I was stunned to read the last sentence (underlined for emphasis) of an extract of a speech BG Yeo gave last friday.
Our formal system is inherited from the British. It makes a clear distinction between political appointments and the permanent civil service. In practice, however, principally because the PAP has been the governing party since internal self-government in 1959 and independence in 1965, many aspects of Singapore’s governance resemble the Chinese bureaucratic state which Fairbanks, Needham and other scholars of Chinese history have written about, in particular, the practice of meritocracy in both the political and administrative elites. The induction of administrative talent into the PAP has become a Singapore hallmark, and likely to persist. In the Singapore reality, the formal British system is built upon what is essentially a Chinese political and cultural substrate.
My understanding of what he is saying in the underlined last sentence: In Singapore, the civil service only superficially resembles the British model where the civil service is politically neutral. Here the service is not politically neutral. To understand how the Singapore civil service works, we must understand how the Chinese bureaucracy that served the Chinese emperors functioned. To under the imperial bureaucracy, we must understand Chinese history and culture.
Now my reading of imperial Chinese history and culture was that the bureaucracy took its cue from the emperor of the day. What he wanted, they tried to do, so long as their ranks and privileges were respected. Those who disagreed with the emperor were demoted, fired, exiled or killed. There was no independent body that the mandarins could look to check the emperor’s actions against the people or them.
But if the emperor wanted to do something that threatened the bureaucracy’s existence or privileges, they plotted against the emperor. They could overthrow a weak emperor, replacing him with a more pliable successor. But if the emperor won, the plotting mandarins lost their heads.
Is BG Yeo telling us that the civil service is no longer politically neutral? The ancient Chinese bureaucracy was certainly not politically neutral. It served the emperor.
If that is the message, does it mean that if the PAP loses its parliamentary majority, he (and the PAP?) expects (hopes?) the civil service will plot against the new government?
If the answers to the above are “Yes”, this is more worrying than MM’s talk of a military coup if there is a “freak election result”.
Or could I be reading too much into what he said? The very pretentious language of the sentence, not part of his usual vocabulary, could have damaged (temporarily I hope?) my brain.