SINCE we already have a good civil service in place – a non-political entity that remains unchanged regardless of the election results – does it matter whether it’s the People’s Action Party (PAP) or another party that is in power?
Reform Party secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam had argued at a forum last month that the civil service could perform just as well with a different ruling party.
He had said: “We have a highly paid and undoubtedly efficient civil service to assist whatever government is in power to run the country. Presumably it will not evaporate the moment another party comes into power.”
But Mr Khaw Boon Wan said it is important to have a good political leadership as well.
He has seen both sides of the coin – he was a civil servant for 23 years, rising to the position of Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry before crossing over to politics.
Asked to comment on whether the PAP was taking credit for the work of civil servants by telling voters to look at its track record, he said: “No. The two are different – civil service and political leadership. But for best results, you need both to play ball.
“You can have very good, brilliant civil service but if the political system is dysfunctional – and I can point to several countries like that – even the most brilliant of civil services cannot perform.
“If the political layer is highly corrupt, the civil service – no matter how committed or outstanding it is – cannot perform.
“So we need both to be outstanding for an outstanding outcome. I think we have a very good civil service and a very good political leadership, that’s why the results show.
“One must not assume that we can have very good civil service but mediocre political leadership and we will still be outstanding.
“Likewise, I don’t believe that if we have outstanding political leadership but mediocre civil service and we will still do very well. I doubt it.
“However, brilliant political leadership, I’m quite sure, can bring a mediocre civil service up to par.
“But it doesn’t work the other way around. The civil service cannot dictate the quality of the political leadership. Therefore, the starting point must be from the top.”
He added that the anonymity of civil servants is a key difference between civil service and political leadership.
He said: “During a crisis, civil servants and ministers work together to assess the situation, weigh the options and make the judgment call. Ministers then have to implement the solutions.
“Ministers have to convince the people that the solutions are for the greater good.
“And to achieve that, they must be able to win the people’s trust or else there will be no followers.”