Thinking strategically, being nimble

The new Strategic Policy Unit to be formed in July under the Prime Minister's Office is a welcome response by the civil service to new challenges of governance as issues become more complex and inter-connected. Policymakers must never cease to stay on top of testing situations as sound governance lies at the heart of Singapore's success.

A salutary lesson in the importance of policy coordination was provided in the area of population, where a rapid rise in the number of new immigrants and foreign workers in the three years up to 2011 led to public resentment over bus and train congestion and housing prices, and ultimately an unfortunate backlash against immigrants.

That no doubt provided a wake-up call for planners. It is significant that the Government is institutionalising strategic thinking by forming a standing unit to tackle critical issues - one with powers to allocate resources, including budget, manpower and even land, and is led by no less than the head of the civil service.

The unit's first task will be to identify key issues within the three- to 10-year horizon of its ambit. In doing so, it will not start from scratch but will build on the existing culture of long-term planning, which has seen, as far back as the late 1980s, efforts to anticipate scenarios and needs well into the future. The process started as an experiment in the Ministry of Defence and later morphed into the Scenario Planning Office and the Strategic Policy Office.

This is not a case of crystal ball gazing but one of making shrewd assessments based on evidence, data and trends - difficult but not impossible as "in today already walks tomorrow", in the words of German historian and philosopher Friedrich Schiller. Still, it is useless to scan the future if one lacks the wherewithal to prepare for it. This is where the new unit will play a crucial role in mobilising resources and nurturing capabilities to ready the public sector and Singapore to meet emerging critical challenges which might arise on the economic, social or technological fronts.

The importance of being able to think strategically and long-term cannot be over-emphasised. Certainly, making such decisions will call for boldness as policymakers will not have all the information they want or be able to see the full spectrum of events unfolding. Yet, they must commit to creating and implementing plans. Ultimately, what distinguishes a strategist from a mere tactician is the confidence, based on diverse inputs, to act in the face of uncertainty. The new unit stands a better chance of getting it right by connecting with as many as possible so as to join the dots between realities on the ground today with future possibilities.