Commentary: Helping developing countries achieve growth isn’t complicated. Just look at Singapore

Commentary: Helping developing countries achieve growth isn’t complicated. Just look at Singapore

A capable public administration has played a critical role in the country’s development, an area which developing countries should prioritise, says one UNDP observer.

A general view of the financial district skyline is reflected in a pond in Singapore
A view of the financial district skyline in Singapore. (Photo: AFP)

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s journey from third world to first is a remarkable story of rapid development, and remains an inspiration for many nations around the world.

While the outward signs of its success, whether glistening skyscrapers or booming shopping malls, are familiar, Singapore’s success was built on a far less visible foundation - effective public administration.

Singapore’s story is often credited to Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, with good reason; but there remains much to be said for the public administration he helped build. 

The public administration, responsible for developing and executing policies aimed at delivering constant progress on improving the wider welfare of society, played and continues to play a crucial role in Singapore’s development.

If we look back at the early days of Singapore’s independence in the 1960s, the difficulties that this nation faced were manifold. Economic, environmental, educational, security, and social problems – taken in aggregate – seemed almost insurmountable at the time. Leaders in many of today’s developing countries may feel the same.

Yet, by prioritising efforts to build an effective, efficient, and innovative public service, Singapore beat a path toward successful, sustainable development. 

Government bodies such as the Economic Development Board, Housing Development Board, and Public Utilities Board addressed the urgent need for jobs, housing, and water, while a heavy focus on public education drove the development of Singapore’s key resource – its people.

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Each country faces its own unique context and development needs, but Singapore’s experience demonstrates that investing in a capable public administration committed to its citizens’ needs is critical to powering economic growth and human progress.

Singapore Parliament in session. File photo: TODAY
Singapore's Parliament in session (File photo: TODAY)

This is an important lesson that developing countries still need to learn. In an increasingly complex and interdependent world, governments everywhere face fast-evolving, multifaceted challenges. 

Understanding and addressing these challenges require a civil service that can develop long-term solutions leveraging new platforms and tools.

Without capable public administrations and effective public services, developing countries will struggle to deliver better life outcomes for their citizens.

Governments in developing countries rarely lack passionate public servants, but they may lack the capacity, capability, and know-how needed to capitalise on the latest global trends in public sector innovation, government reform, and technology in addressing development challenges.

This is perhaps most evident in the African agricultural sector, where the positive effects of new technologies have varied significantly depending on individual governments’ abilities to apply tech-based solutions.

While countries such as Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria have leveraged technology effectively to address weather-driven food security risks, the lack of critical infrastructure in much of Africa limits scalability and prevents farming yields from reaching full productivity.   


Good governance cannot be replaced by new technologies, and we cannot expect developing countries to transform their public sectors overnight. 

Developed countries like Singapore and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) can help close this knowledge gap.

In pursuit of this aim, the UNDP established the Global Centre for Public Service Excellence (GCPSE) in Singapore to develop new thinking, strategy, and action in public administration. This does not simply mean producing new research on best practice, but helping developing countries adopt the latest public service reforms from around the world.

Importantly, the UNDP has helped to ensure that these efforts correspond to realities on the ground.

As Singapore’s government is globally recognised for its high-performing public sector, it has been the perfect location to bring together top thinkers and practitioners in public sector excellence to share learning and help developing countries deliver practical improvements to their governments.

Singapore is one of the world's most Internet-savvy societies, offering broadband speeds envied
Workers at the Raffles Place financial district in Singapore. (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Public service excellence is not an unattainable ideal – it can transform lives around the world and address longstanding global challenges.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established with the ultimate aim of ending poverty, protecting the planet, and providing a prosperous future for all. The SDGs provide a way to structure the complexity of achieving progress for developing countries.

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At the GCPSE – in partnership with the Singaporean Government, we have worked to help developing countries invest in their administrative capacity, making them more likely to deliver on the 2030 Agenda and translate development gains to societal benefit.

We have seen this in many of our partner countries, including Kazakhstan, where UNDP supported the implementation of new information systems for public service delivery in 2013, and developed a Civil Service Hub to share its success with neighbouring countries.

In the 2018 UN e-government survey, Kazakhstan broke into the Very-High E-Government Development Index group, topping the list of Landlocked Developing Countries.

This new information system has contributed to improved public service delivery, and increased transparency and accountability within local government.

Indeed, significant progress in achieving the 2030 Agenda has been made, and not just in Kazakhstan. Countries as diverse as Bolivia, Ethiopia, and India are seeing efforts in civil service reform pay off.


However, much remains to be done. Many of the obstacles to achieving the SDGs in areas as essential as promoting better sanitation and providing clean water, often cut across narrow ministerial boundaries and require holistic approaches that break down departmental silos.

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Running tap water is seen in Flint, a city struggling with the effects of lead-poisoned drinking wa
(Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

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By pooling knowledge and resources, the international community can work with developing countries to marry improved solutions with longstanding problems.

The role of the public official evolves continuously, but it remains a critical factor in driving development. Singapore has demonstrated that excellence in public service helps to power economic growth and human development.

As the international community continues to work towards achieving the SDGs by 2030, countries with a positive development story to share – like Singapore – should do more to share their lessons and help others achieve a better future and improve the lives of citizens everywhere.

Max Everest-Phillips is director of the UNDP’s Global Centre for Public Service Excellence based in Singapore which has just released a report Public Service 2030: Making the SDGs happen.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)