Civil servants not independent of elected Government, but they should be politically impartial: PM Lee

Peter Ong, head of Civil Service, gives his speech at the Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony at Shangri-La Hotel on April 26, 2016.
Peter Ong, head of Civil Service, gives his speech at the Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony at Shangri-La Hotel on April 26, 2016. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

SINGAPORE - The civil service is not independent of the elected government, unlike the judiciary, which is a different branch of government, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Under Singapore's system, the civil service must serve the elected government of the day, and civil servants must therefore understand the political context, and the thinking of the political leadership.

This will ensure it will not come up with policies that are non-starters, but instead design policies that are not only sound but are also well-supported and can be well implemented, he said.

However, "civil servants should be politically impartial", he added.

"They should not be campaigning for or against a political party. They must not misuse state resources or powers for partisan political purposes, but neither should they shy away from carrying out their duties without fear or favour when a matter might prove to be politically controversial."

PM Lee said that it is for for these reasons that the officers in the service are not allowed to be members of political parties.

He was speaking at the annual Administrative Service Promotion Ceremony and Dinner held at Shangri-La Hotel where 65 public servants were promoted.

In a speech that touched on politics, policies, and the role of civil servants, Mr Lee also spelt out the the role of ministers.

Ministers look after the politics, sense the ground, decide the direction the country should take, 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, said PM Lee.

"He is not a non-executive chairman, presiding passively over an organisation that runs fine without him, while he busies himself with politics."


He has to be hands on, articulate a clear strategy for his ministry to serve the needs and meet the aspirations of the people, make sure the Permanent Secretary does a good job in implementing policy and operating the ministry, and provide political guidance to the civil service to deliver results.

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

The clear roles of civil servants and ministers have worked well, he said.

"There will always be a fine balance - between the civil service being neutral and non-political, and being politically sensitive and responsive," he noted.

"This is inherent in the role of the civil service, to work with and for political leaders, in a political environment, and yet be detached from politics. It is a fine balance which has always been required, and which we must continue to maintain."