PM Lee Hsien Loong at the 2016 Administrative Service Dinner & Promotion Ceremony on 26 April 2016

26 April 2016


Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean
Chairman PSC Mr Eddie Teo
Head of Civil Service Mr Peter Ong
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

I am very happy to attend the Administrative Service Promotion Ceremony and Dinner again. I was supposed to come last year, but then I had my prostate operation and put it off. So this year, I have had one more year to think about my speech.

Benny Lim

I would like to start by thanking Mr Benny Lim, who will be retiring at the end of this month. He started his career 37 years ago from the bottom, as a Police Constable walking the beat. Tee Tua Ba was then Officer Commanding (OC) of, I think, Charlie Division, which Benny belonged to. Later, Tee Tua Ba was the Commissioner of Police. He spotted Benny. He thought this Constable was smart and capable, and wondered why he did not go to university. So, he called up Benny for an interview to ask why. Benny told Tua Ba that he wanted to be a policeman. So Tua Ba encouraged him to apply for a police scholarship to study at the University of Singapore, as it was then. The Public Service Commission (PSC) awarded Benny the scholarship, and when Benny graduated, he was posted to the Internal Security Department (ISD).
Benny rose through the ranks to become Director ISD. His experience and judgment were critical when we discovered the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group back in 2001. He led ISD to apprehend the terrorists, and foil their plot to bomb multiple targets in Singapore. Crucially, he led ISD actively to manage the public relations and to help the Government to rally the broader population. We reached out to Muslim religious leaders, and encouraged them to set up the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) which successfully rehabilitated many detainees.

As Permanent Secretary at Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Benny strengthened the Home Team, driving our crime, drug, fire fatality and recidivism rates down, to amongst the lowest in the world.

In 2011, Benny become Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of National Development (MND). On his watch, the housing market stabilised and new housing schemes were introduced to meet emerging needs. He also helped us to develop a leadership position on urban issues with the Centre for Liveable Cities.
Concurrently, Benny was the Permanent Secretary for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). He drove efforts in engaging Singaporeans, and he led Our Singapore Conversation and the SG50 “Future of Us” Exhibition.
Benny is respected and loved as a leader. We will miss him. The Ministers, in particular, will miss his political acumen, his strong heart, and his clear mind. So thank you, Benny, for your valuable contributions, and we wish you all the best for the future.

Congratulations to Promotees

I would also like to congratulate the 65 officers who have been promoted, and the 21 who have been appointed into the Administrative Service, including Mrs Ow Foong Pheng, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI); Mr Loh Khum Yean, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Manpower (MOM); and Mr Chan Heng Kee, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).  Heng Kee is promoted to the Significant Grade, and the others, above the Significant Grade.  Also Mr Gabriel Lim, who has been promoted and will be appointed as Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) on the 1st of May.

All of you here tonight are part of this and the next generation of public sector leaders. Each of you has different experiences, skills and insights. I hope all of you will follow the example of leaders like Benny, to serve with deep commitment and understanding, and to make a difference to Singapore through your public service.

Policies and Politics 

The Administrative Service Dinner is an opportunity for me to speak to you on broader issues that concern Singapore and the public service. Tonight, I would like to speak about “Politics and Policies”. You noticed I put “Politics” first. Politics goes first, because you notice how good politics and good policies must go together. Secondly, on how civil servants and the political leadership can work together for the good of Singapore. 

In Singapore, we often think of policies as the real purpose of governance, while politics is merely the sometimes messy means of choosing a government. Ministers live in the land of politics, the civil servants live in the land of policies, and when you cross the border between the two, there is a rigorous checkpoint, you are frisked, as you enter a different country. Government is not so clear-cut and simple because life is not so clear-cut and simple. Policy and Politics cannot be separated so neatly and absolutely because policies do not exist in a vacuum. They start with a political objective. In a democracy like Singapore, policies start with the electorate – what are the people’s aspirations? Then you have political parties which reflect these aspirations and put forward their goals and programmes when they compete in elections. The voters elect the party whose programmes, track record and character best meet their aspirations and win their confidence. That party then forms the Government and produces the political leadership. The political leadership sets the overall direction for the country and works with the civil service to design policies and to implement them. So, policies are ultimately derived from the mandate of the elected Government, and are based on its political goals and programmes. 

It is also worth remembering that the fact that we have created a good civil service – high quality, clean, effective and efficient, properly rewarded and paid, focussed on producing good policies – is not a given. It is not something that just happened from the beginning. We decided to have such a civil service, and that decision, is itself a political one, and a policy to be implemented following from that. So, if the politics is not right, in the long term, a good civil service will itself be in jeopardy, despite safeguards we have, such as the PSC or the elected President. 

Therefore, for the system to provide stable, consistent good outcomes over the long term, politics and policy have to fit closely together. If either politics or policies go wrong, the system may well malfunction. That has happened in Europe, in countries with a history of consensus politics. These European countries had a broad range of parties, some a bit to the left, some a bit to the right, some further to the right or left, and they used to form coalition Governments clustered around the centre. Coalitions shifted from term to term, a little to the left or right, depending on the mood and necessity of the times but invariably the centre held. That is not so now. Europe is in a crisis, because the policies have not achieved the desired outcomes. The economies have stagnated from the weight of social costs and burdensome regulation. Open internal borders have allowed uncontrolled flow of people including refugees, causing major social and political strains. The European Union (EU) is facing unresolved problems, reconciling national and EU politics, and national and EU policies. So people have lost confidence not just in individual politicians or particular political parties, but in the whole system and the entire political class. The moderate parties are losing ground and you see extreme and breakaway parties gaining support. Parties like Le Pen’s National Front in France, there is another National Front in England, there is Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany, and Podemos in Spain. And not to mention parties like Syriza in Greece, the product of extreme crisis. These are parties not with alternative programmes and better ideas to govern the country, but merely feeding the restiveness and collecting protest votes, to such an extent that some of the countries have become unable to form Governments. Spain had elections in December and now four months later, still has no Government formed. Belgium at one stage went 20 months without a Government. In Austria, the far right candidate recently came in first in the first-round of their Presidential election. Even Denmark and Sweden, Scandinavian countries, once by-words for moderate centrist politics, face such problems now.

Can Singapore’s political system fail in the same way? People do not think about it. Those who do think about it often find it unimaginable. They think it cannot, they think it would not because as far back as they can remember, the Singapore system has never failed. They imagine that with a system in place, all we need is to do is to hold elections. Some party will win the elections, it will form the Government and those who are elected will automatically be able to lead and run the country. After all, we have a good civil service and the civil service will always be there to make things work. So, we do not really need to worry about stabilisers, safeguards, checks and balances or a good government. The system will work and produce a good outcome, automatically and forever.

This is a complacent and a mistaken view. No system is fail-safe, and impossible to crash. Just look at these European countries with longer histories and better-established institutions than us, and with a stronger sense of nationhood and yet they have run into these problems. Why should we believe that we are immune to this? Globalisation and technology affect us too. The lure of extremism and radicalisation, of seductive pseudo-solutions to complex challenges, is real. Our politics too can turn sour, or go wrong. Our policies may turn out to be ill-conceived, may fail to win support even if they are theoretically correct, or simply may be overwhelmed by events beyond our control. All this has not happened to us yet. We have been very lucky but it can happen, and more quickly than most of us imagine. 

That is why the General Election (GE) results last year were so significant for Singapore, and a big win for Singapore. Because after the 2011 GE, many people were watching to see which way Singapore would go. Would we go further in the direction of divided politics feeding on angry voters? Accentuating nascent fissures and cracks in our society? Or would we pull together and face our challenges as one people – as we did in the 1960s and 1970s? Singapore was at a critical choice point in the SG50 year. Singaporeans made a decisive choice and scored a huge win for Singapore.

But having scored a huge win for Singapore means that my Government, having been elected, now carries an extra heavy responsibility to fulfil the high expectations of voters. Our task is more challenging because having reached this level of development, we have no signposts, no roadmaps, no models to follow or adopt wholesale, and no consultants who can come and solve our problems for us. With growth harder to come by, and constraints more binding, we will have to make tougher trade-offs than before. We have to set our own goals, come up with our own fresh ideas, and learn from the experiences of many other cities and countries, both positive and negative experiences. Just as others are learning from our mistakes, and picking up ideas from us.

The Role of the Civil Service

How then in this context can the political leadership and civil service work together?  How can they be aligned? How can they mesh together, each one fulfilling its respective role and yet syncing smoothly?

To give some perspective, let us look at the traditional Chinese approach, encapsulated in the Chinese phrase, “一朝君子一朝臣”, and that means when there is a new emperor or a new dynasty, he brings in a completely new team of officials, people whom he trusts, people who will serve him and do his will. And when the emperor changes, dynasty changes, all the officials change. 

Nowadays, we have an elected Government that may change after elections but we have the civil service which remains the same after elections. So, how do we make the system work? This is a problem which every country has to solve. I will give you a few examples, starting with the Americans which interesting enough, approximate the traditional Chinese solution. Because when the President comes in, it is not just the President but he appoint officials to go with him and at the federal level, he appoints not just the Ministers, the Secretaries of State or Commerce or Defence or all the departments but at least four levels of appointees down from the Secretaries, the Deputy Secretaries, the Assistant Secretaries, the Deputy Assistant Secretaries and many other appointments as well, all to operate the bureaucracy in accordance with the Administration’s direction. So when a President is elected, a new administration takes over, 8,000 public officers leave, and 8,000 new appointees come in with him. Even then, it does not always work well. The departments are so large and entrenched because the whole public service in America is two million people. So, it is hard for the President and his appointees to impose their will on the bureaucracy. Sometimes whole departments are side-lined or given prominence. On foreign policy, the Presidents operate often out of the White House, using his own National Security Council staff, and bypassing the State Department. That is the American model.

The British have the classic traditional model – an impartial civil service serving whoever is the elected Government of the day. For much of the 20th century, this was workable because at that time, whichever party was in power, they shared the same basic assumptions so the civil service could serve either Labour or the Tories with equanimity. But in recent decades, it has not been so workable because the parties no longer share the same fundamental assumptions. So, successive British Governments have introduced political advisers in the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister’s Office and key ministries – official advisors whom the PM and his senior colleagues could rely upon to develop and implement their policy goals, their political goals, and help them get re-elected. So you heard of “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister”. If you have not you should be educated soon. These are old series, first telecast more than 30 years ago and they are uproarious comedies, especially for civil servants. But it is no laughing matter, because since then, the need for gear meshing between the Ministers and the civil service has increased. Now the British Cabinet has almost 100 Special Advisers. Furthermore within the civil service proper, it is not so easy for the British civil servant to serve successive masters with very different priorities and policies. So last year, they had a General Election in the run up to those election, the British civil service had to form two teams in the ministries, one serving the current Government (Conservative and Lib Dem coalition), the other working with Labour, the shadow ministers to prepare alternative policies in case Labour won the elections. It is what they found necessary, it is not what we have chosen to do. 

Then if you want a contrast, look at the PRC arrangement. It is not a democracy but they had the same issue. How do you go from political objectives to policy outcome and their solution is, politics is in command. The Communist Party permeates the whole government. It goes all the way down to the village, to the factory floor, every military unit. It goes all the way down to the village, to the factory floor, every military unit. If you are senior in the Party, you are senior in the system. At every level, there is a Party Secretary, and the Party Secretary calls the shots – the “书记”,the “党委书记”. So, you have a government leader, he is only second-in-command. He may be the Mayor, he may be the Governor, he may be the General – in which case you have a political advisor – he may be a Minister! But it does not matter, the Party is in charge. At the pinnacle, there is the General Secretary of the Party who is the head of the country, and the key decisions are made in Party committees, what they now call “领导小组”, small leadership groups, rather than in the apparatus of the State Council.

So these are for comparison, three foreign solutions. What is our solution? In form, ours is the British system. We have selected political leaders supported by a non-partisan civil service.

But how do the two mesh together? We have the same problem of coordination as other countries but we do not have, nor do we want multiple levels of political advisors and political appointees. We certainly do not have political party secretaries all over the place. Yet our system with two clear streams – political leaders on one side and civil servants on the other – has generally worked quite well. Why have we been able to do so? I think one important reason is because both political leaders and civil servants, particularly at senior levels, share the same fundamental values and goals that guide their thinking and motivate them to pull in the same direction.

Values like meritocracy, clean government, multi-racialism, inclusive development, economic growth. We also share major unspoken beliefs that Singapore must survive in a harsh world, and no one owes us a living. That an outstanding Government is a vital competitive advantage for us. That Singapore has to be exceptional to thrive. These are values and attitudes that serve our national interests. They go beyond the narrow party political concerns of the Government. They do not represent the vested bureaucratic interests of the civil service either. They are principles and values that this Government believes in and expresses through the policies we push for, which policies civil servants also believe in, and which the vast majority of Singaporeans have voted for time and time again.

We started off very much like that in 1965 during the founding years. Political leaders and the civil servants were cut from the same cloth. Many were close personal friends. They had come through the Japanese Occupation and lived through the same crucial years of Merger, race riots and Separation.

They had a complete identity of mission – to build a nation from scratch. So, it is not surprising that some civil servants became Ministers – like Mr Hon Sui Sen and Mr Howe Yoon Chong. Indeed Hon Sui Sen, who was PS (Finance) and Chairman Economic Development Board (EDB) before he became Minister, was a tremendous talent spotter. Mr Goh Chok Tong, Mr Dhanabalan – and many more – had worked with him as young men, and were proposed by him to enter politics. Mr Howe Yoon Chong, even while he was PS (PMO), would informally tell the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, of civil servants who he believed had political potential and some of them were fielded.

And these PSs and senior civil servants saw no contradiction in their roles at all. For that was a generation when politics was on hold. The Barisan Sosialis had abdicated Parliament in 1966. The PAP was absolutely dominant – for 15 years, it held every seat in Parliament, and the country put party politics aside, and focussed all national energies on survival and nation-building. Had we not done that, we might well have ended up with no country, and at least not one that we would all be proud to call home.

Today, Singapore is in a different phase. We have a new generation of Singaporeans, post-independence – born into growth and prosperity, with more diverse experiences and interests, wanting their views to be heard, their ideas to be tried, prepared to experiment. Politics is no longer dormant, the PAP is still in a very strong position, but the Opposition has more fertile ground to till, and is constantly active. Elections are fiercely contested and it is not clear on Nomination Day who will form the government. The political leadership and the civil service have to work hand in hand in this new environment, with each understanding its respective role.

What is it that enables our system to work under these circumstances? The basics have not changed. The political leadership and the civil service must still share major beliefs, values and ideals. These are fundamentals and if a civil servant disagrees and does not accept them, it would be very hard for him or her to be effective. But we have to now be clearer about the different roles of the Ministers and the civil service. 

The Ministers look after the politics, they sense the ground, decide the direction the country should take, they sell the policies to the public and make them work. At the same time, the Minister must also master his Ministry, and the policies he is responsible for. He is not a non-executive chairman, this is a double negative, so listen carefully. He is not a non-executive chairman, one presiding passively over an organisation that runs fine without him, while he busies himself with political affairs. He has to be hands on, articulating a clear strategy for his Ministry to serve the needs and aspirations of the people, making sure his PS does a good job in implementing policy and operating the ministry, helping the PS to do that. He has to provide political guidance to the civil servants to deliver results. At the same time, while delivering political guidance, he has to shield and protect civil servants from political interference and he must not involve them in political activities.

On the civil service side, your primary responsibility is policy. You must be equipped and able to translate political goals into workable policies, or if it is not possible or absolutely impossible, you must have the tact and the skill to explain to your Minister why it cannot be done. The civil service is not independent of the elected government, unlike the judiciary, which is a different branch of government. Under our system of government, the civil service must serve the elected government of the day. Therefore, the civil service must understand the political context, and the thinking of the political leadership so that it will not come up with policies that are non-starters, so that it can design policies that are not only sound, but are well-supported and can be well implemented. Civil servants have to be politically impartial. You should not be campaigning for or against any political party. You should not and must not misuse state resources or powers for partisan political purposes. But neither can you shy away from carrying out their duties without fear or favour when a matter might prove to be politically controversial. These are the reasons why key officers in the service are not allowed to be members of political parties.

That is how our system works, and it works well. For example, over the last 10 years, we successfully made major shifts in social policy, strengthening our safety nets, shifting the overall direction of the Government, and the balance between economic growth and social cohesion. It was essentially a political decision, the Cabinet decided that major shifts were necessary. We convinced Singaporeans to support our plans and the civil service had to deliver on this shift and I believe they fully supported it too. The officers working on this thoroughly researched different countries, put forward different options, thought through how to implement the new policies, and delivered them. This was for them, not a detached exercise doing something the political masters wanted which did not matter to them one way or the other, but something they did with conviction, that this was doing the right thing for Singapore and they were doing the right thing by Singaporeans. 

There will always be a fine balance – between the civil service being neutral and non-political, and the civil service being politically sensitive and responsive. It is inherent in the role of the civil service, to work with and for political leaders, in a political environment, and yet maintain a certain detachment from politics. It is a fine balance which has always been required, and which we must continue to maintain. 

I take you back 40 years to 1976, in Parliament, one Member of Parliament (MP) complained that civil servants were unfeeling and bureaucratic, and suggested they should sit with him at Meet-the-People-Sessions (MPS). Those of you who do not remember this occasion, may well remember similar later occasions. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was then the Prime Minister gave the MP a classic reply and defended the civil service. You should read it in full; I will just give you the key segment. He outlined the difference in roles between an MP and the civil servant. He said, “If we pick out the really outstanding civil servants to sit with him in the MPS, he ought to look out and make sure that he is not displaced in some future election.  We (MPs) are professional in our relations with the public. That is part of the business of the MP - if he is not good at it, then he would probably not be here. A civil servant who can both do his job as an administrator and be good at the public relations side of it, who is able to say ‘No’ to an obstreperous, vehement and insistent constituent who wants the answer to be ‘Yes’…would have learnt the secret of politics and will comprise the Government. So I think it is not an invitation to be made lightly and in jest (the invitation to attend MPS). Perhaps if the Member of Katong knows how to keep his constituents happy whilst having to say ‘No’ to them in the politest of terms, he should patent the secret, hide it away in a file, and never show it to a good civil servant.” 

In fact, the Government is open to ideas and did adopt the MP for Katong’s suggestion, this was Mr Joe Conceicao, despite the risk this posed to MPs’ rice-bowls. Nowadays we do have civil servants attending MPS as part of their milestone development courses to observe and understand the issues MPs deal with. And we do post civil servants to the frontline, to Community Development Councils (CDCs) and even to the Unions, occasionally to deal with obstreperous, vehement and insistent members of the public, and if necessary, to say no to them in the politest of terms. If we find someone who has both the policy aptitude and the political touch, we do invite them to join the party and field them in elections.

Singapore is currently in a sweet spot. Our politics and policies have worked constructively together and the formula has delivered results for us. Not just for an election term, but over the long term. 

It is a unique position to be in, and by international standards, it is not at all “normal”. In fact, it is highly abnormal. Sometimes I read people saying that, arguing that they want Singapore to become a “normal” country, I think that is most unwise. If we ever lose it and become “normal”, like any other country, where the politics of division takes hold, and policies oscillate from one end to another with the political winds, we will have lost a precious competitive advantage and it will be very difficult for us ever to become special again.

Why have other countries not been able to do what we have done? It is not just the superior virtues of Singapore civil servants or Ministers, much as we would like to think so. It is also because we have been lucky in our history of nation building that we have built over decades, a broad national consensus on values and priorities. Our policies have succeeded, and benefitted all Singaporeans. We have had a system which have been able to produce an elected Government which has the sense of mission, and the competence and the integrity to work for the broad interests of Singaporeans. We have built a high-quality civil service with a strong ethos of service, that appreciates our national context and that civil servants are proud to be part of.

We have to keep this virtuous circle going – then the political leadership and the civil service, working together, can lead our nation forward, stably and steadily – and Singapore can endure and prosper for many years to come. Thank you very much.

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