The past week has been an interesting experience in terms of indirect “engagement” with the government. First, last Thursday, I published a letter in ST’s Forum page, “Scandals exposed flaws in our system” (reproduced below). In it, I pointed out that there may be some potential problems with Singapore’s Darwinian meritocracy. On Sunday, the ST published an article, “System in place to reduce corruption” (reproduced below), in which Law Minister K. Shanmugam addressed my comments head on, concluding that my statements are “absurd”.
On Sunday afternoon itself, I replied to ST Forum with a further explanation of what I meant. Yesterday night, Wednesday, ST Forum confirmed that I should consider alternative publication options for this second letter (reproduced below). I do not want to read too much into why ST decided not to publish my letter. It is the National Day period after all, with many more important items on the agenda. The ST Forum editor has always been very open and straight in our communications.
But since many of you called on me to respond to the Minister, I thought at the very least I should reproduce the whole trail below. Note: The timing of this post has absolutely nothing to do with National Day. I am simply writing this the day after ST Forum confirmed that the letter’s “exclusivity” to them has lapsed.
I also do not want to comment too much on the nature of engagement by the Law Minister. I think all readers of this can make up their own mind as to whether the Minister’s form of engagement is constructive or destructive for our country–or, perhaps, somewhere in between.
I have heard both sides of the story. On Sunday morning, a senior former journalist told me, “I see the Law Minister is using the same old tactics against you”. On Monday morning, a younger, more junior current journalist told me, “I see this kind of vigour in political engagement in other countries particularly in the UK, and sometimes I think, why shouldn’t we have it in Singapore too – as long as citizens are allowed to criticise and respond with equal candour and vigour?”
Perhaps we are in the midst of a long transition, from a gentler form of engagement towards a more robust one, where the government is willing to accept “candour and vigour” in equal measure. Time will tell.
ST Forum: Scandals exposed flaws in our system, Aug 2nd, 2012 (my first letter)
Although deputy editor Zuraidah Ibrahim makes many good points in her commentary on Sunday (“Scrubbing out sleaze in Singapore”) on recent corruption scandals, in particular, the need for a more watchful, engaged public, I am surprised by one of her conclusions that “everything that has happened in the past six months has shown that the system still works”.
In fact, the scandals have exposed some flaws.
Singapore has prided itself on an elite system of talent selection and career progression. Meritocracy and intense scrutiny together produce only the best leaders, or so we have been told. The sex-for-business allegations against the former chiefs of the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Singapore Civil Defence Force, if true, suggest otherwise.
Singaporean meritocracy may, in reality, inflate the egos of those who succeed such that their sense of entitlement and privilege can supersede their better judgment. Meanwhile, their followers, by virtue of finishing second or third, may lose the self-confidence and gumption needed to keep No. 1 on his toes.
In other words, our Darwinian selection system is partly behind the inordinate power structures one might find in Singapore organisations.
Second, although Ms Zuraidah cheers the effectiveness of Singaporean justice and vigilance in bringing these cases to light, she admits that the probe into the National Parks Board’s Brompton bicycle purchase was prompted only after Internet grumblings could no longer be ignored.
Hence, here again the system would have failed if not for the tireless – and purely voluntary – work of netizens.
It is good that the public is having a lively post-mortem on these scandals. We must be honest about the potential problems in our system if we are going to address them.
System in place to reduce corruption, ST, Aug 5th, 2012 (ST article)
Law Minister raises issue in response to feedback and questions from public
There are corrupt individuals in Singapore, as in all societies, but the difference is that an effective system is in place here to keep a tight lid on graft, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said last night.
He also defended Singapore’s system of meritocracy, dismissing the notion that it was a reason for the recent spate of high-profile corruption cases involving public officers.
He told 1,800 residents at a National Day dinner in Chong Pang that he was raising the issue of corruption for two reasons.
First, a letter writer in The Straits Times Forum Page last Thursday referred to recent high-profile corruption cases and suggested that meritocracy was a possible cause of graft. Letter writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh argued that meritocracy “may inflate the egos of those who succeed such that their sense of entitlement and privilege can supersede their better judgment”.
Dismissing that suggestion as “absurd”, Mr Shanmugam said: “If the gentleman is right, that in order to reduce corruption, we must do away with meritocracy, does it mean that less meritocracy means less corruption?
“So the table of countries with the highest corruption, they must all be highly meritocratic, and all the countries which rank high on meritocracy must all rank high on the corruption index as well?
“It’s an absurd statement and you can show the absurdity by drawing these conclusions.”
He said the second reason he was raising the issue was that in recent months junior college students and undergraduates had asked him repeatedly why Singapore had so many graft cases if it is supposed to be a clean country, and high pay for public officers should eradicate corruption.
His answer: It is human nature.
“In every society from time immemorial, corruption, falling for temptation, basic vices – these have existed. You see them referred to even in the scriptures, whether you take the Bible or any other scriptures… (or) any history book from the ancient times,” he said.
“It’s because it is basic human nature. We in Singapore somehow are not special, superior beings. We are also human… There is no society in the world, in the past or the present, in which every person is totally clean.” But Singapore was different from other countries, he said. The political leadership had in the last 55 years “emphasised moral rectitude and correct conduct in public service”.
“And if anyone breaches that, he is likely to be found out and severe punishment is certain for those who are guilty,” he added.
Also, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, which reports directly to the Prime Minister, is highly effective. It relies on insiders, internal audits and tip-offs, such as in the case of the National Parks Board’s purchase of Brompton foldable bicycles.
Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao first raised the alarm and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan ordered an internal audit that uncovered discrepancies, “long before specific issues were raised by netizens”, he said.
Likewise, an internal audit uncovered irregularities involving former Chief of Protocol Lim Cheng Hoe, said Mr Shanmugam, who is also Foreign Affairs Minister. “We have created a system which is highly effective. It cannot eradicate bad behaviour but it can substantially reduce corruption… and bad behaviour.”
He said his 20 years practising law taught him that rules and systems cannot eradicate fraud and bad conduct. Singapore will always have its share of corrupt people, he said, citing the late minister Teh Cheang Wan, former minister of state Wee Toon Boon, and former Trade Development Board chief executive officer Yeo Seng Teck.
But corruption here will not be like in other places where people face corrupt officials in their daily lives. He said: “That is why year after year after year, we rank as one of the cleanest, least corrupt societies in the world and we will continue to be so as long as we have this system in place.”
Asked later by reporters about talk that the quick succession of graft cases before the courts was timed after the General Election in May last year, the minister rejected such allegations as “groundless”. He said the cases took place and were found out at different times based on internal audits and tip-offs.
He said: “To suggest there is a linkage to the elections is just absurd.”
Unpublished letter to ST Forum in response to Minister’s comments, Aug 5th, 2012 (my second letter)
I am happy that Law Minister K. Shanmugam has addressed the recent corruption scandals and the possible role of meritocracy in them.
When I wrote to your paper last week, I was merely pointing out potential problems with a Darwinian meritocracy such as ours. I did not suggest that we must “do away with meritocracy”–that would indeed be absurd, as the Minister points out.
The more nuanced point is that we need to maintain meritocracy, but calibrate it such that it reduces the professional gap between the winners and the losers. It should not inflate the egos of those who rise to the top, nor reward them excessively–the two, of course, being linked. They must have a wider sense of civic responsibility and recognise that their ascent is due not only to their individual efforts, but also a range of societal and institutional factors. Calibration could involve, among other things, changes to the relative status of different professions in society, a flattening of organisational structures, as well as new methods of performance assessment, for instance a shift away from a heavy paper-grade focus.
It’s worth noting that other countries are also debating the relative virtues of meritocracy right now. In his recent book, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy”, Christopher Hayes unravels the problems with American meritocracy. “Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within the institutions that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumbing to the temptations of corruption,” he says.
Singapore’s meritocracy is different from America’s and hence has unique strengths and problems. We need to scrutinise them, together, instead of assuming that our system is working fine.
That’s about it. In my upcoming book, “Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore“, I discuss both Singaporean meritocracy as well as the government’s new form of engagement–how genuine do Singaporeans feel it is? Stay tuned for more details of the book launch.
If you have any thoughts about the pros and cons of Singapore’s meritocracy, or government engagement, please do leave a comment here, anonymous or otherwise. Thanks!
(Image/diagram credit: Michael Weiss, see http://www.catehuston.com/blog/2010/02/12/levels-of-engagement-on-twitter/)