Commentary: Singapore must maintain formula of good government that has worked well for many years

Commentary: Singapore must maintain formula of good government that has worked well for many years

This is Prime Minister's Lee Hsien Loong's full speech at the first Public Service Leadership dinner held on Friday (Jan 17).

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Annual Public Service Leadership dinner on Jan 17,2020
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the annual public service leadership dinner on Jan 17, 2020.

SINGAPORE: I am delighted to join you this evening for the Annual, in fact the first, Public Service Leadership Dinner. It is the first time we are bringing together both the Administrative Service as well as the Public Service Leadership Programme, the PSLP.

Collectively, you represent the leadership of the public sector. Tonight, I wish to speak on two related themes.

First, building a deeper and more diverse public service leadership corps, to cope with our changing operating environment; and second, how the public service should work with the political leadership to deliver good government for Singapore.

A CHANGING OPERATING ENVIRONMENT

Let me begin with transforming the public service leadership. We know that our operating environment is becoming more complex. Externally, the global outlook is increasingly uncertain. Domestically, our economy is more mature and less buoyant.

We face major issues like economic restructuring, a shrinking workforce, and demographic changes. Technology is rapidly changing the world that we know and in particular, social media has changed the public discourse.

Even small groups can have loud voices, and it is not always clear who is the true face behind each voice. So it is difficult to determine what public sentiment really is, and even harder to build a democratic consensus.

All this has made the task of government bigger, more complex and more multifaceted.

Each piece of the puzzle requires deeper and more substantive expertise and knowledge to figure out, and dealing with the entire puzzle – putting all the pieces together – requires more integrated efforts across different parts of the government machinery, as well as reaching beyond the civil service to work together with the citizenry and with civil society.

Fortunately, Singapore has a high quality, competent, and committed public service that is up to the task.

This is a major reason why we have made good progress in many areas – whether it is solving our water issues, improving our preschools, or defending ourselves against new threats like cyberattacks and terrorism, just to cite a few.

In all these areas and many more, you have kept policies current, executed changes smoothly, and involved Singaporeans in the process. In so doing, you have made a major difference to the lives of Singaporeans, and thank you for your dedication and effort.

BUILDING DEEP EXPERTISE AND DIVERSITY IN THE PUBLIC SERVICE LEADERSHIP

But looking ahead, to deal with new challenges, the public service must transform itself, and build new capabilities. You have embarked on a major drive to become more “lean, agile and digital”; I fully support this effort.

As public sector leaders, it is your collective duty to lead this transformation and make it happen. Traditionally, we have relied heavily on the Administrative Service to lead public sector organisations and drive change from the top, and there are good reasons for this.

Administrative Service officers (AOs) are trained to see strategic, whole-of-government perspectives and to work across domains. They marshal resources from different parts of the government to pre-empt and solve problems.

They are posted across different ministries, always bringing to bear objective analyses and new perspectives. They strive to bring about needed changes and to keep the service up to date and refreshed.

On the whole, the Administrative Service has been a great strength of our system, but there is a downside too to this AO-driven model because AOs do not have sufficient time to develop deep domain expertise like the officers in the professional services.

In this new operating environment, facing far more complex challenges, we need to build up deeper domain expertise, and hence we need to recalibrate the balance.

One important move is to develop a broader base of leaders beyond the Administrative Service. The public service leadership needs to possess, collectively, deeper expertise in key domains – be it education, health care, urban planning, communications, or foreign policy.

It needs first rate talent and leaders in all these professional areas to institutionalise deep competence and capabilities within our public sector organisations. These officers can then partner and complement the AOs, as part of the larger collective public sector leadership.

This is why we set up the Public Service Leadership Programme some years ago. The PSLP creates multiple job structures and career pathways, so that officers can rise up in professional roles and reach apex positions in their own fields, and not just go through the Administrative Service route.

It enables us to develop and reward such talent systematically and competitively, recognising their contributions and their value, and entrust them with significant leadership responsibilities.

Whether you are the Director of Medical Services, or the Director-General of Education, or the Chief Planner, the Accountant-General, or Chief of Government Communications, we can be sure that the person is of high quality, and is able to lead other competent professionals in his or her field with credibility.

Then, the public service as a whole will have strong functional capabilities, knowledge and leadership and then the public service will benefit from a wide range of competencies, experiences and perspectives.

More officers can achieve their career aspirations, as they improve our public services and change Singapore for the better in their respective fields. This will make for a more balanced and resilient system.

In this system, a cadre of high quality AOs remains critical because if we only have domain experts and specialists, the public service will not instinctively think of or operate with a national or whole-of-government perspective. We need outstanding AOs too, to ensure that we do not lose sight of this strategic perspective.

The job requirements of AOs are as exacting as those for specialist domain officers, but in a different way. It is not good enough for an AO merely to be a coordinator, or even a good writer of staff and Cabinet papers.

AOs must also possess some domain expertise and master the substance of the issues they are dealing with, and they need experience not just in designing policies but also implementing them, and doing frontline work engaging citizens.

Ideally they should have had some international exposure as well, then not only will they bring value to the organisation, but they can command the respect of domain colleagues and specialists whom they work with or lead.

How does this actually work in practice? I think the Ministry of Education (MOE) is a good example. The Ministry consists of strong cadres of both AOs as well as education professionals. The two Permanent Secretaries and the Director-General of Education work hand in hand with one another.

Similarly, the policy wing and the professional wing in MOE work closely together. The policy and professional perspectives do not always produce the same view on issues and this can lead to disagreements and tensions.

MOE (2)
The Ministry of Education building. (File photo: Ngau Kai Yan)

But the tension has to be managed, and it can be a constructive tension, provided there are good, capable officers on both sides doing high quality work with mutual respect for each other, then each side appreciates the other’s perspective and takes it into account. This way, they collectively come to the best possible recommendation to their Minister, or for major decisions to the Cabinet.

This conception of a collective public service leadership with AOs and PSLPs working together, depending on each other and maximising each other’s strengths, is more of a network than a hierarchy. And this is the reason why we have brought everyone together tonight, at our Annual Public Service Leadership Dinner.

To be able to take this more holistic view and instinctively see issues from multiple perspectives, the public service leadership as a whole needs a broader diversity of experiences, temperaments and mindsets.

This starts with making the public service leadership more permeable, in three ways.

First, more permeable at the entry point, by more deliberately selecting and recruiting public service leaders for diversity. The Public Service Commission (PSC) has started doing this in recent years.

When interviewing scholarship applicants, the panel looks beyond intellectual acumen and good character, to give weight to whole person qualities and unique backgrounds and experiences.

Second, we need to be more permeable between different schemes and services. PSLP officers who demonstrate strong whole-of-government perspectives and application and have the aptitude to work in different domains should be brought into the Administrative Service.

Correspondingly, AOs who show the potential or interest to develop deeper expertise in a professional area should be encouraged to join the PSLP. To some extent, this already happens today, but more officers moving across schemes will reinforce the idea of a collaborative network and a collective leadership.

Third, we need to be more permeable between the public and private sector at the mid-career level. Mid-career entrants to the public service bring with them expertise that we lack, especially direct experience of how the private sector operates and what it takes to win business and to make a bottom line.

But we have not been very successful in mid-career recruitment. This is not for the lack of trying, but often it fails to work out because the gulf in culture and mission between the private and public sectors is just too deep.

READ: Public service leadership has to be more ‘permeable’, says PM Lee

It is not easy at all for someone to join the public sector mid-career because when they first come in they will almost by definition lack the knowledge and instincts that take many years to build.

But it is precisely this freshness of perspective that makes mid-career entrants valuable to us – because they can, when it works out, see with fresh eyes what we have long taken for granted, and ask some basic questions why that should be so.

We should not make mid-career entrants conform to what we already are, we do not need another person who is just like us. Instead, we should help them to settle in, integrate and win the trust of the group while retaining their unique experiences and differences, and making an extra effort to take in their ideas and perspectives.

I am glad the public service leadership is doing more to recruit mid-career entrants and to help them assimilate, and I encourage you to keep up this effort.

A diversity of background and experience will sensitise public sector leaders to the issues and concerns of different segments of the population.

Our policies can affect small or niche groups in major ways – needy households, businesses in particular sectors, the labour movement, industry associations, or nature groups. If we are not careful, we may overlook or fail to hear them, because they do not have the loudest voice or may be otherwise disadvantaged.

To help build this ground understanding, we have posted young public service leaders to the People’s Association, Social Service Offices and the unions, and to private companies like Shell and SingTel, and even to new economy companies and start-ups like Shopee and Lazada.

punggol SSO
The Social Service Office in Punggol. (Photo: Wendy Wong)

Some civil servants also attend citizen engagement sessions and Meet-the-People sessions as part of their milestone courses, to observe the issues Singaporeans face on the ground. These are invaluable exposure opportunities, and we should do more of them.

POLITICS AND POLICY

A high quality public service leadership is critical, but it is not by itself sufficient. For Singapore to succeed, the public service needs to work hand in hand with a first class political leadership.

Some people argue that since we have a capable civil service to keep things working, Singapore is already in good hands. Hence, we need not be so stringent in our expectations of political leaders – expectations of capability, of mastery of their portfolios, of the experience they bring to the job – and we can even survive a bad election or a bad government, because the civil service is there.

But I believe this is totally misguided. Leadership does matter, and political leaders play a specific, vital role in any country, but especially in our system of government.

First, Ministers are responsible for getting the politics right, just as the civil service is primarily responsible for policy. Ministers have to win the people’s mandate, sense the public mood, set the strategic direction for the country, and persuade the public on this direction and the policies to get there, including unpopular ones.

Policies always exist within a political context; they do not happen in a vacuum. If the country’s politics is divided and fractious, or if political leaders are well-meaning but mediocre, a competent civil service may be able to keep the country going on autopilot for some time.

But the civil service under these circumstances cannot launch major policy initiatives, set new directions, or mobilise the population to mount a national response to major challenges.

You see this in many other governments, like the United Kingdom (UK) or Hong Kong, or even in the US, where urgent actions that everyone agrees is necessary – non-partisan actions, like upgrading the country’s ageing infrastructure – cannot be taken because of deep political divisions.

In Singapore, the public service has been effective precisely because we have the political climate and political leaders who support and enable the public service to operate in a rational, efficient, and systematic way.

We have the luxury of looking beyond the short term, identifying future opportunities, and solving longer term problems like climate change with the full confidence that we can fund and carry out the plans.

We have the wherewithal to build up and restructure our organisations to deal with these problems and opportunities. We have committed the political capital to bring in the talent we need, and to pay them properly.

We can sustain organisations like Temasek and GIC – they are deliberately created as companies rather than government departments, to afford them a greater degree of autonomy; they are insulated from political pressures and bureaucratic interference, to give them the space to make sound investment decisions.

GIC new lobby
The logo of Singapore's sovereign wealth fund GIC seen at its office lobby. (Photo: GIC)

It works not only because we have the right organisational structure, but because we have the political will to do things the right way and see things through and we have built up the right culture and values in the civil service; so officers appointed know their role and know what is the right thing for them to do.

This arrangement has enabled us to steward and build up our reserves and has greatly benefitted our people. It is an arrangement unique to Singapore; it puzzles others studying us – they come, they look, they see our organisational charts, they ask many questions.

Eventually they may understand how we make it work, but they will have great difficulty doing the same in a different political environment. But in Singapore, all this is possible, and it is possible only because of the stable, well-functioning political system that we have created, inherited, and maintained.

Secondly, just as public service leaders must understand the political context, Ministers on their part must master their ministries and the policies they are accountable for. Ministers must have their hearts in the right place, with a passion to serve and a concern for the welfare of the people. That is sine qua non – taken for granted.

But a Minister is not a non-executive Chairman who just provides strategic guidance to his Ministry or Permanent Secretary. In Singapore, Ministers are expected to be hands-on, executive leaders. They are intimately involved in developing policies, exploring alternatives, proposing solutions, and making the final decisions.

This is true not just of the specific Minister in charge of a particular portfolio but of the whole Cabinet too, when it comes to a major policy decision put up by one of the Ministries. This is how we have done it – whether it is upgrading train reliability, designing medical services for the elderly, building up digital government and a smart nation, or managing sensitive foreign relations.

Ultimately, even if Ministers are diligent and well-intentioned, if they are not quite up to the mark or unable to play their roles properly, the public service will not function well.

Decisions will be delayed or fudged, wrong decisions will be taken, officers will be unable to get things done – they will try to find roundabout ways to get around the direct command structure – enterprising and idealistic officers will become frustrated and disillusioned.

READ: Public service needs to work with first-class political leadership for Singapore to succeed - PM Lee

Some will leave, making things worse. Maintaining an outstanding public service will itself be in jeopardy. The quality of government will go down, and it will take years to recover, if that is at all possible.

Thankfully, our system has worked quite well so far but we must continue to get capable, committed people to enter politics, to hold political appointments, to maintain the quality of Ministers, the political leadership, to be up to their responsibilities to lead and to work with the public service.

That is vital to maintaining the quality of government that Singaporeans have become used to.

The relationship between the political leadership and the public service, which is non-political, is a crucial but a delicate one. We have not gone down the route of the UK or of Australia. These countries have brought in political advisers and appointees to do the work that their “apolitical” civil servants do not want to do or cannot be trusted to do, or are not to do because they have drawn the line sharply between the Ministers and the civil service.

Boris Johnson’s chief adviser is Dominic Cummings. He is a political appointee himself, and he has made it clear that he believes that the UK civil service is subverting his government and Brexit. He has publicly lambasted the civil service as dysfunctional and incompetent, and vowed to turn things upside down.

His harsh criticism is perhaps not totally baseless – the UK civil service has a reputation for knowing their jobs, but also for being bureaucratic and insufficiently responsive to political direction. Yes Minister was an excellent parody, still good one generation after the books were written and the series was made; but it was an excellent parody because it was plausible enough to strike a chord.

But the split between the political and public service leadership has not produced happy results. The civil service is undermined, and the policymaking process fails to deliver results for the nation.

In Singapore, public service leaders must not become involved in political activities. In fact, the Minister’s job is to insulate the public service officials from political interference and to enable them to carry out their duties without fear or favour, when a matter could become politically controversial.

But the public service has to be fundamentally aligned with the elected government. Public service leaders must be sensitive to the political context, and must share the fundamental values and priorities of the political leadership; senior public service leaders must work extremely closely with the elected leaders.

Only then can the political leaders and the public service together give effect to the will of the people, deliver on the expectations and aspirations of Singaporeans, and do what is best for Singapore.

It is a fine balance – for the public service to be neutral and non-political, insulated from the hurly-burly of party politics, and yet politically sensitive and responsive to the nation’s priorities and aspirations. But this is inherent in the role of a public sector leader.

In the next few years, Singapore will see a transition of political leadership. The 4G leaders will work in a different style. Younger Singaporeans want to be part of the solution – they want the Government to deliver policies with them and not just for them.

The 4G leaders are working on the SGTogether movement to co-create policies with Singaporeans, and the public service is supporting this effort. This is a good platform for the 4G leaders to establish their own standing and bonds with Singaporeans and also with the public service.

But one thing cannot change – the fundamental alignment, the close working relationship, and the mutual trust between the ministers and civil servants.

I am confident that the 4G political leaders and the public service leadership, particularly at senior levels, share the same fundamental values, which include meritocracy, clean government, multi-racialism, inclusive development, and economic growth, among others, and also the conviction that an outstanding government is a vital differentiator for Singapore, and that Singapore has to be exceptional to thrive.

I hope these values will endure beyond the next political generation, and continue to be upheld by successive generations of political leaders in Singapore.

THE FORMULA THAT HAS WORKED FOR MANY YEARS

Our policies have succeeded and they have benefitted all Singaporeans, because we have an elected Government which has the sense of mission, the competence and the integrity to work for the broad interests of Singaporeans.

But also because the elected Government has been supported by a high-quality public service, with a strong ethos of service that appreciates our national context, and that the civil servants are proud to belong to.

This formula has worked well for Singapore for many years. We must do all we can to maintain this happy state of affairs where the public service continues to reinvent itself to meet the evolving needs and expectations and Singaporeans, and the political leadership and the public sector leadership continue working closely together to take our nation forward, stably and steadily.

If we do this, then Singapore can continue to be an exceptional nation, and can endure for many decades to come.

Lee Hsien Loong is Prime Minister of Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl

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