Monthly Archives: July 2009

Mavericks in the civil service?

On Saturday’s venerable ST, a curious article appeared about Eddie Teo’s apparent irritation with potentials scholars who give yes-men answers.  Such answers end up ” giving the impression that they have no integrity,” he said.

He goes onto say that he wants potential elites to be themselves and not hemmed in by expectations of what they should or should not say.

In fact, Mr Teo says: ‘Even a few mavericks – people with unconventional viewpoints who are willing to challenge assumptions – will be useful because they will add vitality and diversity to the service.’

The first normal reaction to such statements is “Don’t talk cock la”. It’s the usual spin of a top civil servant taking on the establishment or rules that govern the system. Much like Philip Yeo or Ngiam Tong Dow.

But Eddie Teo is no fool. He has been around hob-nobbing with the leaders of the day. He knows what he is saying and it would be a real surprise if he did not say it without first having told his chief, Teo Chee Hean or PM himself.

So is he geniune about what he means? Another way of putting it is, what exactly does he mean when he says no yes-men more mavericks.

The usual definition of mavericks is one that is out of the box. Someone who does things that don’t conform. A hero in a novel is not the guy who sticks to the rules but one who rebels against it. Think Leonardo Da Vinci, or Tom Cruise in Top Guy.

In Singapore, there are a few mavericks in the political and civil service. Probably the first mavericks were LKY and his gang of overseas educated locals who dared to challenge the British. But LKY has since become the system.

Other notables include current US ambassador Chan Heng Chee, who was quite a critic of the LKY regime in its early days. Tommy Koh, the all-in-one rolled together ambassador. Ho Kwon Pin of Banyan Tree and do-not-discriminate against the gays husband of Claire Chiang fellow. To a certain extent, lesser mortals include NTU journalism school head Cherian George, who was once harshly rebuked by Wong Kan Seng on writing a piece that slammed the Parliamentary process.

These are of course the mavericks who made it in the system, despite their antagonistic stance towards the people who run the system and, in fact, the system itself. Those that didn’t are far more numerous. Francis Seow, the former Solicitor General, local dissident Chee Soon Juan, former WP chief JBJ, among others.

So what does this say about mavericks? Clearly, only some mavericks are welcome. And only those who “with unconventional viewpoints who are willing to challenge assumptions”.

One thing that is common among those people who have had success are also those who know how and when to raise their objections. They quite clearly state that it is not that they want to overthrow the system but simply that they disagree with whatever it is that they disagree with. They usually also present their arguments very cleverly so that they cannot be accused of saying something they mean.

Some, like Vivian Balakrishnan, who was a vocal opponent of the Government in his earlier days, get fully co-opted. Others tend to stay at an arms length, for they may not want to fully compromise their values.

Indeed, they are no more than verbal sparring partners for the ruling elite.

So what does Eddie Teo want really?

I hope he wants people with balls and gumption to say things and say it with conviction. The civil service has enough of people who carry the balls of others. It needs real men and women who will no longer sit idly at the meeting table with the minister, twiddling their fancy Blackberries or iPhones and simply agreeing with what the minister says. We need civil servants with backbone, who can form their own opinion and say it.

An infusion of those who not only think critically but also hit out at their superiors will rejuvenate the civil service, which is efficient but dour and seen to be serving the whims of their political masters.

No more than simply mavericks, we need revolutionaries. People who can challenge not only assumptions but decisions. If the PM decides to leave a memo to the elections committee to redraw boundaries of the electoral map that may be detrimental to the chances of the opposition party, the chief of the elections department needs to be able to stand up to him and disagree. Fat chance of that happening now.

Or if the Minister of State of some ministry decides that it may not in the best interest of the nation to publish certain statistics on say the population or job market, the civil servant should have the guts to question the wisdom of such a move.

Right now, from what I know of the service, most are simply willing to get by. The minister is the boss so defer to his judgement. Ultimately he has been charged with the responsibility of  running the ministry since the people voted him in so why bother.

So where art thou, dear maverick?