Safeguards in place to ensure public service not politicised

Any public servant who feels pressure from a minister to take a certain course of action for specific cases can report it, said Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung yesterday.

They can turn to the permanent secretaries that head ministries, the head of the Civil Service, the Public Service Commission or even the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, he added.

Mr Ong was responding to concerns raised by Workers' Party MPs that public servants may be unduly influenced by ministers, under a new law that, among other things, empowers the minister in charge of a statutory board to direct its work.

The WP MPs said this may lead to the politicisation of the public service.

Mr Ong said the legal requirement for statutory boards to abide by ministerial direction is not new. It exists in the laws that give legal form to the statutory boards. In fact, the new law makes clear there are limits to this, he said.Clause 11 of the Public Sector (Governance) Bill states a minister's direction cannot be given to achieve specific outcomes like employing a particular person, or asking the police to arrest a certain person, Mr Ong added.

He also said the minister's direction cannot be inconsistent with written law, and cannot prevent public-sector agencies from performing statutorily independent functions, like the exercise of judicial functions by the judiciary.

An explanatory note to the Bill had said the limits were there to prevent the public sector from becoming politicised.

Asked what this meant by Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC), Mr Ong said for civil servants to be politicised in the context of the Bill means to be put under pressure to take certain courses of action.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) pointed to "gaps" that may "allow the Bill's intentions to be circumvented", like a minister directing a public officer on the side to get things done a certain way.

Meanwhile, Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera said public servants with political aspirations may "second guess" ministers to curry favour with them, and in the process may become partisan. He suggested a time gap for those moving into politics.

Mr Ong said it is normal for a worker to anticipate the needs of customers and colleagues, adding it is reasonable for civil servants to understand the Government's agenda without being sycophantic.

NMP Chia Yong Yong said she was disappointed the new law embodied "the form but not the spirit of public service". She suggested including a line to say it exists to serve the public. "Efficiency alone will not in every case serve our people well."

Agreeing, Mr Ong said building a culture of kindness and humanity in the public service goes beyond legislation.

Joanna Seow

Correction note: The article has been updated for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2018, with the headline 'Safeguards in place to ensure public service not politicised'. Print Edition | Subscribe