Isn’t the Civil Service an Institution?

By TP Saran

Since the beginning of the ICAC investigation into the sale of the MedPoint Hospital, we have been hearing that there will be no interference at all in the working of ICAC and that it must be allowed to function independently. And so far, this principle seems to have been followed, although being given the high profile nature of the case because of the political personalities associated with it, allegations of partiality and influence-peddling have been made.

For our part, we are prepared to go by the guarantee given that ICAC has functional autonomy.

By extension, we expect therefore that the same principle be applied to all other institutions. If this is done, the country will rise in the scale of international transparency, thus consolidating its image. However, one cannot escape the fact that there is a perception that as far as the Civil Service is concerned, political interference and too compliant officers more often than not result in a departure from this principle. In practice, therefore, it would appear that neutrality is not observed in the Civil Service so that its image gets a battering from all quarters.

Reference is always made to the civil servants of earlier times who could, and would, stand up to pressures which, in their judgement, were contrary to the interests of the country, and gave their advice accordingly, and which advice was invariably listened to. If for some reason this was not the case, then the political master assumed the responsibility instead of scapegoating the civil servant. There is, alas, a strong feeling that in the case of MedPoint a few civil servants are being made to bear the brunt.

Therefore, the question arises as to why the Civil Service is not accorded the same status as far as its functioning is concerned – namely, that the Civil Service be considered as an institution which has functional autonomy. That means that it would be allowed to function according to established rules and regulations, and that there would be no attempt at bypassing these to the detriment of either people or the national interest. After all, declarations keep being made regularly about working in the national interest, and the Civil Service looks like a good place to implement this idea.

If the Civil Service were to effectively be properly strengthened then maybe this objective would be attained, and as a matter of fact it would be to the advantage of politicians because they would have a very strong defense when being pressurized by their electorate or other lobbies to do things that go against the regulations.

Politicians have also every interest to push for the setting up of a Civil Service College at the earliest possible, and it should be headed by someone with impeccable credentials. Given that we are being advised by Singapore, whose own Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore has at its top no less a person than Kishore Mahbubani, perhaps the Singapore experts could be requested to do the exercise of selection for the head of the Mauritian college.

This will send a strong signal that the government is really committed to making of the Civil Service a robust institution, which should reassure the population and neutralize the criticisms which tend to be too freely levelled against the Civil Service, brushing at the same time the government’s image.

Government, for its own sake, needs to be supported by a strong Civil Service, and it should give itself this long overdue opportunity with the help of the Singapore team.


* Published in print edition on 4 November 2011

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