chapter  5
30 Pages

Harmony, conformity or timidity? Singapore’s overachievement in the quest for harmony

While conducting a research interview with a very senior civil servant in Singapore in 2003, I was confronted by an extraordinary assertion. This permanent secretary1 asserted that the major challenge facing the civil service was overcoming the ‘problem’ of conformity, lack of imagination and ‘group think’ among the younger administrative officers – that is, among the corps of elite civil servants who are expected to exercise leadership and initiative in governance. It is apparent that straightforward technocratic and professional skills abound in the Administrative Service, and indeed they are strong throughout the civil service as a whole, but my interviewee asserted that among the newer administrative officers the capacity to transform academic and technocratic brilliance into original, independent thought is restricted to fewer than 1 in 20. More than 80 per cent of them in a particular sample, with which he had been in professional contact, displayed, in his firm view, no capacity for independent thought at all. While I am not at liberty to divulge who my interviewee was, he was certainly in a position to know about these things, and the anecdote by which he justified his assertion left me in no doubt that his claims had substance.2 I was not completely surprised that there was a culture of conformity in the Administrative Service, since this had been the direction of my thinking for some time, but I was stunned that it was acknowledged so frankly at the highest levels and also by the dimensions of the problem. I had never envisioned that this problem might be as serious as this interviewee was suggesting. Afterwards, a perusal of contributions by junior and middle-ranking administrative officers to Ethos, the journal of the Civil Service College, confirmed the impression conveyed in the interview. None stray beyond the limits set by the contributors’ superiors and none are very challenging or interesting – and these are presumably the most enterprising and daring of the cohorts.3 This perusal of Ethos also revealed that overcoming this culture of conformity was a focus of attention by those at the very top of the civil service and was in fact no secret. In those pages, I found several articles by senior civil servants that addressed this problem either directly or indirectly. These included contributions by the then civil service head Lim Siong Guan and by his successor, Peter Ho (Lim 2005: 3-9; Ho 2005: 3-6; Yee 2002: 2-8). I thought that if this is the situation among the best of the best, what

must be the level of intellectual aridity among the rest of the school and postschool population? This paper is an attempt to understand how the situation described in that interview has arisen and the problems the government faces in trying to confront it. It posits that the heart of both answers lies in the elevation of harmony to a privileged social good above all else and in the conflation of ‘harmony’ into ‘conformity’ and even ‘subservience’. The privileging of ‘harmony’ has its historical origins in the foundation of Singapore as a multiracial society wracked with intercommunal tensions and strife, but its justification in contemporary society reaches beyond history, deliberately drawing upon the rich vein of Confucian ethics for sustenance. Despite the fact that neither of these conceptual sources offers carte blanche to impulses of conformity, each has been employed shamelessly in the task of justifying the conflation of ‘harmony’ into a tool for repressing dissent and imposing both intellectual hegemony and social control. The resultant culture dominates the whole of society, but surprisingly it may have affected the ‘elite’ – those identified as the best and the brightest and who enter government service – even more severely than the rest of the population because they are exposed more intensely than others to one of the primary facilitators of the culture of conformity, which I argue is the elite end of the education system.