Permission to speak, sir!

Permission to speak, sir!

A compliant civil servant

Singaporeans live in a controlled environment. Most of us go about minding our own business without thinking much of it. Spare a thought, however, for our civil servants and journalists dying to speak out, especially those who endured a 30-40 year career to do so.

New guidelines from a Public Service Division circular last week have lifted the gag order on civil servants so that they can take part in the national conversation. The PSD said this is “in the spirit of the (Our SG Conversation)”, so that civil servants can “engage in meaningful discussions on most government policies and share their feedback on how some policies can be improved”.

It is strange that there was no such stand when there wasn’t a national conversation ongoing. Does the government open its ears only when it wants to listen? Perhaps there aren’t enough song and dance participants in Mr Heng’s dialogue sessions.

Let our own people speak (but only on non-sensitive matters!), so the government decreed. Hence, civil servants are still gagged from commenting on their work, for fear that they would “make controversial comments” or “publicly lobby for a different policy position”. Heaven forbid, this would “hurt the credibility of the civil service”. The government is especially guarded against dissident voices from within its own. Maybe that’s why we tend to hear the most ‘controversial’ views from former – often retired – senior civil servants and those once affiliated with the establishment.

There appears to be a growing trend in this, almost like a sort of ‘coming out’ parade. After all, any gag order, government-imposed or otherwise, can only be unconditionally gone when one’s career is no longer at risk. There was ex-NWC chairman Lim Chong Yah who argued for wage restructuring and, more recently, for sponsoring more Singaporeans to Ivy League colleges instead of foreigners here to our local universities. Then there was former permanent secretary Ngiam Tong Dow urging the government to address the income gap and low productivity levels.

The more interesting news the past few days was the launch of the book OB Markers: The Straits Times Story by former SPH Editor-in-Chief Cheong Yip Seng. I haven’t read the book, but it should prove very juicy going by what Ms Bertha Henson, a former editor herself, wrote on her blog:

Cheong’s book, OB Markers, is remarkable for the revelations that senior editors had thought should be closely guarded secrets. The phone calls from ministers, slap on the wrists, face-to-face meetings were something that we do not talk about in public. Now here is Cheong telling all.

That enticing snippet will draw more readers to OB Markers than any book review. And whatever lingering doubt anyone should harbour (anyone?) that our  press was/is controlled should now be laid to rest. Hell, it’s not even an open secret anymore.