Sunday, September 22, 2013

Diversity in the Top Echelons of the Public Sector

Eddie Teo wrote another open letter on PSC scholarships a few days ago. It was on *The Value of Diversity*. 

You may find it here

I commented on his previous letter here, and I will comment on his latest one here in this post.

My first reaction on reading his letter? Rolling my eyes inwardly, with the word "tosh" appearing in my mind.

It's all well and good that the PSC is actively soliciting scholars from less selective schools.

Unfortunately, it's a long distance from budding scholar to head honcho policymaker. And guess what? The head honchos today are the products of yesterday's scholar selection process, which means that while today's scholarship recipient may have a slightly lower probability of coming from Raffles JC or Hwa Chong, s/he almost certainly will be working under someone who did.

And who gets promoted faster? Not the mavericks, misfits or outlier types who come from non-pedigreed backgrounds, that's for sure.

"Those aspiring to be public servants should realise that their performance will often be enhanced if they can bring a new perspective to help tackle a public policy issue, gained by their stint in a “non-traditional” university or “non-traditional” country."

Oh, originality and imagination certainly get you brownie points, but Singapore's favorite kind of innovation has always been the kind that comes in a nice, neat box with a bow tied on top.

Science and engineering research? Only if there's a financial return on investment.

Family values? Yes, certainly. No problems with keeping Section 377A on the statutes, but steamroll the casinos into Singapore over the protests. Sometimes, I really wish they did condone spousal rape and would sentence people to death for adultery here. At least it would be consistently medieval here and we would all be treated equally as serfs.

Scholars fresh out of university, who have had good grades throughout school and the same sparkling CCA records, are the most vulnerable to craving external validation. I should know: I was a scholar once upon a time too.

Your unconventional scholars with non-traditional perspectives are going to adapt to innovate within a tightly circumscribed space, drinking the Kool-Aid as it were, which will render them indistinguishable from their more pedigreed peers, or they will exit the system out of sheer frustration. 

We also do not care what schools they come from when deciding on whether or not to award a scholarship. Several of this year’s President’s Scholars came from neighbourhood primary schools [Emphasis mine].

Yes, because of the angst-filled and heart attack-inducing process of primary one registration (just ask young parents), we know that getting into a name brand primary school is a complete crapshoot. So, obviously, we won't hold it against you.

Now, secondary schools on the other hand...

What is not said is sometimes more important than what is said...

Just as the government is changing the way it governs Singapore, Public Service leaders are learning how to manage a new generation of younger public servants, who want greater participation and more voice. The PSC’s effort to bring diversity into the Public Service will come to nought if divergent views are discouraged within the system and those who dare to question assumptions and have a non-conventional perspective are not valued and appreciated.

Eddie's thinking here is that by recruiting these non-traditional scholars from non-traditional backgrounds, they will be the leading edge of the Public Service's transformation into a more diverse and dynamic civil service.

My problem with this view is that these non-traditional scholars will either exit the system before they attain leadership positions, or they will be assimilated by the system they were meant to change from within.

Do we have evidence for the latter? Of course we do. 

While it does not follow that only those with a less fortunate background can empathize with the poor,...
...Yes, there are a few scholar public servants who lack humility and have forgotten that they are where they are because of the support and help from those around them.

The converse is not necessarily true either. The kicker is that sometimes, it is precisely the people who rose up from the bottom who turn out to the least sympathetic ones of all. Mah Bow "affordable" Tan and Ng Eng Hen came from supposedly humble backgrounds, but look at how sensitive they are to the lower strata of Singapore society. See here for instance.

Groupthink already exists in the public sector. We know this because our government willfully sticks its fingers in its ears and went "la, la, la" when we told it years ago that current immigration policy is unsustainable, and that housing and public transportation is badly in need of new investment. 

Groupthink by its very nature perpetuates itself. Thank you Eddie, for striving to put new wine in old bottles. Personally, I would do something about the bottles instead, but good on you for trying.