RH: ROBERT's ALMOST-COMPLETE ARCHIVE OF WORKS..... My other blog is "I came, I saw, I solved it" at http://i-came-i-saw-i-solved-it.blogspot.com/.......... Robert Ho REQUEST FOR STATEMENTS at http://roberthorequestforstatements.blogspot.com/2011/01/robert-ho-request-for-statements.html

Blog Archive


About Me

My photo
My archive of works is at http://i-came-i-saw-i-wrote-it.blogspot.com/

Saturday, February 17, 2007

RH: Robert's Dictum of Public Service

From: Robert Ho (ho3@pacific.net.sg)
Subject: RH: Robert's Dictum of Public Service
This is the only article in this thread
View: Original Format

Newsgroups: soc.culture.singapore
Date: 2003-05-01 06:43:47 PST

RH: I have been in the UK since January 03 but what little I have
observed of the UK institutions, and compared these with Singapore's
institutions, has convinced me that in an 'old' society like the UK,
there is a great deal more INERTIA than in a 'new' one like Singapore.

In Singapore, the distance from Thought to Action to Implementation,
whether in public or private service, is very short. There are few
obstacles to any gung-ho bureaucrat wanting to change his little world
and daring to try. This is, perhaps, one of the attractions of being a
civil servant in Singapore. If you have the ideas, or think you have,
you are often able to implement them with little difficulty.

In the UK, I think it is vastly more difficult. I believe things move
at a glacial pace and the whole weight of history and tradition weigh
so heavily that even the most energetic Prime Minister, like Tony
Blair, can move things only with Herculean effort.

Of course, part of the reason is also that Britain is a much larger
society, with much more complicated institutions, and many, many more
differing interests, all of which have to be taken into account when
attempting to make changes. And being a real democracy means that even
the PM cannot simply override objections -- in Singapore, there are no
objections! to Government policies, even extremely unpopular ones.

This observation of mine perhaps explains why Lee Kuan Yew was able to
effect so many changes from 1959 till present, and able to reverse
himself 180 degrees when necessary without apology or explanation, and
then go on to institute other (right or wrong headed) policies. From
forced sterlisation of women to keep the population down, reversed to
encouraging more births nowadays by tax incentives; legislating Malay
as the official language early in his reign to the de facto use of
English as the true national language now; fighting
Communist-China-type Marxism (or so he conveniently claims of his
jailed victims, one of whom served a quarter century in jail without
trial, second-longest only to Nelson Mandela) to now sinking millions
into the disastrous Suzhou Industrial Park projects in China and
regarding China as the Next Big Thing to grow Singapore's economy. The
list is huge and I remember only a few here.

Having introduced the subject, I now come to the point. Which, today,
is about RULES. Specifically, rules in the public service, rules in
Government, rules in the bureaucracy.

In the early days of Lee Kuan Yew's reign, although having inherited a
fairly comprehensive administration from the British, with many rules,
these rules were minimal. Certainly, even in the Britain of 1959,
rules were not as numerous and the whole institution of public
administration was not as completely overrun with rules and
regulations as, say, today.

This worked to Lee Kuan Yew's advantage and he made the most of it. He
and his team, without the benefit? of rules, precedents, established
procedures, etc, had to make practically all the decisions needed to
run Singapore. (A year or two ago, one former Minister revealed that
in those days, they even held a Cabinet meeting to discuss what kind
of toilet bowl the HDB flats should have!)

Despite many catastrophic wrong decisions, which were often reversed,
some not, because saving face was more important, Singapore made
impressive progress, unhindered by real democracy or democratic
niceties. Not having rules and procedures meant that everything had to
be approached from first principles. Which was an advantage given that
Lee Kuan Yew had absolute power and the people had no rights.
Reasoning things out from first principles instead of following a rule
book or established procedures usually meant that decisions were often
right (at that time anyway), or at least, practical. If not, they
could be reversed quietly, without notice, and so the illusion of
super-competence could be maintained.

But institutions are like arteries. They harden with age. If Britain
is now sclerotic, Singapore is now rapidly following so.

Because, along the way from 1959, when Lee Kuan Yew and his team
enjoyed the benefits of having few rules, they themselves began making
rules, establishing procedures, creating institutions, formalising
decision-making, in short, creating a whole bureaucratic machinery to
more efficiently administer Singapore. That is, of course, inevitable.
Making laws in Parliament is only the supreme rules-making exercise of
any Government, whether democratic or dictatorial. From law-making in
Parliament, this inevitable result of Government spawns a whole
bureaucracy of rules and a whole administration to apply those rules.
This sclerosis is inevitable. It happens in any administration that
has been in power long enough. It is not Lee Kuan Yew's fault. Of
course, he doesn't realise this analysis of mine -- unless he reads my
little thesis today. It is just the inevitable process of a matured

Perhaps Mao Zedong had an intuition similar to this little observation
of mine. In his Cultural Revolution madness, he practically overthrew
his own administration, an administration he had spawned since 1949.
In that revolution, which was a revolt against his own Party,
apparatus, and bureaucracy, he encouraged a new generation of
youngsters to overthrow the existing orthodoxy and upturn all the
established institutions. Perhaps, he intuitively realised that only
by first destroying can you then create. That destruction must precede
construction. That sclerosis in the body politic and all the
institutions can only be surgically corrected by drastic excision
followed by new grafts. That a little chaos and uncertainty are good
for the health of the country.

So what do I have to offer the world and Governments and public
services about Rules? Here, allow me to introduce Robert's Dictum of
Public Service. Put simply, my dictum states that, "At least 10% of
all decisions made with regards to the public by a public service
department should be made by officers using personal judgment and

In short, rules are OK but officers should be encouraged to make
exceptions to the rules, to exercise personal judgment and discretion
when necessary. This is predicated on the axiom that no body of rules
can be perfect when applied to people, because people are often unique
and their circumstances unique and no body of rules can foresee all
the circumstances that may arise with real people. So, an element of
discretion must be factored in, when dealing with the public. The
value of this Dictum is obvious in cases such as asking for a refund
from a mobile phone operator when you terminate your account when you
still have money in it. In a standard rules-based organisation, you
lose your money, as happened to me here in the UK, because there is no
rule for that to happen. Or, in certain cases of applicants to the
HDB, the principle of natural justice and fairness is more important
than 100% adherence to the rules. We are dealing with people, in all
their glorious spectrum of differentness, in all their unexpectedness
and unpredictability. They are not cogs in a machine or mere digits in
a system of counters.

There are drawbacks to my Dictum, of course. Horror of horrors! Do we
have to THINK? And make personal judgments? And make decisions for
which we could be criticised by our superiors who may not know all the
factors on which our decision is based? Wouldn't giving discretion to
often junior officers result in too many wrong decisions? Wouldn't
that force busy, overworked senior officers to make those decisions
when the junior officers chicken out of making the decision and pass
the buck up? Wouldn't introducing an element of personal judgment and
decision result in favouritism and bribery and corruption?

Those drawbacks can be overcome and minimised.

But think of the advantages.

From mere cogs in the wheel of administration, merely following rules
that apply without exception, public service officers will now find
new empowerment in their jobs. Giving the opportunity to make
decisions will result in happier and more satisfied officers. From
merely applying rules, the emphasis will transform into serving the
people, which is the fundamental raison d'etre of any public service.
Or even private organisations.

There is an old saying, "Rules are for the guidance of wise men and
the blind obedience of fools." Here, in the UK, I see the Government
struggling to institute changes in domestic issues. It is not easy.
(Changing the world, as in invading Iraq, was far easier and more
satisfying -- because fighting wars require few rules while changing
say, the hospital system means coming up against a whole previous
institution with all its moribund gravity).

To make public service more responsive to people and their needs, my
Dictum can help. It can transform the whole nature of existing
bureaucracy. By giving officers the right to make decisions based on
people, the focus shifts back into public SERVICE. Of course, never
having been in any public service, except as a recipient of that
service, I may have gotten my 10% wrong. Perhaps it ought to be 5% or
3%. Whatever. The principle is to open a loophole out of the
straitjacket of rules. To humanise the public service so that
recipients know that if they have a good reason to ask for an
Exception treatment, they will at least have a chance of having their
case heard.

Finally, please don't regard my Dictum as a Rule. If it is a rule,
then it is a rule to break rules. Which, is what it is all about.

Robert Ho
1 May 03
UK 1443 Singapore 2143