Skip to content

In Holding Up the Singapore Civil Service as a Model for the U.K. Francis Maude Demonstrates Either Ignorance or Cupidity

Recently the British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab was forced to resign after an inquiry found that he was guilty of bullying and aggressive behaviour towards his civil servants while he was Foreign Minister and Justice Secretary. The inquiry was convened after complaints were made and was chaired by a senior lawyer, a Kings’ Counsel (the Singaporean equivalent would be a Senior Counsel). In his resignation letter Raab hit back at his accusers, accusing them of being “activists” trying to block the work of government.

Raab’s resignation prompted a call by a veteran former Minister, Francis Maude, for the UK Civil Service to be more politicised like Singapore or France, where he says Ministers have more say . Like many UK Ministers or MPs, from the Tories mostly, but spread across most of the political spectrum, he chooses to misunderstand Singapore completely, either through ignorance, PAP propaganda or cupidity. In common with many Tories, particularly those who supported Brexit (see what I wrote here and here), Singapore is viewed as some sort of low tax model that would recapture the golden days of the British Empire when Britain ruled over a quarter of mankind including 400 million Indians. The Empire was a guarantee of a high standard of living, servants whom you could literally kill with impunity if they displeased you, along with uppity natives, with salaries for white men a multiple of those of a browner hue who toiled in the lower reaches of the Imperial Civil Service and a social status unavailable in England to the generally lower educated and lower class men who made up its ranks.

Today Singapore seems like the last vestige of empire, particularly now that Hong Kong’s special exemptions from Chinese control have been voided. Income taxes are very low compared to the UK, taxes on capital are zero and cheap foreign domestic labour allows Brits, along with other expats to recapture a bit of that “memsahib” vibe. I remember being on a Eurostar to Paris with Roy Ngerng where some rugby loving Brits in the next seats were, among much discussion of the physical qualities of their children’s nannies, applauding the fact that Singapore was a great place to accumulate capital tax free before returning to the UK to free medical care and other welfare benefits. Love of Singapore’s authoritarian system and a false sense that it gets things done (so what if a few liberals and snowflakes like JBJ are crushed) is not confined to the Tories. When Tony Blair’s New Labour was elected in 1997, he and Peter Mandelson made a pilgrimage to Singapore, saying they wanted to learn from LKY in the areas of HDB and CPF).

Empire apologists, like the historian Niall Ferguson, have described it as a “benign autocracy” and that is how the PAP under LKY and his son want Singapore to be perceived. Of course even a superficial acquaintance with Imperial history reveals that it was the opposite of benign and led to the pauperisation of India as well as the Africans who were colonised. Similarly a perception that LKY “made the country rich”, as a recent rather silly New York Times article argued, and which I debunked here and will respond to again in a forthcoming blog, has become the accepted wisdom, for which one can blame a determined and well-funded campaign, including by Singapore government scholars abroad, to misinform and present fake facts in a misleading light.

Maude says that he is conducting a governance and accountability review for the UK Government. It is terrible that he is using Singapore as a model for either good governance or accountability. Anyone who has even the most cursory acquaintance with my blog will know about my decade-long fruitless efforts to even find out what the PM paid his wife or his family’s assets or to explain the black holes in the Government Budget and the reserves will know that nothing is further from the truth. Singapore is a good poster boy for Lord Acton’s aphorism that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Like the foreigners who used to travel to the Soviet Union and praise its unswerving progress in raising living standards while being taken in by the crudest and most transparent propaganda, Maude says:

On the walls of Singapore’s Civil Service College is a plaque saying: “We want all officers to … question the assumptions and past ways of doing things and suggest ways to improve and innovate.” That is a fantastic culture. It gives officials not just permission but an obligation to challenge. By contrast, the most recent civil service “people survey” showed that only 48% of civil servants – most of whom never see hair nor hide of a minister – feel “safe to challenge the way things are done”. How, then, is the obligation to “speak truth unto power” to flourish?

I do not know whether Maude really believes these platitudinous falsehoods but as a senior lawyer he should know that fine sentiments are meaningless in a totalitarian regime. The Soviet Constitution, like the Singapore one, was full of fine sounding phrases about human rights and protections for the citizen from arbitrary authority. However as every schoolchild knows, those protections were meaningless and millions were killed on Stalin’s merest whim. Similar noble sentiments appear in most totalitarian state constitutions, including China and North Korea. Singapore’s is up with the best examples of Orwellian Newspeak.

To most Singaporeans the notion that lower ranking officers are encouraged to question their bosses is risible. LHL ensures that everything is under his control, including the media where he can fire the editors or journalists or rewrite what they write. No one dares to question him or his Ministers whom he pays far more than they could get in the private sector and finds hugely but often secretly remunerative employment for their spouses and relatives in order to ensure their loyalty and ensure they are pliant “yes” men and women. Raab complains that the UK civil service is “overunionised”. In Singapore, where the only trade unions allowed come under the control of a PAP affiliated organisation, he would not have to worry about that. Civil servants are of course like PAP Ministers, vastly overpaid to ensure their loyalty which means they also serve as faithful attack dogs for LHL to use in attacks on the Opposition. A good example is Bilahari Kausikan who has never shied away from personal ad hominem attacks including calling me a moron when I asked on Twitter why LHL had collapsed during an NDR rally in 2016. Also the entire diplomatic corps and Ministers’ Principal Private Secretaries who are often leaned upon to write letters attacking foreign media whenever anything critical of Singapore is published. An example of this is Yaacob Ibrahim’s Press Secretary or PPS writing a letter to the Wall Street Journal rebutting with falsehoods and misinformation my letter about defamation suits being a useful tool of PAP leaders. Also LHL’s Press Secretary who writes letters on his behalf defending defamation suits undertaken in his personal capacity and which should not be allowed while he is in office. I have said that this is a misuse of state resources and corrupt.

There are even rumoured instances of physical abuse of subordinates. In the 1990s rumours were widespread that LHL, then a mere DPM but marked to take over from his dad as head of the family firm, had slapped Dhanabalan at a Cabinet meeting. I cannot vouch for the truth of these rumours since the penalties for whistleblowing in Singapore are severe. Dhanabalan, who like Tharman was judged to be of too brown a pigmentation to be acceptable to the Singapore electorate as PM and was passed over for Goh Chok Tong, subsequently resigned. He was paid off by being appointed Chair of SIngapore Airlines, DBS Bank and Temasek Holdings and also a Director of GIC. Being paid what must be tens of millions of dollars out of state funds for a second class degree holder, like my old Cambridge colleague Heng Swee Keat, probably goes some way to assuage the ire he must have felt at his treatment.

My blog has been devoted from the start in 2011 to exposing the PAP Government and LHL’s lack of accountability and falsehoods by which Singaporeans are kept in the dark while the world is misled into thinking that Singapore truly is the epitome of benign autocracy that the British Empire sought to portray itself as. To describe Singapore as a model of good governance and accountability is like nominating Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize. I would think Maude was deploying some trademark British irony except that he is not. Accountability is “Ownself check ownself” ranks up there with other classic Newspeak from Orwell’s 1984 such as Freedom is Slavery and War is Peace.

It is hard to credit Maude as being so gullible except that he is just one of a long line of British politicians and pundits who love to praise Singapore’s totalitarian regime and hold it up as a model for the UK. They stubbornly refuse to hear the truth. Maude may be motivated by money. He is registered as a speaker with a firm, Chartwell Associates, with a Singapore office. It would be interesting to know whether he gets any speaking engagements in Singapore, like Barrack Obama, and how much he is paid. If so he should have declared his interest as a foreign agent. He be motivated by nothing more than a desire to stay in a suite at the Raffles Hotel and imagine himself back in the glory days of the British Empire. Or he and so many others like him just love dictators like LHL and wish they could also get rid of anyone who stood in their way, had a press they owned whose journalists have to submit everything they write for checking and a citizenry so cowed that they are continually self-censoring what they say in case it gets them sued or blackballed from employment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: