Monday, October 03, 2011

Defining 'the Government'

WHEN people hear that I've started work at The Straits Times, they respond in all manner of ways. One response in particular is distressingly common: 'Oh, so you're in the government.'
By Janice Heng

This mistake happens despite the simple facts that Singapore Press Holdings is not a statutory board, our website does not end in, and the government is not actually our biggest shareholder.

Those who think The Straits Times is inextricably linked to the government should try spending some time here as a political reporter.

After a few weeks in the job, I can report that it is hard to be a 'government mouthpiece' when the government isn't always keen on speaking to you.

Apart from rousing defensiveness, those comments remind me of a larger problem: It is not always clear what someone means when they say 'the government'.

On one level, everyone sort of knows what 'the government' is. They're the people who run the country and are frequently complained about. When some people say 'the government', they mean 'those people who raise the GST/aren't listening to the people/let in all these immigrants'.

In casual usage, the phrase 'the government' often stretches to cover Parliament and its 87 MPs, the Cabinet, the judiciary, ministries, and statutory boards.

But this isn't how the Government - note the capitalisation - talks about itself.

When the Government says 'the Government', they don't include Parliament or the judiciary, and they certainly don't include The Straits Times. In official usage, 'the Government' refers exclusively to the executive.

To many people, an executive is someone in charge who has to make a lot of decisions. In the context of politics, it's much the same.

The executive is in charge of making policy - in Singapore's case, the Cabinet.

The fifteen ministers in the Cabinet can't do everything, which is where ministries and civil servants come in.

Ministers make policy, but civil servants in the ministries implement it.

Despite the common assumption that Public Service Commission scholars run the country, civil servants - as the name suggests - serve the Government, and are not part of it.

They are certainly part of small-g government, but that isn't the same as the capital-G elected Government.

There are more complicated details found in our Constitution, but describing them would require some sort of cross between a Venn diagram and a flowchart.

In any case, the difference between common usage of 'the government' and official usage of 'the Government' can lead to debates taking place at cross-purposes.

In the controversy over opposition MPs not being appointed as advisers to grassroots organisations, for instance, one common argument made by those who want them to be involved is that opposition MPs are part of the government too.

This may be correct in the sense that MPs are legislators who make laws governing the country.

But in another sense, it is wrong, as the Government has said - because opposition MPs are, by definition, not in the Government.

Opposition MPs are part of Parliament, the legislature that makes laws, not the executive that makes policies.

So while there may be good arguments against the Government line on grassroots advisers, the above isn't one of them.

This distinction may be pedantic, but it is far from unique to Singapore.

In many European countries, where there is seldom one party with a majority in Parliament, elections are often followed by the tricky process of 'forming a government'.

The party with the most seats tries to form a coalition with smaller parties, aiming to hold an eventual majority of seats.

The government is then drawn from the parties in that coalition.

When the drama of government-formation continues several days after elections, it is easier to see the difference between the executive and the legislature.

But in Singapore's case, the People's Action Party's (PAP) long domination of both Parliament and Cabinet can easily lead to a conflation of the two.

This political history has muddied the waters in political definitions in other ways. For a start, there is the unfortunate synonymy which 'PAP' and 'the Government' have acquired.

The Government of the day is indeed a PAP government. But the PAP is an institution with its own internal organisation and goals - and, of course, many members who are not part of government in any sense of the word.

Then there are the civil servants.

In many other systems, parties and governments come and go. The civil service putters on regardless, its political neutrality clear.

In contrast, Singapore's civil service has spent decades yoked to the same master. Its neutrality may now be blurred in the eyes of many Singaporeans. It doesn't help that many politicians were former civil servants, of course.

Still, our history does not excuse us for getting these things wrong. All this pedantry about definitions is somewhere in our social studies curriculum - though a completely unscientific survey of my Facebook friends revealed that few remember learning about this in school.

'But who cares?' you might ask.

If you're a journalist, it matters because clarity is paramount. In fact, no matter who you are, it should matter for the same reason.

Effective discussion is possible only when we use the same terms to mean the same things. If you want your arguments to stand up to scrutiny, you should craft them using the right materials.

If you're a critic, defender, or simply an observer of the Government, you need to know exactly what your opponents are saying if you wish to rebut them effectively.

And if, like me, you're a young Singaporean who only remembers the colourful bits from social studies, it matters because if we want to be politically aware - and not just 'excited over elections' - we can start by getting our terms correct.