Good policies need good politics, and if Singapore does not get its politics right, a good civil service will be in jeopardy in spite of safeguards, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
"For the system to provide stable, consistent good outcomes for the long term, politics and policy have to fit closely together," he told 300 Administrative Service officers.
"And if either one goes wrong, the system may well malfunction," he warned.
In his speech at the annual Administrative Service promotion ceremony and dinner, Mr Lee said even as the civil service must be impartial, it is not independent of the elected government - unlike the judiciary.
"Policy and politics cannot be separated so neatly and absolutely."
Policies do not exist in a vacuum but start with a political objective - to meet the people's aspirations.
In elections, political parties reflect these aspirations and put forth their programmes, and voters elect the party they deem best, he said.
That party forms the government and produces the leadership - which then sets the direction and works with the civil service to design and implement policy.
"So policies are ultimately derived from the mandate of the elected government," he said.
Mr Lee also warned that Singapore's civil service - high-quality, clean, effective - cannot be taken for granted, nor can its survival.
He noted how countries in Europe with a history of consensus politics are now in crisis as policies have not met desired outcomes.
Moderate parties are losing ground to extreme parties that do not have "better ideas" but are "merely feeding the restiveness and collecting protest votes".
Can Singapore's political system fail in the same way? Many think it cannot, and that the system will "produce a good outcome, automatically and forever".
But, said Mr Lee: "This is a complacent and mistaken view."
Singapore's politics too can go wrong, and its policies may prove ill-conceived, fail to win support, or be overwhelmed by forces beyond the Government's control.
"This is why the general election results last year were so significant for Singapore, and a big win for Singapore," said Mr Lee, referring to the ruling party's resounding victory with 69.9 per cent of the vote.
Singapore was at a critical point of choice between divided politics and pulling together - and Singaporeans chose the latter, he said.
Yet this also means that his Government, having been elected, bears the heavy responsibility of fulfilling voters' expectations - a task that is more challenging at this stage of the nation's development.
Politicians and civil servants must work together, he added.
For their part, civil servants must understand the political context so that they do not come up with policies that are "non-starters".
"Singapore is currently in a sweet spot," Mr Lee said.
Politics and policies have worked constructively together, delivering results not just in a single election term, but also over the long term. By international standards, this is not at all normal: "It's highly abnormal."
Noting that some have argued that Singapore should become a "normal" country, Mr Lee countered: "I think that is most unwise."
"If we ever lose it and become 'normal', like any other country, where the politics of division takes hold and policies oscillate from one end to the other with the political winds, we will have lost a precious competitive advantage.
"And it will be very difficult for us to ever become special again."
Singapore has become special not just thanks to "the superior virtues of Singapore civil servants or ministers", but also because it has been lucky in its nation-building. He said: "We have built, over decades, a broad national consensus on values and priorities." Policies have worked and benefited all Singaporeans.
This system, Mr Lee added, has produced elected governments with a sense of mission, competence and integrity to work for the broad interests of the people - as well as a high-quality civil service with a strong ethos of service, that appreciates the national context.
Singapore, he said, has to "keep this virtuous circle going" if it is to endure and prosper.