SINGAPORE — Singaporeans sometimes argue that civil servants are very good and therefore the country does not need ministers to be so experienced or competent, but this is a “crazy argument”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Nov 5).
The civil service did not create itself out of thin air and Singapore has a good civil service precisely because it has had good political leadership who built up a world-class public service, he said.
Mr Lee, who is also secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP), was speaking on Sunday to over 1,000 PAP members at the party’s annual convention.
“The civil servants are excellent, but they can only deliver good results because they are led by competent ministers, who understand the issues to make good decisions, who command their respect,” he said, adding that only then can ministers guide and complement the civil servants in their work, and deliver on their political promises.
“It is like an orchestra: It may be composed of the best musicians in the world, but without a good conductor it cannot produce great music. In fact, if the players are not impressed with their conductor, they may leave the orchestra to perform under some other maestro’s baton, and you will be left with a mediocre orchestra.”
“And even if you change the conductor then, it’s too late,” he added.
Mr Lee later announced in his speech that he plans to hand over the reins to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong before the next General Election and by the PAP’s 70th birthday next year, which is in November.
He noted that the PAP has won every election since independence decisively and while over the years it has lost some seats, it has maintained a dominant position. But with each successive election, the PAP’s task has become tougher, he added.
After three generations, Singaporeans’ expectations have evolved, he said, as they hope to do much better for themselves and expect much more of the Government.
He added: “Also quite a few hope to see more alternative voices in Parliament, even the majority overwhelmingly agree that the PAP should continue to govern Singapore – in fact, even the opposition parties think so and say so!
“I think it is fair to say that the party faces a political quandary which is unique in the world: An overwhelming majority of voters want us to form the government. In fact, they expect the PAP to form the government. But among those who want us to form the government, quite a significant number also want our opponents to do better!”
A NATION OF LIONS, LED BY LIONS
In this new political world, the PAP has to work harder and harder to win elections and in between elections, it has to spend more time and energy on politics, inevitably at the expense of policies, Mr Lee said.
With more opposition in Parliament, it is expected that there will be more debates over issues big and small, he said.
He added: “But if goes too far and we expend more energies debating one another, manoeuvring for political advantage, rather than tackling national issues. Then problems will go unsolved, society may well become divided, Singapore and Singaporeans will suffer. And therefore I say, having more opposition MPs doesn’t necessarily make for better government.”
He pointed to other countries, even “mature democracies”, where politics has grown increasingly polarised as parties pander to populist positions, play up identity politics and hold the country hostage by refusing to implement essential policies, or even refusing to pass national budgets to shut down the government.
“And we say not here in Singapore. But it could happen in Singapore too, if our politics go wrong,” he said. “So as Singaporeans, we must manage our politics better, and at all costs we must avoid running into such problems. The PAP has to work harder and smarter to explain to Singaporeans what is at stake, what we risk losing if we don’t get our politics right, what happens if we do not continue to win strong mandates from the voters.”
Mr Lee said that based on his 40 years in government, there was no way PAP governments could have taken the long view, planned for the long term, and adopted tough but necessary policies, if it constantly had to worry whether it would still be there after the next elections.
“Today’s Singapore could not have been built by a weak government hanging on to power by a slim majority, or with the governing party and policies chopping and changing after each election,” he said. “We succeeded in building this place up only because the PAP enjoyed the full support of Singaporeans.”
He added: “This was a nation, and is a nation, of lions led by lions.
“If we have a nation of lions disunited and led by unworthy leaders, we would have come to grief long ago.”
ORDINARY LEADERS WILL BUILD AN ORDINARY COUNTRY
Mr Lee added that the PAP fights to form the government so that it can serve Singaporeans by making decisions on their behalf, solve their problems, improve lives and keep the nation safe.
The Government must be prepared to take hard decisions and do the right thing for Singapore even if the decision entails short-term political costs.
Over 60 years, the PAP has provided Singapore with a firm government that has been able to push through decisions despite initial doubts and resistance.
These include the implementation of National Service, clearing slums and resettling from kampungs to public flats, building up of the national reserves as well as introducing the Goods and Services Tax.
“Again and again, we took tough decisions for the long term. Our policies worked, the country progressed, and people’s lives improved beyond recognition,” said Mr Lee.
“And that’s why voters continued to give their mandate to the PAP and that’s why the PAP has been able to keep on taking Singapore forward and upward.”
As he concluded his speech, Mr Lee issued this warning: “So remember: If we have ordinary political leaders, you’re going to have an ordinary public service, and this is going to become a very ordinary country.
He said that this may be “fine” for other countries.
“But if one day this little red dot no longer shines bright and is exceptional, if it cannot stand out compared to other countries in the world, you are nowhere — you are stuck.”
“Tackling a global pandemic, solving immediate problems, and planning for the future, all at the same time — this is what people expect of a competent and efficient government,” said Mr Lee, adding that these do not happen by magic and require a lot of hard work.
“When the next GE comes — you ask me when, whenever that may be — the PAP can in good conscience tell Singaporeans, report to Singaporeans that we have served them well, and we have done a lot together.”