For Singapore to be successful, the country needs a competent public service to work in close association with a “first-class political leadership”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (17 January).
He added that this must be done with elected leaders.
“Some people argue that since we have a capable civil service to keep things working, Singapore already is in good hands. Hence, we need not be so stringent in our expectation of political leaders – expectations of capability, or mastery of their portfolios, of the experience they bring to the job,” he explained.
PM Lee added that people often think that Singapore will do okay in a bad election, or a bad government, as the civil servants are still there.
“I believe this is totally misguided. Leadership does matter, and political leaders play a specific, vital role in any country, but especially in our system of government,” he said to 900 civil servants at the annual Public Service Leadership Dinner.
The Prime Minister explained in detail the crucial roles that ministers play. He said that they have to win the people’s mandate, be aware of the public mood and plan the strategic direction of the country. If that’s not all, these ministers will also have to convince the people on these directions, as well as on policies, including unfavourable ones, in order to archive these directions.
PM Lee pointed out that policies happen within a political context and not in a vacuum.
“Ministers are responsible for getting the politics right, just as the civil service is primarily responsible for policy,” he stressed.
Civil service will run the country in “autopilot” in a divided political leadership
Capable public servants may be able to keep the country going on “autopilot” temporarily if the politics are divided, or if political leaders are well-meaning but mediocre, said PM Lee.
“The civil service, under these circumstances, cannot launch major policy initiatives, set new directions, or mobilise the population to mount a national response to major challenges,” PM Lee highlighted.
Citing the United States as an example, where there is unanimous agreement that the country’s ageing infrastructure needs upgrading, the Prime Minister said that the upgrading work cannot be done there due to deep political divisions.
“In Singapore, the public service has been effective precisely because we have the political climate and political leaders who support and enable the public service to operate in a rational, efficient and systematic way,” he noted.
As such, he asserted that Singapore has the luxury to look beyond short-term, and with full confidence that it can carry out long-term plans.
“It works not only because we have the right organisational structure, but because we have the political will to do things the right way and see things through, and have built up the right culture and values in the public service,” PM Lee said in his speech at Shangri-La Hotel.
He continued, “This arrangement has enabled us to steward and build up our reserves, and greatly benefited out people.”
Ministers’ role in ensuring public service perform well
While it is important for public service to understand political context, it is also equally important for ministers to be “hands-on executive leader” and not just someone who provides just strategic guidance, PM Lee noted. This is because if they can’t perform their roles well, then the public service will suffer as it will not be able to function properly.
He added that this applies to the whole Cabinet when it comes to making major policy decision, and not just a particular minister in charge of his own ministry.
“This is how we have done it, whether it is upgrading train reliability, designing medical services for the elderly, building up digital government and a Smart Nation, or managing sensitive foreign relations,” he expressed.
If ministers are not able to do so, then decisions will be delayed or fudged, wrong decisions will be made or officers will not be able to complete tasks, PM Lee said.
In fact, ensuring the public service stays outstanding will be at stake, as enterprising and idealistic officers will end up being frustrated and disillusioned.
“Maintaining an outstanding public service will itself be in jeopardy,” PM Lee said. “The quality of government will go down, and it will take years to recover, if at all.”
Capable and committed people must enter politics
The Prime Minister said that the system has worked well so far. “We must continue to get capable, committed people to enter politics, to hold political appointments, to maintain the quality of ministers – the political leadership – to be up to their responsibilities to lead and to work with the public service.”
In case Singapore goes through a transition of political leadership in the next couple of years, the core alignment, close working relationship, as well as mutual trust among ministers and public servants cannot change, Mr Lee said, as he commented about the 4G leadership.
He added that the 4G leaders will have different working style, and they will lead the younger generations who want to deliver policies with them, not just for them.
PM Lee also said in confidence that the 4G political leaders and the public service leadership share the same fundamental values.
“I hope these values will endure beyond the next political generation and continue to be upheld by successive generations of political leaders in Singapore,” he said.