Singapore's competitive advantage: Politics and policies that work

A key challenge is to keep the system working in a new context marked by active politics, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday at the annual Administrative Service promotion dinner. Below is an edited excerpt from his speech.

PM Lee says the Singapore system with two clear streams - political leaders on one side and civil servants on the other - has generally worked well, and one reason is that both sides share fundamental values and goals that guide their thinking and mo
PM Lee says the Singapore system with two clear streams - political leaders on one side and civil servants on the other - has generally worked well, and one reason is that both sides share fundamental values and goals that guide their thinking and motivate them to pull in the same direction. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

In Singapore, we often think of policies as the real purpose of governance, while politics is merely the sometimes messy means of choosing a government. Ministers live in the land of politics, the civil servants live in the land of policies, and when you cross the border between the two, there is a rigorous checkpoint, you are frisked, as you enter a different country.

Government is not so clear-cut and simple because life is not so clear-cut and simple. Policy and politics cannot be separated so neatly and absolutely because policies do not exist in a vacuum. They start with a political objective. In a democracy like Singapore, policies start with the electorate - what are the people's aspirations? Then you have political parties which reflect these aspirations and put forward their goals and programmes when they compete in elections.

The voters elect the party whose programmes, track record and character best meet their aspirations and win their confidence. That party then forms the government and produces the political leadership. The political leadership sets the overall direction for the country and works with the civil service to design policies and to implement them. So, policies are ultimately derived from the mandate of the elected government, and are based on its political goals and programmes.

It is also worth remembering that the fact that we have created a good civil service - high-quality, clean, effective and efficient, properly rewarded and paid, focused on producing good policies - is not a given. It is not something that just happened from the beginning. We decided to have such a civil service, and that decision is itself a political one, and a policy to be implemented following from that. So, if the politics is not right, in the long term, a good civil service will itself be in jeopardy, despite safeguards we have, such as the Public Service Commission or the elected president.

Therefore, for the system to provide stable, consistent good outcomes over the long term, politics and policy have to fit closely together. If either politics or policies go wrong, the system may well malfunction. Europe is in a crisis, because the policies have not achieved the desired outcomes. The economies have stagnated from the weight of social costs and burdensome regulation. Open internal borders have allowed uncontrolled flow of people, including refugees, causing major social and political strains. The European Union (EU) is facing unresolved problems, reconciling national and EU politics, and national and EU policies. So people have lost confidence not just in individual politicians or particular political parties, but in the whole system and the entire political class.

The moderate parties are losing ground and you see extreme and breakaway parties gaining support. These are parties not with alternative programmes and better ideas to govern the country, but merely feeding the restiveness and collecting protest votes. To such an extent that some of the countries have become unable to form governments.

PM Lee says the Singapore system with two clear streams - political leaders on one side and civil servants on the other - has generally worked well, and one reason is that both sides share fundamental values and goals that guide their thinking and mo
PM Lee says the Singapore system with two clear streams - political leaders on one side and civil servants on the other - has generally worked well, and one reason is that both sides share fundamental values and goals that guide their thinking and motivate them to pull in the same direction. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG


Can Singapore's political system fail in the same way? No system is fail-safe, and impossible to crash. Why should we believe that we are immune to this? Globalisation and technology affect us too. The lure of extremism and radicalisation, of seductive pseudo-solutions to complex challenges, is real. Our politics too can turn sour, or go wrong. Our policies may turn out to be ill-conceived, may fail to win support even if they are theoretically correct, or simply may be overwhelmed by events beyond our control. All this has not happened to us yet. We have been very lucky but it can happen, and more quickly than most of us imagine.

That is why the General Election (GE) results last year were so significant for Singapore, and a big win for Singapore. Because after the 2011 GE, many people were watching to see which way Singapore would go. Would we go further in the direction of divided politics feeding on angry voters? Accentuating nascent fissures and cracks in our society? Or would we pull together and face our challenges as one people - as we did in the 1960s and 1970s? Singapore was at a critical choice point in the SG50 year. Singaporeans made a decisive choice and scored a huge win for Singapore.

But having scored a huge win for Singapore means that my government, having been elected, now carries an extra heavy responsibility to fulfil the high expectations of voters. Our task is more challenging because having reached this level of development, we have no signposts, no roadmaps, no models to follow or adopt wholesale, and no consultants who can come and solve our problems for us. With growth harder to come by, and constraints more binding, we will have to make tougher trade-offs than before. We have to set our own goals, come up with our own fresh ideas, and learn from the experiences of many other cities and countries, both positive and negative experiences. Just as others are learning from our mistakes and picking up ideas from us.


How then in this context can the political leadership and civil service work together? 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 at that time, whichever party was in power, they shared the same basic assumptions so the civil service could serve either Labour or the Tories with equanimity. But in recent decades, it has not been so workable because the parties no longer share the same fundamental assumptions. So successive British governments have introduced political advisers in the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister's Office and key ministries, official advisers whom the PM and his senior colleagues could rely upon to develop and implement their policy goals, their political goals and help them get re-elected. Furthermore within the civil service proper, it is not so easy for the British civil servant to serve successive masters with very different priorities and policies. So last year, in the run-up to the general election, the British civil service had to form two teams in the ministries, one serving the current government (Conservative and Lib Dem coalition), the other working with Labour, the shadow ministers to prepare alternative policies in case Labour won the elections. It is what they found necessary, it is not what we have chosen to do.

Then, if you want a contrast, look at the PRC arrangement, it is not a democracy but they had the same issue. How do you go from political objectives to policy outcome, and their solution is, politics is in command. The Communist Party permeates the whole government. It goes all the way down to the village, to the factory floor, every military unit. What is our solution? In form, ours is the British system. We have selected political leaders supported by a non-partisan civil service. But how do the two mesh together? We have the same problem of coordination as other countries but we do not have, nor do we want, multiple levels of political advisers and political appointees. Our system with two clear streams - political leaders on one side and civil servants on the other - has generally worked quite well. One important reason is because both political leaders and civil servants, particularly at senior levels, share the same fundamental values and goals that guide their thinking and motivate them to pull in the same direction.

Values like meritocracy, clean government, multiracialism, inclusive development, economic growth. We also share major unspoken beliefs that Singapore must survive in a harsh world and no one owes us a living. That an outstanding government is a vital competitive advantage for us. That Singapore has to be exceptional to thrive. These are values and attitudes that serve our national interests. They go beyond the narrow party political concerns of the government. They do not represent the vested bureaucratic interests of the civil service either. They are principles and values that this government believes in and expresses through the policies we push for, which policies civil servants also believe in, and which the vast majority of Singaporeans have voted for time and time again.

We started off very much like that in 1965 during the founding years. Political leaders and the civil servants were cut from the same cloth. Many were close personal friends. They had come through the Japanese Occupation and lived through the same crucial years of Merger, race riots and Separation.

They had a complete identity of mission - to build a nation from scratch. So, it is not surprising that some civil servants became ministers, and these PSs (Permanent Secretaries) and senior civil servants saw no contradiction in their roles at all. For that was a generation when politics was on hold. The Barisan Sosialis had abdicated Parliament in 1966. The PAP was absolutely dominant - for 15 years, it held every seat in Parliament and the country put party politics aside and focused all national energies on survival and nation-building. Had we not done that, we might well have ended up with no country,... at least not one that we would all be proud to call home.

Today, Singapore is in a different phase. We have a new generation of Singaporeans, post-independence - born into growth and prosperity, with more diverse experiences and interests, wanting their views to be heard, their ideas to be tried, prepared to experiment. Politics is no longer dormant, the PAP is still in a very strong position, but the Opposition has more fertile ground to till, and is constantly active. Elections are fiercely contested and it is not clear on Nomination Day who will form the government. The political leadership and the civil service have to work hand-in-hand in this new environment, with each understanding its respective role.

What is it that enables our system to work under these circumstances? The basics have not changed, the political leadership and the civil service must still share major beliefs, values and ideals. These are fundamentals and if a civil servant disagrees and does not accept them, it would be very hard for him or her to be effective. But we have to now be clearer about the different roles of the ministers and the civil service.

The ministers look after the politics, they sense the ground, decide the direction the country should take, they sell the policies to the public and make them work. At the same time, the minister must also master his ministry, and the policies he is responsible for. He is not a non-executive chairman, this is a double negative, so listen carefully. He is not a non-executive chairman, one presiding passively over an organisation that runs fine without him, while he busies himself with political affairs. He has to be hands on, articulating a clear strategy for his ministry to serve the needs and aspirations of the people, making sure his PS does a good job in implementing policy and operating the ministry, helping the PS to do that. He has to provide political guidance to the civil servants to deliver results, at the same time, while delivering political guidance, he has to shield and protect civil servants from political interference and he must not involve them in political activities.

On the civil service side, your primary responsibility is policy. You must be equipped and able to translate political goals into workable policies, or if it is not possible or absolutely impossible, you must have the tact and the skill to explain to your minister why it cannot be done. The civil service is not independent of the elected government, unlike the judiciary, which is a different branch of government. Under our system of government, the civil service must serve the elected government of the day. Therefore, the civil service must understand the political context and the thinking of the political leadership so that it will not come up with policies that are non-starters, so that it can design policies that are not only sound, but are also well-supported and can be well implemented. Civil servants have to be politically impartial. You should not be campaigning for or against any political party. You should not and must not misuse state resources or powers for partisan political purposes. But neither can you shy away from carrying out your duties without fear or favour when a matter might prove to be politically controversial. These are the reasons why key officers in the service are not allowed to be members of political parties.

That is how our system works, and it works well. For example, over the last 10 years, we successfully made major shifts in social policy, strengthening our safety nets, shifting the overall direction of the government, and the balance between economic growth and social cohesion. It was essentially a political decision, the Cabinet decided that major shifts were necessary. We convinced Singaporeans to support our plans and the civil service had to deliver on this shift, and I believe they fully supported it too. The officers working on this thoroughly researched different countries, put forward different options, thought through how to implement the new policies and delivered them. This was for them, not a detached exercise doing something the political masters wanted which did not matter to them one way or the other, but something they did with conviction, that this was doing the right thing for Singapore and they were doing the right thing by Singaporeans.

There will always be a fine balance - between the civil service being neutral and non-political, and the civil service being politically sensitive and responsive. It is inherent in the role of the civil service to work with and for political leaders in a political environment, and yet maintain a certain detachment from politics. It is a fine balance which has always been required and which we must continue to maintain.

Singapore is currently in a sweet spot, our politics and policies have worked constructively together and the formula has delivered results for us. Not just for an election term, but over the long term.

It is a unique position to be in, and by international standards it is not at all "normal", in fact, it is highly abnormal. If we ever lose it and become "normal", like any other country, where the politics of division takes hold, and policies oscillate from one end to another with the political winds, we will have lost a precious competitive advantage and it will be very difficult for us ever to become special again.

Why have other countries not been able to do what we have done? It is not just the superior virtues of Singapore civil servants or ministers, much as we would like to think so. It is also because we have been lucky in our history of nation building that we have built, over decades, a broad national consensus on values and priorities. Our policies have succeeded and benefited all Singaporeans. We have had a system which has been able to produce an elected government which has the sense of mission and the competence and the integrity to work for the broad interests of Singaporeans. We have built a high-quality civil service with a strong ethos of service, that appreciates our national context and that civil servants are proud to be part of.

We have to keep this virtuous circle going, then the political leadership and the civil service, working together, can lead our nation forward, stably and steadily and Singapore can endure and prosper for many years to come.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2016, with the headline Singapore's competitive advantage: Politics and policies that work. Subscribe