WHEN I joined the public service in 1970, Mr Lee Kuan Yew already had 11 years to work on transforming the public service which he inherited from the British to one which better suited an independent Singapore.
There was already a strong ethos of incorruptibility.
I recently met Mr David Rivkin, the president of the International Bar Association, who asked how our ethos of zero-tolerance for corruption was imparted to, and sustained in, the public service. I told him there had been no training classes or brainwashing sessions.
But public servants watched and followed the example shown by our political masters. We were incorruptible because they were incorruptible. We saw that they lived simple, frugal and unostentatious lives and dedicated themselves totally to nation-building and improving the lives of Singaporeans. All the older public servants who worked closely with our pioneer generation political leaders will have stories to tell about their frugal habits. To people like Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee, there was no such thing as work-life balance. Work was life, and life was work.
For public servants, the national narrative of ensuring Singapore's survival was also very powerful and very inspiring to anyone who looked for meaning and purpose in his career. We also saw how the law against corruption was applied to all, regardless of position, by the CPIB (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau). So we were motivated by the exemplary conduct set by our bosses and the inspiring goals they set out, and, at the back of our minds, we were restrained by fear. Money as a form of incentive played no role then.
MR LEE also inherited the Public Service Commission (PSC), but he made one important change to the British way of governance. He replaced promotion on seniority with promotion on merit. Hence, for the first time, we saw young able officers overtaking their older colleagues in the public service. This clearly upset many older public servants, but Mr Lee and his colleagues paid scant attention to that. To them, meritocracy meant not only promoting people on the basis of merit and not connections, but also doing it on an age-blind basis. The best, not the most senior, got promoted.
I recall that in the early days, some public officers made it to permanent secretary in their early 30s - something unheard of today. I was appointed director (of) SID (Security and Intelligence Division of the Ministry of Defence) when I was 31. I recall one grey-haired Japanese intelligence chief trying to unsettle me at our first meeting by saying I was the same age as his grandson.
There is a common misconception among members of the public who still think that public servants are selected and promoted on the basis of their academic credentials. It is true that Mr Lee sometimes gave the impression that to him, academic brilliance was of prime importance. But even he knew that character was more important than intelligence, and I recall him saying that having a smart crook in our system was worse than a simple crook.
As early as in 1976, Mr Lee had said in Parliament, when defending the public service against criticisms by a PAP MP: "Can he get a job done? Can he get a team to work for him? Is he a talker or a thinker, or a talker and a doer? The best, of course is the man who thinks before he expounds and, having expounded, he then acts. It has nothing to do with whether he has got a PhD or a school certificate or even a Standard VI qualification."
And as someone who spends three days a week interviewing scholarship applicants, I can assure you that academic results play an increasingly small role in the selection process. In selecting future public-sector leaders, PSC members consider school assessments, psychometric tests and psychological interview reports as far more important than academic results.
PSC does not give a scholarship to a candidate if he has straight As but fails to show that he has the attributes and qualities we consider essential for the public service. These include leadership, character, commitment, interpersonal skills, communication skills, stress tolerance, EQ and empathy. By the time we interview them, our candidates would have spent three to four hours with a psychologist and taken two psychometric tests. There are a lot of exam-smart kids out there in our student population but not all are suitable for the public service. The PSC interview continues to be an art, not a science.
As a former public servant, I can also vouch that promotion in service is never based on academic results. Nobody involved in the public-service promotion panels ever considers the candidate's academic credentials. We are completely blind to what O- or A-level results he got, which university he went to and what kind of degree he got. All that matters is how well he has performed on the job.
IMPARTIALITY is most important for public-service delivery. Public servants must serve the public impartially, regardless of race, religion, gender, wealth, age or political affiliation. This was important in a CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, others) multiracial Singapore and will become even more important in a more diversified, complex and ageing Singapore.
As more and more Singaporeans marry foreigners and as more and more foreigners become new citizens, the public service has to adapt to this growing diversity among our citizens and better understand and empathise with their needs. Having a more diverse public service - students from different schools, studying in different universities and countries, taking different courses - is also important because it helps the public service to cope better with the complex global challenges facing Singapore.
You would have heard about PSC's initial and modest efforts to inject diversity into the public service by awarding scholarships to students from schools other than Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong. This is not an artificial, forced effort. If it were, it would not succeed. If the best candidates are still found only in these two schools, PSC would be deliberately replacing meritocracy with affirmative action and awarding scholarships to the less deserving.
But PSC is actually only keeping pace with the changes in our educational system, which has been diversifying gradually in recent years. So PSC is now seeing more good candidates coming from non-RI and Hwa Chong schools and even in the polytechnics. I have personally been impressed with the top students from Sota (School of the Arts) and I will not be surprised if we get a Sota President's Scholar before I retire in three years' time.
What has changed
OVER the years, the way we select scholars and the qualities we look for in public servants have changed. Incorruptibility is the one legacy which must remain constant. The day we relax on that pillar is the day Singapore ceases to be exceptional and starts to decline.
But you can remain incorruptible without having to live the frugal life our pioneer leaders did. No need to bathe by dishing cold water out of a dragon jar or darn your torn shorts to reuse. I also tell our younger officers to try their utmost to match Mr Lee's total dedication to his work and to serving the nation, but their bosses must remember that today's generation of young people are seized with the notion of having "work-life balance". If we want strong families, we should also not expect our public servants to spend all their time working and neglecting their families.
When Mr Lee visited Australia, I arranged for him to meet some ex-Singaporean migrants, at his request. He was curious to know why they opted for Australia over Singapore. When one migrant told Mr Lee that he had given up a good job in Singapore so that he could work half a day in Perth and go fishing in the afternoon, Mr Lee was flabbergasted. He just could not understand why anyone would make such a lifestyle choice. To him, it was an irrational decision.
Other pillars, such as meritocracy, continue to be important, but our concept of what constitutes "merit" cannot remain static. We need to continue to redefine "merit" as the needs of the public service evolve and change in tandem with the changes in our society.
But overall, we still believe that Singapore requires a public service comprising top students from our schools who can be groomed and nurtured over the years into our public-sector leaders.
As the bad press on a few A*Star and MOE (Ministry of Education) scholars in recent years has shown, our scholarship award agencies do not always get it right.
Mr Lee had a clear view of the separate roles of the public servant and the politician. To him, the MP was supposed to be good at public relations - able to keep the constituents happy while having to say "no" to them. But the public servant was an administrator, not expected to excel in public relations. However, this is no longer the case. In recent years, our politicians now expect public servants to also excel in communicating public policy. Ability to formulate policy, administer and implement is no longer considered sufficient. The distinction of the role between the politician and public servant has started to become blurred.
The upside is that the politicians will have strong support from public servants when they need to sell government policies. But the downside of the change is that it will be more difficult for the public servant to behave in a non-partisan manner as the public will see him as intrinsically linked to the ruling party, perhaps even occasionally justifying the party line. It was not an issue in the early days because the old-generation public servants never had to worry about another political party taking over government from the PAP.
But GE 2011 has caused some of our younger public servants to worry about what to do if there are more and more opposition MPs in Parliament or even if there is a change in political party, and not just in government, maybe a few general elections from now.
In mature two-party democracies like the UK, there are set rules to help public servants cope with the transition from one government to another. But even in the UK, given the trend away from a two-party dominant polity to coalition governments, public servants are scrambling to establish new rules.
Elitist public servants?
WE HAVE critics from within.
Some people say the whole system of scholarships is wrong because we are breeding a group of elitist public servants who cannot relate to the public and the common man. The occasional stupid behaviour and insensitive remarks by a few scholars don't help. You can have 1,000 effective scholar public officers working quietly with great dedication to improve the lives of Singaporeans, but all it takes is one silly blog to tarnish the image of the public service.
The concern that our public servants are becoming uncaring and elitist is accentuated because of growing income inequality in Singapore. PSC worries about this too, but my view is that the problems of income inequality and a perceived lack of social mobility cannot be addressed at the tail end of the process. By the time the students come to PSC for interview, whatever unfair advantages the rich enjoy over the poor cannot be corrected just by giving scholarships to only the poor.
Levelling the playing field has to start from pre-school and continue right through a student's school life.
Enabling the poor to have access to good pre-school facilities, making the slogan "every school is a good school" a reality, correcting advantages that the better-off have in terms of tuition, proximity to better schools and more overseas trips, are best done early in a student's school life. It will not solve the problem if PSC practises affirmative action by treating scholarships like bursaries, awarding only to the poor and discouraging the upper middle class from serving as public servants.
Sadly, some people also seem to think that the PSC members are naive and easily conned by smart 18-year-olds and their smart parents. They believe, as one letter writer in The Straits Times Forum page recently implied, that scholarship candidates are lying when they tell the PSC that they have a heart for public service. They think the candidates only want taxpayers to pay for their scholarship overseas, the males want to grab the chance of postponing their NS for three years, and all are waiting to break their bond if they change their minds after graduation.
My response is that PSC members are fully aware that candidates come for the interview with a variety of motives. Some are deviously clever; others are just confused, unsure or uncertain; only a few are truly committed to a lifelong public-service career. Our job is to ensure, as best as we can, that we choose the ones with the right fit and ability so that they will stay for the long term.
The outcomes so far prove that we have not done too badly. Top students from our schools still apply for PSC scholarships, bond- breaking is still very low, and most scholars stay on in the service long enough to make a contribution that is commensurate with the cost of supporting them in their studies. About 80 to 85 per cent of our scholars stay on after their six-year bonds end.
But I do worry quite a lot about one downside of our meritocratic system. When scholars are told they have succeeded on their own merit and given public acclaim, a few may become swollen-headed. They may think that they have arrived on their own effort and owe nothing to anybody else. They forget that nobody succeeds in the public service or in life, for that matter, without the support of other people. They must never forget that their family, friends, school, bosses, peers and subordinates all play a key role in helping them succeed. From time to time, they have to be reminded that they must not believe in PSC's hype and should stay humble if they truly want to be a good public servant.
Our incorruptible and meritocratic system has worked in helping select and develop a public service that is regarded as one of the best in the world. Singaporeans will have to decide whether they want to continue to invest in such a system, which doesn't come cheap.
If the future sees a surge of public resentment against the system, can future governments continue to hold the line as Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong did and Mr Lee Hsien Loong continues to do?
If our political leaders continue to be principled pragmatists, they will continue to fight for its retention if it still works well and there is no better alternative.
And if the public is right and the system has outlived its usefulness, why keep it?
The writer is the chairman of the Public Service Commission. This is an excerpt from a speech at an Institute Policy Studies event on April 21.