'Totally misguided' to think S'pore can survive a bad government with good civil service: PM Lee

It is crucial for political leaders to be competent, he added.

Matthias Ang | January 18, 2020, 04:40 PM

It is "totally misguided" to think that Singapore can survive a bad election or government simply because there is a capable civil service in place, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the annual Public Service Leadership dinner on Jan. 17.

Good political leadership is crucial

PM Lee added that good political leadership is crucial as it is the ministers who are responsible for setting policies and winning the people's mandate.

While a competent civil service might be able to keep the country going on "autopilot" in times of fractious politics or mediocre political leaders, it will not be able to launch major policy initiatives, set new directions, or mobilise the population for national responses to major challenges.

As such, it is not in the interest of Singapore to perceive that a capable civil service means "we need not be so stringent in our expectations of political leaders – of capability, or mastery of their portfolios, of the experience they bring to the job."

In elaborating on the importance of a minister's role, PM Lee stated that they had to sense the public's mood, set the strategic direction of the country and persuade the public on the direction, especially if the policy is an unpopular one,

PM Lee then referenced the U.S. as an example of how the need to upgrade the country's ageing infrastructure was a matter that everyone agreed on, yet could not undertake due to deep political divisions.

However in Singapore, the civil service has been effective as both the political climate and political leaders have enabled it to operate in a "rational, efficient, systematic way."

He said:

"We have the luxury of looking beyond the short term, identifying future opportunities, and solving longer term problems like climate change, with the full confidence that we can fund and carry through the plans."

Political leaders must also be competent

PM Lee also stated that it was important for ministers to be competent, in mastering their respective ministries and policies which they were accountable for.

Here, he stressed that they were not a "non-executive Chairman" who provided strategic guidance, but executive leaders who were "hands on" and deeply involved in formulating policies.

Should they be unable to fulfil their duties adequately, even if they are hardworking and have good intentions, the civil service will be unable to function properly, PM Lee said.

Consequently, decisions will be delayed, wrong ones will be implemented, officers will be unable to get things done, a brain drain will result as some then leave out of frustration, leading in turn to an overall decline in the quality of governance.

Relationship between political leaders and civil service is crucial

This then brought up PM Lee's next point that the relationship between political leaders and the civil service was both a crucial and delicate one.

In summing up how the relationship should be like, he said,"the public service has to be fundamentally aligned with the elected government."

On the part of ministers, it was their job to "insulate" the civil service from political interference and allow them to execute their duties without "fear or favour" in the event of a politically controversial matter.

As for civil servants, such as public service leaders, while they must not be involved in political activities, they must still be sensitive to the political context and "share the fundamental values and priorities" of the political leaders.

PM Lee added:

"It is a fine balance – for the public service to be neutral and non-political, insulated from the hurly-burly of party politics, and yet politically sensitive and responsive to the nation’s priorities and aspirations. But this is inherent in the role of a public service leader."

Relationship cannot change amidst transition to 4G leadership

Such a relationship therefore cannot change during the transition to the 4G political leadership, PM Lee emphasised.

While the 4G leaders will work in a different style, they will work on the SGTogether movement, to formulate policies together with Singaporeans and with the support of the civil service.

PM Lee also voiced his confidence that both the 4G leaders and the public service leadership also shared the same "fundamental values" -- meritocracy, clean government, multi-racialism, inclusive development and economic growth.

He added:

"We must do all we can to maintain this happy state of affairs where the public service continues to reinvent itself to meet the evolving needs and expectations and Singaporeans, and the political leadership and the public sector leadership continue working closely together to lead our nation forward, stably and steadily."

Screenshot from PM Lee Facebook