Singapore's civil service emerged tops in a survey of 12 Asian economies, for being least encumbered by red tape and concentration of power.
Despite recent high-profile corruption scandals involving public officers, Singapore chalked up its best showing in the five surveys done by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (Perc) since 1997. It scored 1.11 - out of the worst possible score of 10. This was a 66 per cent improvement from 16 years ago.
The study released on Wednesday, titled Bureaucracy: Asia's Best And Worst, was done in the third quarter of this year. It canvassed views from more than 100 locals and expatriates working in each of the 12 economies studied.
Singapore is also the only one on the list - which includes China, Japan and South Korea - whose score has improved consistently over the last 16 years.
The Hong Kong-based Perc, which publishes regular reports for companies doing business in East and South-east Asia, highlighted two factors why Singapore consistently does well.
The first was the quality of civil servants. This is achieved through the Government's high standards and selection process, officers being paid "relatively well", and the low tolerance for those who abuse their positions.
The second was the efficient framework in which the civil servants work, with clear laws and lines of authority.
The strong legal framework was also highlighted by Singapore International Chamber of Commerce chief executive Phillip Overmyer. He told The Straits Times that firms come here because of Singapore's reputation as "a safe place in Asia", where everyone deals with the same set of rules.
"If Singapore isn't careful, it will lose one of its greatest values in bringing in foreign companies and being recognised as a very honest, very straightforward country," he said.
Bureaucracy, said Perc, is marked by the multiplication and concentration of power in the administration along with excessive red tape and routine. It added that the survey, read alongside a recent report by the World Economic Forum, shows very few governments have succeeded in reducing the perception that bureaucracy is bogging down the system.
Five of the 12 economies in Perc's study, including India, did worse this year than in 1997. Only Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia did markedly better.
Perc also noted the problem of bureaucracy extends beyond individual civil servants to other institutions. "As a rule, countries with efficient civil services have efficient legislatures and executive branches," it added, using Singapore as a positive example.
However, Perc cautioned that Singapore's efficiency "does not necessarily equate to innovation".
Agreeing, Mr Inderjit Singh, an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC who raises business issues regularly in Parliament, called for greater flexibility in applying and interpreting rules. He cited the Fair Consideration Framework, which aims to get firms to give locals a fair shot when hiring skilled workers.
"If you apply one rule to all, you may end up, for the sake of efficiency, closing up some areas where you could help improve the economy," he said.
However, Singapore's improving score also reflects the move towards greater consultation in policy-making, he said. "When you consult and you make changes, it shows that bureaucracy is not the obstacle to change."