Government 'did not get every call right' during COVID-19 crisis, but key is to keep learning: PM Lee
SINGAPORE: The Government “did not get every call right” during its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, but the key is to keep learning and “be prepared to make the tough calls”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Apr 12).
In a speech delivered at the Administrative Service appointment and promotion ceremony, the Prime Minister also noted that trust in the Government has been key to Singapore's management of the pandemic.
To continue building this trust, it needs a “top-notch” public service that works “hand-in-glove” with the political leadership, he said at the ceremony held at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.
Mr Lee described COVID-19 as “a stern test” for the Government and highlighted several key takeaways. One of which is the need to make tough calls, especially in times of uncertainty and ambiguity.
For instance, Singapore had to make a judgment call at the start of the pandemic when little was known about the virus.
“Whether to let the outbreak burn through our population, and hope to reach safety through herd immunity, or to tighten up and keep our cases as low as possible, until we learnt how to keep our population safe,” Mr Lee said.
Both had their risks but Singapore decided right from the onset that it would not pay the high price in human lives, the Prime Minister said. So it closed its borders, implemented strict measures and imposed a two-month “circuit breaker” in April 2020 when schools and workplaces were shut and dining out was not allowed.
But a year later, the emergence of the highly infectious Delta variant rendered a zero-COVID strategy “less and less tenable”, Mr Lee noted.
Public mindsets also had to be changed, such as the “considerable” public anxiety that came with high daily cases and urging COVID-19 patients to recover at home.
“Fortunately, we executed the shift at just about the right time, and coped well with the subsequent Delta, followed by Omicron surges,” said Mr Lee.
He noted that the Government had to make “many difficult and consequential choices” over the past two years, “often without an established playbook … nor the luxury to wait and see”.
“We had to judge what was best at that point with incomplete information, and act on that in the fog of war,” said Mr Lee, adding that indecision or waiting for all the facts to come before acting “would have been far worse”.
Still, he acknowledged that the Government "did not get every call right".
"We have had our share of challenges and setbacks these past 2 years but the key is to keep on learning and improving; and as we discover more information, to be prepared to update, revise or even reverse our decisions.”
TRUST IN GOVERNMENT IS “PRECIOUS”
Mr Lee also said that trust in the Government was key to Singapore’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
He described this as trust that the Government has the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart, is competent and will make the right decisions on behalf of Singaporeans.
“Singaporeans displayed that trust when they accepted the Government’s advice and decisions, and they complied willingly with strict safe management measures, and when they came forward to get vaccinated,” said the Prime Minister.
This trust is “precious” and to continue building and nurturing it, Singapore must have a “top-notch” public service with capable and committed officers who possess the right ethos and values and are dedicated to serving Singaporeans responsibly and honestly.
“We need first-class minds, able to grasp and tackle complex, inter-connected problems, and come up with creative ideas and workable solutions,” said Mr Lee.
“But we also need a first-class team, cohesive and mission-oriented, focused single-mindedly on getting the job done.”
Yet, there is “one more vital ingredient of success”. For the public service to do its job, it needs to work “hand-in-glove with the political leadership”, noted Mr Lee.
“The ministers have to get the politics right, understand the key issues and identify our priorities, exercise their political mandate, set the direction and chart the country’s strategy,” he said, adding the need to also be “hands-on to ensure that policies are well designed and implemented”.
“Then they can carry their decisions with the public, assure the population, and lead Singapore throughout this journey,” said the Prime Minister.
Importantly, the political leadership has to give public servants the political support and cover they need. This will enable public servants “to focus on their tasks, carry out their duties professionally and not be distracted or intimidated by political theatrics or grandstanding”.
At the same time, public servants should “appreciate the political context, translate overall strategy into workable policies, and implement and execute the plans”, he said.
“The political leadership and public service must complement and support one another, and trust each other to play their respective roles,” he said, adding that this partnership is “crucial”.
Mr Lee went on to add that amid a renewal in Singapore’s political and public service leadership, there is a need to renew the trust that exists between the current generation of ministers and senior public service officers, and extend it into subsequent generations.
COVID-19 was a moment when this happened as the fourth-generation (4G) team was involved one way or other, working with their Permanent Secretaries and management teams.
“During the crisis, they strengthened their relationships, and deepened the shared understanding and trust,” said Mr Lee.
“This sets the foundation for the next generation of leaders – both the ministers and the public service because when their turn comes to assume the responsibility of leading the country, the two will need to continue to work just as closely and deliver the same results that Singaporeans expect, and have become used to,” he said.
Other key takeaways that Mr Lee touched on in his speech to ministers and leaders of the public service include the need for Singapore to always look beyond the immediate problems and plan ahead. He also stressed the importance of implementation and execution of policies.
Mr Lee also acknowledged the public service for responding swiftly and resiliently throughout the COVID-19 crisis, while working closely with the political leadership.
“I want to thank the public service leadership and all public service officers,” he said, noting that many have stepped up and gone beyond the call of duty.
“As one public service, you mustered all our agencies and resources, and mounted a collective response to COVID-19,” he added. “Your hard work and sacrifices kept our people safe and our economy resilient. Your efforts demonstrated the difference that a good Government makes.”
Tuesday’s event was the first appointment and promotion ceremony held physically in two years.
Mr Lee paid tribute to two recently retired Permanent Secretaries – Ms Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary for Communications and Information and Cybersecurity in the Prime Minister's Office and Mr Chee Wee Kiong, Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs.
Ms Yong retired after 36 years in public service and was "constantly striving to transform the way we do things", Mr Lee said. She will remain as chairperson of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board and senior adviser to the Ministry of Communications and Information.
Mr Chee, who spent 40 years in public service, "brought to his responsibilities his shrewd sense of the motivation and thinking of others, and the ability to look forward, plan, and provide direction for his organisation to stay ahead", the Prime Minister said.
The event also recognised the appointment of 20 officers to the Administrative Service and the promotion of 80 administrative officers.