Civil service not independent of government but politically impartial: PM Lee

Political leadership, civil service must share same major beliefs, values, ideals despite distinctive roles, he says

PM Lee giving his speech at last night's event at Shangri-La Hotel, where 65 administrative officers were promoted. Nine of them were among the 21 newly appointed officers.
PM Lee giving his speech at last night's event at Shangri-La Hotel, where 65 administrative officers were promoted. Nine of them were among the 21 newly appointed officers. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

There will always be a fine balance between the civil service being neutral and non-political, and being politically sensitive and responsive, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Singapore must continue to maintain this balance - even as it remains crucial that the political leadership and civil service share the same beliefs, values and ideals.

Speaking at the annual Administrative Service promotion ceremony and dinner at Shangri-La Hotel, Mr Lee set out the different roles of elected politicians and non-partisan civil servants.

Ministers look after politics: getting a sense of the ground, deciding the national direction, selling policies to the public and making them work. But a minister must also be hands-on in his ministry, articulating a clear strategy and making sure civil servants implement policies well. "He has to provide political guidance to the civil servants to deliver results," said Mr Lee.

At the same time, he must also protect civil servants from political interference and not involve them in political activities.

As for civil servants, their responsibility is policy - translating political goals into workable plans.

The civil service is not independent of the elected government, unlike the judiciary, Mr Lee said.

And under Singapore's system, the civil service must serve the government of the day. "The civil service must therefore understand the political context and the thinking of the political leadership."

This is so it can design policies that are not only sound, but which will also have the people's support and can be implemented well.

Yet civil servants must be politically impartial: They must not campaign for or against any party, nor misuse state resources or powers for partisan purposes.

Nor should they shy away from carrying out their duties when a matter is politically controversial.

Despite their distinctive roles, Mr Lee said, the political leadership and civil service must still share the same major beliefs, values and ideals. These values include meritocracy, clean government, multiracialism, inclusive development and economic growth. And the beliefs include that no one owes Singapore a living and the country must be exceptional to thrive.

In Singapore's founding years, political leaders and civil servants were "cut from the same cloth", said Mr Lee. So it is not surprising that some civil servants became ministers and civil servants were "talent-spotted" to join politics.

"For that was a generation when politics was on hold," he added.

The People's Action Party (PAP) had total dominance, holding every parliamentary seat for 15 years.

Had people not put party politics aside, "we might well have ended up with no country, at least not one we would be proud to call home".

But Singapore is in a different phase today, said Mr Lee. The post-independence generation, born into growth and prosperity, has more diverse experiences and interests and wants to be heard.

"Politics is no longer dormant," he added. The PAP is still in a strong position, but the opposition "has more fertile ground to till" and is constantly active, with elections fiercely contested.

"The political leadership and the civil service have to work hand-in- hand in this new environment, with each understanding its respective role," he concluded.

At last night's dinner, 65 administrative officers were promoted. Nine of them were among the 21 newly appointed officers.

In his speech,civil service head Peter Ong laid out three ways to develop strong public service leaders: Building a diverse leadership corps, forging deeper partnerships with stakeholders, and envisioning the future together.

The public service has launched an exercise akin to the SGFuture dialogue series. Called "PSfuture", agencies will hold sessions to gather officers' views and aspirations.

3 countries, 3 different ways

PM Lee yesterday cited three instances of how political leaders and civil servants work together in other societies - the United States, Britain and modern China.

Singapore's system is British in form, with elected political leaders supported by a non-partisan civil service, he noted. But it has worked quite well because both politicians and civil servants share the same core values.


At the federal level, there are not one but at least four layers of political appointees. The president is elected, and appoints not just the secretaries, but deputy secretaries, assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries.

When a new president is elected, and a new administration takes over, 8,000 public officers leave, and 8,000 new appointees come in.

It doesn't always work well, as departments are so large and entrenched that it is hard for a president and his appointees to impose their will on the bureaucracy. Sometimes, whole departments are sidelined or given prominence.


The British have the classic traditional model - an impartial civil service serving whoever is the elected government of the day. For much of the 20th century, this was workable, because whichever party was in power, they shared the same basic assumptions. But in recent decades, this has not been the case and the system has not worked so well.

Successive British governments introduced political advisers in the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister's Office and key ministries, whom the PM and his senior colleagues could rely upon to develop and implement their political goals, and help them get re-elected.

The need for gear meshing between the ministers and the civil service has increased. Britain now has almost 100 special advisers.


Politics is in command. The Communist Party permeates the whole government. It goes all the way down to the village, the factory floor, the military unit. At every level, the party secretary calls the shots. The government leader is only second-in-command.

At the pinnacle, there is the general secretary of the party. The key decisions are made in party committees, rather than in the apparatus of the State Council.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline Civil service not independent of government but politically impartial: PM Lee. Subscribe