this mean for a city state like Singapore, whose success has been built on elite governance?

The first thing that needs to be said is that the political leadership is aware of the sea change taking place. What remains unclear is how prepared it is to embrace it.

In April 2011, a month before the watershed general election that saw the People's Action Party's winning share of the vote fall to 60.1 per cent, its lowest since independence in 1965, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at an event to unveil the party's manifesto of the importance of "servant leadership".

"Never forget we are servants of the people, not their masters," he told party members, adding: "Never lord it over the people we are looking after and serving."

As for Mr Yeo himself, he was already speaking publicly on this change back in January 2010, when he was still a Cabinet minister. In that speech, he singled out respect as a key quality of good leaders - not their ability to win others' respect, but rather their capacity to respect each person they encounter.

Observing then that hierarchies were breaking down and dissolving into messy networks, Mr Yeo said: "In a network world, that respect for diversity, for individuality, is very important. Those who can accomplish that in large numbers energise the network and are energised by the network. Then you have real force."

What might slow change in Singapore is its leaders' and people's aversion to mess.

There are few places in the world as orderly and efficient, and it is hardly surprising that those who have thrived under such conditions resist any descent into what they fear will be cacophony and chaos.

The second thing that needs to be said about political change is that there is a clear divide between those who miss the strong and decisive style of leadership exemplified by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and those who want a new approach marked by respect for voters and closer collaboration between government and people.

So there are differing expectations of what effective leadership looks and feels like.

Within families and across society, that gap may manifest itself in a generational divide, between members of the pre- and post-independence generations. And while there are people at both ends of the divide, there is also a huge swathe in the middle who have yet to make up their minds.

A proxy measure of how this is playing out comes from the findings of an Institute of Policy Studies survey conducted shortly after the May 2011 polls.

It found that efficient government remained the top concern among voters, the same as in 2006, with political checks and balances coming in second.

The survey of 2,084 people also found an increase in the share of "swing" voters. These are voters who fall neither into the conservative camp in favour of one-party dominance, nor into the pluralist camp that is eager for more political plurality.

The third and final observation on what dissolving hierarchies means for elite governance is that decision-makers need to be open to learning from many different sources. That includes the young, the non-experts and the folk who within the old hierarchies used to be considered unimportant.

At last Friday's conference, Mr Yeo was asked how Singapore's public service should re-orientate itself to serve an increasingly networked public.

He said he believed in the principle of insertion, which involves inserting oneself "into the community, into the problem", so as to "understand it holistically and to effect change from within".

"You cannot be bureaucratic, sitting on high, reading papers, doing statistical analysis and prescribing solutions," he added.

To a certain extent, the scholars within the elite ranks of the civil service, which Mr Yeo described as "probably the best administration in the world today", are already getting down into the trenches, some more willingly than others.

Ministry of Education scholarship holders are being sent to teach in neighbourhood schools.

Mandarins in the Administrative Service are assigned ground postings that could see them standing at bus stops to measure bus service frequency and crowding.

Are those in Singapore's elite ranks adapting fast enough to the tide of change?

They have made a start and will need to persevere.

But just as important to the nation's future is how the newly empowered conduct themselves.

Whether they be millennials, civil society activists or opposition politicians, they too need to respect those they encounter and show they can exercise their influence responsibly.

lydia@sph.com.sg