Political contestation in Singapore here to stay, likely to become more intense: Lawrence Wong
The People's Action Party greatly values the professional inputs and objectivity of officers in the public service, said the Deputy Prime Minister.
SINGAPORE: Political contestation in Singapore is here to stay and will likely become more intense over time, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (Nov 1).
Speaking at the Annual Public Service Leadership Ceremony, Mr Wong said a close working relationship between the political leadership and the public service is key to sustaining good results.
“Ours is a partnership that is grounded on mutual trust and respect,” he added.
“We all recognise that policies do not take place in a vacuum. Political contestation in Singapore is here to stay, and will likely become more intense over time,” said Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister.
“The political leadership will have to manage the politics. We do not assume the right to leadership. Just because the PAP (People’s Action Party) has governed Singapore since independence doesn’t mean that it will always do so.”
The PAP will have to work hard to win the confidence and trust of citizens, to secure its mandate to govern and prove that it can govern well, said Mr Wong.
“So whenever we consider policies, we will have to make a judgment as political leaders of how far to go, what changes to make, taking into account these broader considerations,” he added.
Decisions by the political leadership will always be driven by a “full commitment to do what is right for Singapore and Singaporeans,” said Mr Wong.
“We will never compromise on our key principles and values. We will not allow populist politics, race politics or money politics to take root in Singapore,” he added.
“And that means we will continue to be upfront with Singaporeans about issues which may not be so popular, but need to be discussed and dealt with. We will continue to tackle problems head-on instead of taking the expedient way, kicking them down the road, or allowing them to fester and grow.”
In doing so, the PAP greatly values the professional inputs and objectivity of officers in the public service, said Mr Wong.
“So do not try to second guess the Minister or propose what you think we will find politically convenient. Instead continue to be candid and forthright in sharing your assessments and views, based on your best professional judgment,” he added.
“The final decision taken may not always accord with your recommendations. But know that your professional inputs matter greatly and are a vital part of our decision-making process.”
PRIORITY AREAS FOR CHANGE
In his speech, Mr Wong highlighted three areas for change and transformation for the public service to consider.
Public service leaders will have to sharpen their geopolitical instincts, said Mr Wong.
“This has traditionally been the domain of officers working in areas like foreign policy and defence. But in a world of greater geo-political contestation, we must all sensitise ourselves to the new realities of a changing world order,” he added
With the invasion of Ukraine and tensions between China and the US, Singapore has to be prepared for the emergence of a new Cold War, one that could be more dangerous than the first one, said Mr Wong.
“In a more contested environment, we must also expect external parties to conduct influence operations here - to try all ways and means to spread their views and shape Singapore's public opinion, so that public opinion can in turn nudge or influence the government to adopt certain positions.”
When this happens, the Government will be forced to act not in the interest of Singapore, but in the interests of these other countries, he added.
“All this can have profound implications on our security, our economy, our access to technology, or even food and energy supplies. As a small, open economy, and an international hub for trade and finance, we cannot wish away these geopolitical pressures. We cannot avoid them entirely.”
Singapore will have to find ways to mitigate and guard against them, said the Deputy Prime Minister.
To do this, public service leaders must be sensitive to geopolitical considerations regardless of their sector, he added.
“You must a have clear view of how the external environment impacts your work, and what are the opportunities and risks for Singapore,” said Mr Wong.
“And you must be able to work closely with stakeholders in both industry and civil society, to sensitise them to these risks and help them manage the risks well.”
The public service must also broaden the range of competencies among its leaders, enabling the service to be more resilient and more prepared for uncertainties ahead, said Mr Wong.
“Our system has always placed a premium on nurturing leaders with strong policy skills, and this no doubt remains relevant and important. But policy alone is not enough. Certainly to mount the response that we did to the COVID-19 crisis, we had to rely on much more than policy skills” he added.
“We also needed leaders with other skillsets. Capabilities and experience in implementation ... experience in running operations, in mobilising volunteers, in doing crisis communications, a deep understanding of science and technology especially digital solutions, and how these can be incorporated into policy work.”
The public service must build diverse leadership teams with a wide range of competencies to adequately prepare itself for the future, he added.
“This will ensure that the service will always have fresh perspectives and a wider range of capabilities to help it respond to any challenge.”
Lastly, the public service must deepen its engagement with the public, said Mr Wong.
As society matures, Singaporeans have become more diverse in their aspirations and views, he noted.
“Many also want to have a greater say in how policies which affect them are formulated,” he added.
“So to stay cohesive and strong as a country, we must do more to draw strength from our diversity, to help every individual realise their full potential and to be able to find common ground amidst diversity on the best way forward for Singapore.”
The political leadership will “play a key role” in understanding the needs and concerns of Singaporeans and helping to build consensus especially on difficult issues, said Mr Wong.
He urged the public service to incorporate more engagement processes in its work.
“We can do more to create opportunities for Singaporeans to engage one another, to listen to each other’s views and to understand the diverse perspectives that are often at play on any issues that we have to deal with,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.
“We must also enable our people to better understand the trade-offs on the increasingly complex issues we face and learn how to seek mutual accommodation and compromise.
"Compromise in Singapore must never become a bad word, because if we do not learn how to compromise, if every group insists on maximum entitlements for themselves, then our society can only become more and more divided."
This is one of the reasons why the 4G PAP leadership launched the Forward Singapore exercise to review Singapore’s social compact, said Mr Wong.
“Through Forward Singapore, we want to deepen our engagement efforts and partner with Singaporeans across all walks of life to forge that common purpose in Singapore’s next bound of nation building,” he added.
“But the engagement efforts should not just be a once-off exercise ... It cannot end with this exercise, it must continue on as an integral part of the public service work.
"As our issues become more complex, the public service will have to find ways to tackle them not by yourselves, but often in partnership with other stakeholders. So collaboration, engagement and partnership, these ideas and concepts will become increasingly much more important in the work that you do."