Civil servants: Take better care of your Minister’s bosses

Take care of your Minister, by all means. But take better care of your Minister’s bosses: The people of Singapore who elected him, pay his salary (and yours) and can fire him (at the polls) if he performs poorly.

A blog by Straits Times correspondent Christopher Tan (“Pre-empted by the Internet”) revealed some interesting behind the scenes excitement that took place when the big announcement of the revisions to the Off-peak Car (OPC) scheme got leaked on the Net two days before the Minister for Transport could announce it.

The LTA (Land Transport Authority) gave a closed door press briefing last Friday, banning any recording devices and ordering journalists to embargo the news until Transport Minister Raymond Lim announced it in a speech at a grassroots event on Sunday. But lo and behold, the news got leaked on the Internet that very night.

With this leak, the ST wanted to run the story on Saturday, but was not given permission to by the LTA. So it got run on Sunday morning — still ahead of the Minister’s speech.

What I find disconcerting was the journalist’s description that “the authority’s (LTA) panic was palpable. After all, the leak had stolen the thunder from a Minister’s Sunday speech.

Mr Tan wrote that “it also meant that Minister Lim did not have a biggish announcement to make during his Sunday ministerial visit to Bukit Panjang”.

So what if the Minister did not have that big announcement to make? Is the purpose of the Minister making an announcement so that the news release gets adequate press coverage, or so that the Minister gets the press coverage and he looks like a hero in the eyes of Singaporeans?

I thought it was supposed to be the former: You get the Minister to make an announcement because you want to ensure that the media will cover it.

But in the case of this piece of news, it was so good you could even eat it on its own. It certainly didn’t need the Minister to announce it for it to be the front page headline. So for LTA to be scrambling around trying to embargo and plug the news leak suggests that they were more interested in making their Minister look good than anything else.

This is a problem I’ve noticed in the civil service. Civil servants are programmed to first and foremost make their “principal” look good. This “principal” is usually the President, PM, Minister, or permanent secretary.

That was also the culture when I was working in the Foreign Ministry. I still recall a very senior protocol officer once telling me, “You take care of your principal first”. What I believe he meant was that even if some other party (e.g., the foreign dignitary) has to be inconvenienced, so be it. But you cannot let your Minister be inconvenienced. (Now I’m not talking about situations where the Minister will be harmed. I’m talking about little  inconveniences like having to wait a little while or walk a longer route.)

I followed his advice obediently. I recall on one occasion, I insisted on a visiting senior official removing his suit jacket before entering the meeting room because I knew my perm sec would be wearing just a shirt and tie and didn’t want my him to feel embarrassed at being underdressed. Needless to say, that senior official was quite irritated that this kid had the nerve to tell him how to dress. But I didn’t care. My perm sec could influence my performance rating, but that visiting official would fly back home the next day.

Looking back, I now realise that was the wrong attitude to take. Although it was a minor incident, I think this official probably went back home thinking that Singaporeans are a rude and pushy lot.

My advice to my former colleagues in the civil service is this: Take care of your Minister, by all means. Don’t let him get harmed or look silly, especially in front of foreign leaders. But take better care of your Minister’s bosses: The people of Singapore who elected him, pay his salary (and yours) and can fire him (at the polls) if he performs poorly.

———

Anyway, for the record, I am cheered by the revisions to the OPC scheme, especially allowing use of weekend cars on all day Saturdays. Although I don’t own a car, if I ever get one I will buy a weekend car and still take the MRT to work on weekdays. So good job, LTA and MOT.

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8 thoughts on “Civil servants: Take better care of your Minister’s bosses”

  1. Anyone who had worked in the civil service will tell you
    that the entire preoccupation of the PS of any ministry is just that – to make its minister look good.

    Entire careers depended on this!

  2. There is nothing wrong with letting a Minister announce key changes to a public scheme. Especially when he was instrumental in driving those changes in the first place. My blog was really meant to be “a funny thing happened on the way to the Announcement” observation, w/o commentary on the capability of the Govt or the LTA. The latter, in the big scheme of things, has done a creditable job (of course there’s room for improvement), but what I found somewhat objectionable was how one particular officer responded to the press when posed with an innocent question like “can we run the story now that it is all over the Internet”. Even so, the blog was not about this person, beyond the anecdotal mention.

  3. christopher – Both you and I don’t know if it was the Minister who drove those changes. Of course the civil servants will always tell you Minister “mooted this” and “mooted that”. In the case of the OPC being opened on Saturday, I think you will agree that it was a result of loud public feedback and plain common sense.

    I think the civil servants are going to have to learn to adapt to the new media environment. Also if we had more media competition, ST won’t even bother asking them for permission. You all would have just gone ahead and published it otherwise your rivals would.

  4. True. But I’m willing to give him benefit of doubt. Paying cash upfront for those who convert to OPC is no mean feat. MOF needs to be persuaded.

  5. Apparently I’m told by mrbrown that your post was changed after you posted it. I’m curious to know if that same civil servant called you up to demand that you moderate it down? (Don’t worry, I’ve suffered the same thing, at the hands of one of your media rivals.)

    Good that you brought this matter to the public’s attention. Keep it up!

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