01 Aug 2018
Topics Singapore
Public Policy in Asia

Envisioned as an Asian ‘Minnowbrook’, the fabled New Public Administration conference under the patronage of Dwight Waldo, the Public Policy in Asia conference would explore how scholars of Asian policy could complement and challenge received ‘wisdom’ and entrenched perspectives.

The Public Policy in Asia PhD Conference took place at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on 26-27 May 2014, the first ever on Asian policy issues ever to be convened and run by a team of PhD students. Yvonne Guo discusses the issues raised from scholars across the social sciences.

Three Paradoxes of Public Policy Education

Although the West leads in theories of public policy education, Dean Kishore Mahbubani noted that in public policy implementation, examples of good leadership are provided in Asia. Highlighting the shortcomings of scholarship in the West, Dean Kishore Mahbubani said that the Iraq war, the Eurozone crisis, and the Crimean crisis illustrated that the West had failed in the implementation of good public policies. Yet Asia, and China in particular, do not follow Western theories of development.
Thirdly, he argued, despite the high levels of academic freedom in the West, Western academics failed to speak up or effectively change poor public policies, like the proliferation of guns in the United States, or the Israel-Palestine problem.
The Dean encouraged the participants to be more ambitious in their goals as they entered their academic career, “not tinker at the edges, but ask big questions on the future of public policy education”. He quoted Andrew Sheng, former chairman of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission (SFC), “When I started work as a policymaker, I assumed that if I had any problems, I would study what the West was doing, and find the answers over there. But today when gurus are making big mistakes, I cannot turn to Western capitals for the answers to my public policy problems.”
During the ensuing dialogue with the participants, the Dean highlighted the need for Asian scholars to push the boundaries in a Western-dominated world, for example by creating their own journals and formats. Lamenting that “many Asians have been mentally colonised by the West”, he also emphasised the need for Asians to come up with their own theories, citing Amitav Acharya as an example. He also questioned the fundamental assumptions of universal social science that culture and distance did not matter, arguing that “we are moving towards a world where you have to answer each country and society on its own dimensions and how you can develop it”. He predicted that “area studies will come back; people will study countries within their own framework.”

State-Driven Policymaking Perceptions, Problems and Solutions

The environment, health, monetary and fiscal policy, and the protection of minority groups featured heavily in discussions through the conference.
State narratives of policy problems vis-à-vis public perception was also an issue. Kristin Olofsson discussed how the mass media and non-profit organisations frame the air pollution issue in Delhi. She focused on policy actors and institutions, using discourse analysis.
Similarly, Kris Hartley discussed the evidence-based debates related to fracking in shale gas extraction, emphasising the need for universal and national legislation for fracking within a multi-level governance framework. Finally, Shyam Singh argued that the success or failure of a policy did not only depend on the ability of implementing agencies but also on the ability of the party in power to deliver its political messages. He attributed the electoral failure of the BSP party in India to its inability to communicate the policy efforts of the government to either Dalits or the upper caste, weakening the link between people and government.
Policy solutions to pressing policy problems were also discussed. For example, Michael Abrigo looked at the relationship between HIV/AIDS knowledge and safe sexual practices in the Philippines. Using a randomised control trial method, he found that sex education increased safe sexual behavior among women.

The Role of Minorities

Another popular topic was state policy towards minority groups in society.
Humairah bte Zainal argued that the Singapore government’s fear of the hijab was not supported by extensive research. The hijab controversy in Singapore, she said, was due to the state’s non-inclusiveness of minorities despite paying lip service to predefined categoriesand using ‘race’ as a tool of governance.
In Nepal, Sanju Koirala explored the experiences of potential displacees before the implementation of a hydropower project. He argued that limitedinformation, lack of participation, and the absence of concerned government authorities had worsened the lives ofpeople in surrounding areas even before implementation.
In India, mandated political representation has affected how the police report crime against minorities, such as scheduled castes or tribes, according to Divya
Guru Rajan.

The Role of Innovation and Learning in Policy Design

Katrin Dribbisch discussed design thinking in the context of tackling wicked policyproblems in Singapore’s public service. Shenoted a gap between training and continuous practice in the integration of design thinking in the organisation studied, and argued that its current operational focus would allow only incremental changes.
Mehmet Demircioglu studied the potential enablers of innovation, looking at what drives individuals to innovate. His findings suggested that providing employees incentives was the most effective tool that governments could use to encourage innovation.
Li Ni studied why local governments were engaging in innovation with no obvious economic gain. She argued that this could be due to innovation being seen as a way to promote economic growth or political achievement. This echos Vera Zuo’s findings that local leaders’ choices in affordable housing provision and urban-rural integration were driven primarily by economic rather than social considerations.

The Return of Civil Society

Reflecting the ‘governance turn’ in public administration, a number of participants studied the increasing role of civil society and the public in providing solutions to policy problems. Ek-Hong Sia discussed the role of three NGOs in Taiwan (Presbyterian Church, Tzu Chi, and the Red Cross) in the reconstruction period after Typhoon Morakot in 2009. He found that there would be a win-win outcome when strong NGOs cooperated with the community rather than when they dominated. Similarly, Aditya Perdana explored the relationships between civil society organisations (CSOs) and parties in Indonesia in order to understand how women’s groups deliver women and gender issues in the law-making process. Belinda Thompson studied ‘invisible healthcare providers’: non-profit, non-governmental hospitals and large clinics in developing countries. She recommended that these non-profit, non-government organisations needed to be tapped. Finally, Weng Shihong identified four modes of government response to internet political participation in Chinese decision-making.

Journal Publication Strategies

Prof. Alasdair Roberts, co-chief editor of the journal Governance, shared his thoughts on the business model of academic publishing. He advised students that in the social sciences, a small number of articles accounted for large number of citations, with most articles never getting cited in the five years following their publication. Moreover, the ranking scheme tended to privilege certain kinds of research and countries.

He advised the participants that the two main reasons why articles were rejected were as follows: first, the article not fitting the mission of the journal; and secondly, the failure of the author to state directly what the major claim of the article is. He encouraged students to state their main point three times: in the title, the abstract, and in the introduction. In short, they should be able tos impress their reader within five minutes. In addition to a powerful idea, articles needed a well-structured quantitative or qualitative empirical component.

Finally, Prof. Roberts advised doctoral students to see themselves as operators of a small business, with R&D, production, and marketing functions. He shared some additional tips on how to get published, including putting working papers on SSRN, offering to write book reviews, targeting special issues, and studying real-world problems of governance.

The author would like to thank her team of rapporteurs — Richa Shivakoti, Kris Hartley, Sreeja Nair, Lim Chia-Tsun and Ritu Jain — for their contributions to this article

Yvonne Guo is a PhD candidate at the LKY School. Email:

Topics Singapore