It is easy to hate Philip Yeo and to take issue with his self-assuredness and candour, which is why Peh Shing Huei’s “Neither Civil Nor Servant: The Philip Yeo Story” – despite acknowledging from the start that Yeo can be a divisive character – missed an opportunity to reach out to his naysayers or detractors (that is, those who deem him to be “arrogant”, “combative”, “defiant”, “egoistic”, “too direct”, and “too linear”), and to elicit personal views of his shortcomings or policy missteps. Without the first-hand perspectives of those who disagree with him, the exploration of policy counterfactuals, and his failures, and moreover by presenting him as gung-ho and seemingly infallible, the book appears more eager to preserve a chronological and thematic narrative in which Yeo can do no wrong. Even in the aftermath of controversies, individuals interviewed and quoted in the book would inevitably take his side.
For instance, the observation that star scientists who had been initially lured to Singapore to advance the biomedical industry ultimately left “with grumblings of red tape and interference from bureaucrats” was not adequately explored, and eventually and conveniently glossed over with the line that other scientists “successfully hunted by Yeo have remained and continued to contribute”.
But it is also easy to love or to admire the man – especially towards the end of the biography when his commitment to talent development and his connections to his subordinates are detailed – and when reading about Yeo’s ostensibly extensive contributions in defence, the economy, and talent development (in particular, his unconventional modus operandi to motivate his team, to get his hands dirty, and to get the job done), as well as his views of the civil services and its administrative officers (AOs) today: That AOs and ministers hop across different postings without developing a deep understanding of their ministries, that AOs are excessively trained to analyse and to question, and that the “eunuch disease” and increasing bureaucratisation of the civil service could be deleterious.
Yeo pulls no punches in his evaluation of civil servants in general and even of the civil service today. Halfway through “Neither Civil Nor Servant: The Philip Yeo Story”, one wonders if he is cognisant of the changing circumstances of policymaking vis-à-vis those he is accustomed to – of a wider playing field translating into more options and flexibility in the past, into one of greater complexity, uncertainty, and with more to lose today – and whether he was able to flourish because the circumstances allowed him to. However, as it becomes clear that Yeo cares little about his legacy and in addition to the likely counter-argument that his results speak for themselves, one also wonders how he would fare as a civil servant in the Singapore of today and of the future.
And finally in thinking of Yeo’s approach and disposition as a maverick, the idea of a (Singaporean) civil service full of Yeos is an interesting one. In the concluding chapters, Peh quoted Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo, who said in 2015 that the “public service … needs a few mavericks like Philip Yeo. Enough to prevent groupthink, but not so many as to disrupt the institution”. If so, who are the Philip Yeos of the Singapore civil service – and perhaps even the government – today?