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

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

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the annual public service leadership dinner on Jan 17, 2020.

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s success depends on the public service working hand in hand with a first-class political leadership, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (Jan 17).

They think that the country can survive a bad election or a bad government, because the civil service is there, Mr Lee said.

"I believe this is totally misguided. Leadership does matter, and political leaders play a specific, vital role in ... our system of government," he said to senior civil servants gathered at the annual public service leadership dinner.

He detailed the important role that ministers play: They have to win the people’s mandate, sense the public mood and set the strategic direction of the country, Mr Lee said. They also need to persuade the public on this direction, and on the policies to get there, including unpopular ones.

Policies always exist within a political context and do not happen in a vacuum, he noted.

"Ministers are responsible for getting the politics right, just as the civil service is primarily responsible for policy," he said at the event held at Shangri-La Hotel.

Mr Lee's speech comes before an impending general election. Singapore is due to hold an election by April 2021 but polls are expected to be called this year.


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, but only for a time, he said. 

"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," Mr Lee said.

He gave the example of the United States, where urgent actions that everyone agrees are necessary, 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,” he said. 

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

Giving further examples, Mr Lee said that Singapore can sustain organisations like Temasek Holdings and state investment fund GIC, which are insulated from political pressure and bureaucratic interference, because the country has, among other things, “the political will to do things the right way and see things through”.

This has helped Singapore build up its reserves, he said.

"It is an arrangement unique to Singapore; it puzzles others studying us,” he said. "Eventually they may understand how we make it work, but they will have great difficulty doing the same in a different political environment.”


While public service leaders must understand the political context, ministers on their part must master their ministries, and the policies they are accountable for, Mr Lee said.

He detailed how they should do so: They must have their hearts in the right place, with a passion to serve and a concern for the welfare of the people.

On top of providing strategic guidance, they are expected to be hands-on, and intimately involved in developing policies.

This applies to not just the specific minister in charge of his own ministry, but the whole Cabinet, when it comes to major policy decisions, he said. 

"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,” he said. 

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 cannot function well, he said.

Decisions will be delayed or fudged, wrong decisions will be taken or officers will be unable to get things done, he said.

He added that maintaining an outstanding public service will itself be in jeopardy, as enterprising and idealistic officers will become frustrated and disillusioned. 

"The quality of governance will go down, and it will take years to recover, if that is at all possible."


The system has worked "quite well so far", he noted.

"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," he said.

Even as Singapore goes through a transition of political leadership in the next few years, the fundamental alignment, close working relationship, and mutual trust between ministers and civil servants cannot change, Mr Lee said, as he spoke about the 4G leadership.

The 4G leaders will work in a different style, leading younger Singaporeans who want the Government to deliver policies with them, not just for them, he said. 

The 4G leaders are working on the SGTogether movement, to create policies with Singaporeans, and the public service is supporting this effort, Mr Lee added. 

He is confident that the 4G political leaders and the public service leadership, particularly at senior levels, share the same fundamental values, he said.

These include meritocracy, clean government, multi-racialism, inclusive development and economic growth. They also include the conviction that an outstanding government is a vital differentiator for Singapore and that Singapore has to be exceptional to thrive, he said.

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

Source: CNA/hm


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