In Short

4G leaders' collegial and partnership approach to governing

A multi-ministry task force press conference on Jan 27, 2020 comprising (from left) ministers S. Iswaran, Chan Chun Sing, Gan Kim Yong, Lawrence Wong and Ong Ye Kung. Mr Desmond Lee is seated in the front row, right. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

In Short brings to you selected Opinion pieces in bite-sized portions. This is a shorter version of the full commentary.


A video circulating just before Chinese New Year showed Mr Lawrence Wong and Mr Ong Ye Kung, two of the co-chairs of the Multi-Ministry Task Force on Covid-19, urging Singaporeans to take precautions and avoid going out if unwell.

In the video, they looked like a pair of earnest, concerned uncles telling family members to take good care of their health.

They seemed to have a good vibe together; indeed the duo had done a well-received joint video in October 2021 shared under the title You Asked, We Answered, tackling common questions such as how long do vaccines last and why tighten measures if Covid-19 should not be feared.

The CNY video popped up on my Facebook feed on the eve of CNY, and was an apt example of collegial leadership in action.

I had written an article on the 4G style of leadership in which I highlighted the team-based approach to Covid-19 as an example of the 4G team members' collegial style.

The response to Covid-19 has been criticised as confusing and messy; but in a crisis situation with fast-changing circumstances, a hierarchical command-and-control set-up risks creating bottlenecks in the central command system.

Instead, a network-based approach that distributes functions across different teams, each with its own leaders, resources and staff back up, works better, according to a series of McKinsey reports in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. The idea is to have a "nerve centre" to create networks of people to deal with evolving situations and equipping them with the right people and resources - and then having the people in the main network (the central hub, or the Cabinet, in politics) get out of the way while staying connected and informed.

Apart from being collegial, I also observed that the 4G governing style is a lot more based on the government partnering citizens and industry leaders in coming up with priorities, policies or specific programmes. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has long championed this idea, sometimes to sceptical looks or puzzled frowns in early days. It has taken years, but there are some early adopters and results.

A partnership-based model has changed the way homelessness is being tackled - from being seen as a troublesome social ill that shows up the government's failure in promoting home ownership, to recognising it as a social issue that requires the government to work with activists, and temporary shelter providers to ease the burden on rough sleepers, while trying to find more lasting solutions.

The partnership model has seen government officials work with industry partners to tackle industry problems, and with citizen groups to improve social conditions like work life harmony. Such a model of partnering citizens and co-creating solutions with them is more likely to win over the more socially conscious millennials and Gen Z than a government that disdains citizens' input.

Political succession in Singapore has been on an ambiguous track since Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat stepped aside in April 2021 as designated successor. The three leading contenders are often said to be (in alphabetical order) Mr Chan Chun Sing, now Education Minister, Mr Ong, now Health Minister and Mr Wong, who is Finance Minister.

Some Singaporeans consider it a failure of succession not to know who will be the next PM, with incumbent PM Lee Hsien Loong turning 70 on Feb 10.

My own view is different. As I wrote in an earlier commentary, politics will become more uncertain. But the succession issue won't be disorderly, because the situation is one of bounded uncertainty.

It is uncertain, but the uncertainty is bounded, or limited, because the leading contenders are three men with similar backgrounds: government scholarship to leading overseas universities; extensive public sector or military experience; and several years of Cabinet experience. So long as none leaves the Cabinet and the core 4G team remains intact, the tenor of the new team should not be fundamentally different whichever one becomes PM.

That is, it should continue to be collegial and based on partnership with citizens.

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