05 Jul 2013

Peter Ho, the former Head of Civil Service and
Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary, Public Service Division

The Singapore Public Service’s technocratic excellence, emphasis on succession and renewal, ethos of frugality and value-for-money, integrity and sense of stewardship, owe to the personal values of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

While lauding these values, the two speakers also examined their impact on the civil service critically. Overturning the usual image of Singapore as a city with long-term, carefully considered plans, Mr Ho said that, under then PM Lee, “Many big leaps forward ha[d] been nothing more than acts of faith.”

He said, “He seemed to us like a force of nature. He was the leader of the pack, the alpha male; we counted ourselves fortunate to have someone like him in charge. Whether such moments were just acts of bravado, or moments of great foresight – I guess only he will know.”

But by word and deed, Mr Lee forged the spirit, the ethos and the attitude of the civil service. While outlining a grand vision, small details also received former Prime Minister’s personal attention.

Mr Ho related how the former PM discovered faulty light switches in the government’s bungalows and demanded that all light switches be tested every morning. He cautioned that if a switch should fail to work in his presence, “somebody is going to be in for a real tough time because I do not want sloppiness”.

The technocratic excellence that the Singapore Public Service is famous for is a function of Mr Lee’s demand for high standards. Crucially, Mr Lee himself continually demonstrated that he could meet these high standards, and hence was not expecting from others any more than he was personally prepared to give. Ho noted that Mr Lee had a considered view on anything that mattered to him and to Singapore.

Consequently, civil servants working for him had to be as sharp as him. They had to be thorough in their research, and compelling in the arguments. Short cuts, intellectually lazy arguments, and a disregard for alternative points of views, were not tolerated. Mr Lee would “sniff out these weaknesses”.

Mr Ho said, “This culture of analytical rigour and openness to idea and balanced by realism infuses the political leadership as much as it does the civil service. It demands high quality thinking and solid work that defines the government to this day.”

Miss Yong made a self-confessed controversial point – that the public service has been able to build up a “technocratically excellent, world-class professional public service because we have been significantly insulated from politics in Singapore.”

While conceding that there were disadvantages of such a system, the dampening of adversarial politics gave the civil service the “space and the time to focus on the long-term; to build capabilities that over time created this technocratic excellence.”

With these capabilities, it was clear that Singapore’s success is not merely due to “talented ministers”. “Rather, it is a whole generation of talented teachers, policemen, immigration masters, doctors.”

But how did one man persuade so many to his cause to build a better Singapore, to institutionalise his personal values into the systems and processes of an organisation as large as the public service, and to believe that these values can endure demographic and political changes?

Miss Yong offers an answer: Mr Lee is a conviction politician.

“A superb persuader and mobiliser who persuaded the civil service to also begin to believe that what Mr Lee was fighting for, was their fight as well because they could take it on. There was a huge team working for Singapore,” she said.

by Alisha Gill