In those days, I thought little of it, though I was somewhat put off by the gloating and self-congratulatory way those words were said.
Today though, these casual words from a casual conversation take on a whole new meaning. If this is the attitude of mid-rank civil servants on the way up, then it is tantamount to junior eunuchs saying that it is better to be a powerful eunuch than to be a puppet Emperor (aka puppet Minister).
Your Followers Stretch Beyond Eunuchs
This bothers me because people owe allegiance to the Emperor and have hopes that the Emperor will lead them. If the Emperor listens ONLY to the eunuchs then what happens to the rest of the populace waiting for the Emperor's leadership? Do not our views, our lives, our realities and our pain count?
Let us suppose that each Minister is an Emperor of sorts. If the Minister has the type of Boss Aura that Khaw Boon Wan has, things will improve for the people. From what I hear, Khaw Boon Wan would personally talk to nurses and healthcare technicians before he made up his own mind what policy direction to take. Similarly, I hear that he did the same in MND when he was putting the HDB house in order. He listened not ONLY to his civil servants. He also listened to the lowest of the low in HDB and Singaporeans. Then, he set a direction for everyone.
The story also goes that he is now doing the same in MoT. Khaw Boon Wan would spring unannounced and talk to transport people at every level so that no one in the middle and senior management levels could feed him incomplete or massaged information. Not for Khaw Boon Wan the staged appearances where dirt is swept under the carpet. When Khaw Boon Wan appeared, he made sure he did so in such a way that if there was dirt, he would see it.
How not to love a leader like that?
This is reminiscent of Qian Long Emperor's (rumoured) habit of disguising himself as a commoner to personally hear from and observe his multi-ethnic populace.The Emperor leads the populace and not ONLY his civil servants.
It really is not fair for a Minister (say... hypothetically... of Education) to view ONLY the people who see him and meet with him in MOE as deserving of his support and understanding. Every single parent and child comes under the Minister of Education's leadership. The entire country's parents and children are the Minister's troops and deserve his support and understanding.
Don't neglect us. Don't ignore our realities nor our views. We are yours as much as the civil servants are yours. It is ok if you don't do exactly as our hearts desire because a Minister must have his own mind and his own strength of conviction. People do respect words spoken from the heart (aimed at making lives better) even if they may not agree with the views expressed. However, be fair. Care for us too (not just the civil servants) and we will follow you wholeheartedly. We are your people too.
Ministers' Us vs Them mindset should be replaced with the Us mindset.
Besides, people only overthrow puppet Emperors who listen ONLY to their closest advisers. People had no problems getting rid of Emperor Puyi (who was completely controlled by 1 or 2 eunuchs). Emperor Qian Long stayed in power till he died. A Minister that allows his decisions and views to be manipulated by only a fraction of the community (or worse, 1 or 2 persons) under his leadership fails to build a power base strong enough to stay in power. This, I do believe, was Lui Tuck Yew's mistake. He saw his troops as ONLY MoT when in reality, his troops included SMRT and SBS Transit and the commuters.
He would have had a few million more troops if he had seen it that way.
No Political Accountability
The thing is, the civil servants are one level removed from the electorate. They do not walk the ground the way politicians do. They do not know us as you do. They do not have political accountability. If things go wrong the civil servants do not get voted out. Indeed, their attitude says it with every nonchalance, "Ministers come and go. We, the civil servants call the shots." That is neither fair to the voters nor the Minister himself.
As a voter, I do NOT want the faceless and nameless civil servants to call the shots on matters that affect my life. I want the men and women I know and trust and voted in, to call the shots.
When LKY took power, he made clear to the then civil service that his own mind was his own. Singaporeans are not dumb. We know the mettle of the men we put in power. We can tell a puppet Minister from a real one.
Singaporean Know the Puppet Ministers From The Real
Singaporeans are not stupid. Every single whatsapp I received about Heng Swee Keat's recent stroke added to the collective wail of dismay at the news. Heng Swee Keat is much loved and much respected. It was not only LHL who was stumped wondering, "What will I do without this man?" This was on the minds of many a voter too. What will we do without Heng Swee Keat? Worse still, Tharman Shanmugaratnam is now the Finance Minister? What if he overworks himself too!?
Heng Swee Keat had his own mind.
When I attended the Singapore Conversation with him, he gently remonstrated with the participants who all wanted Singapore to top rankings in everything from being kindest nation to most entrepreneurial. Heng Swee Keat noted that in any competitive endeavour, there is only one winner and he was looking for a future where everyone wins. People laughed at this because he said it as a joke. In that single moment, he earned my respect. He spoke the truth from the heart of his beliefs even though the whole room thought in a whole different direction. His truth also showed me that his heart was in the right place.
Get well soon Heng Swee Keat. We still need you. Not just the Cabinet. Singaporeans need you.