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Photo by Moritz Hager

Politicians and civil service must work hand in hand: PM Lee

Singapore currently finds herself in a “sweet spot” where politics and policies have worked well together, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on 26 April at the Administrative Service promotion ceremony.

Nevertheless, Mr Lee noted that such good outcomes are never guaranteed and that no political system is completely fail safe.

In his speech at the promotion ceremony and dinner at Shangri-La Hotel, Mr Lee touched on the  differing roles of politicians and civil servants, highlighting that the work of the civil service requires a “fine balance” between being neutral and non-political, and being politically sensitive and responsive.

The role of elected politicians, according to Mr Lee, is to understand the needs of the people and to then decide on the national direction by selling sound policies to the public, as well as making those policies work. A minister must also master his Ministry and the policies that he is responsible for.

The civil service then comes into play, by working with elected politicians’ guidance to implement policy. Civil servants must share the fundamental values and goals of the elected government of the day, such as meritocracy, clean government, multiracialism and economic growth.

Mr Lee emphasised that the civil service, unlike the judiciary, is not independent of the elected government, and hence must serve the elected government of the day and understand current political context.

Nevertheless, civil servants must still be politically impartial and not campaign for or against any political party. He noted how current civil servants are not allowed to be members of political parties.

“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,” said Mr Lee.

“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,” he said.

Mr Lee cited these clear-cut roles for politicians and civil servants as a reason for the good outcomes that Singapore has experienced with her policies so far. Nevertheless, he expressed concerns that Singaporeans would get complacent, saying that it would be a mistaken view to assume that the political system would automatically always be successful.

Citing difficulties faced by some European countries with “longer histories and better-established institutions than us,” Mr Lee cautioned that despite Singapore’s good track record, we are not immune to problems with our political system.

“Our politics too can turn sour or go wrong. And our policies may turn out to be ill-conceived, may fail to win support even if they are theoretically sound or simply may be overwhelmed by events beyond our control,” he said.

Mr Lee emphasised the need fro elected politicians and the civil service to continue to work hand in hand with a strong understanding of their respective roles.

“For the system to provide stable, consistent good outcomes over the long term, politics and policy have to fit closely together. If either one goes wrong, the system may well malfunction.”