Covid-19 circuit breaker a call made by Cabinet, not civil service: PM Lee

An almost empty Central Business District during the circuit breaker on May 27, 2020.
An almost empty Central Business District during the circuit breaker on May 27, 2020.PHOTO: ST FILE

The decision to impose the nearly two-month-long circuit breaker to choke the spread of Covid-19 was made by Cabinet ministers and not by members of the civil service, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

PM Lee revealed this in making a point about how his Cabinet ministers have to study the work of their ministries well and, if necessary, override their staff.

Such a course of action could be because there are political factors that the ministers are privy to, but it is also because the ministers have to exercise judgment and take responsibility for their decisions. "The staff did not recommend the circuit breaker. We discussed it in Cabinet, there were many pros and cons," said PM Lee, adding that he told his colleagues to think about the move carefully and take time to decide.

"I said: Better think about this carefully... Go back, sleep on it, work out the proposal, work out another proposal, 30 per cent more draconian. Come back tomorrow morning. Talk about it. Discuss, decide."

"The Cabinet decides. It is a big decision, $5 billion of a supplementary Budget. Civil servants - unelected - can make this, can carry this?... Anybody can make it happen? I think that is not in this world."

He was responding to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on the issue of whether a change in government will impact the quality of the civil service.

Mr Singh had put to PM Lee a quote from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew asserting that due to its good public service, Singapore will be able to run well even if there is a change in government.

PM Lee said the civil service has been designed to be as capable as possible to not collapse straightaway if the People's Action Party is out of government, but good leaders are needed for it to continue running as a system that is finely tuned and capable.

He added that the ministers in his Cabinet are part of the executive staff who run the ministry and are expected to know the ins and outs of policy. "He must master and explain it. And when he runs the ministry, he must decide what the contents are, what the direction is, the details and, if necessary, override the officials and decide on the direction."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2020, with the headline 'Circuit breaker a call made by Cabinet, not civil service'. Print Edition | Subscribe