'Learning From Crisis' – Speech by SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the 2021 Administrative Service Appointment and Promotion Ceremony

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam | 29 March 2021

Abridged version of the speech by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the Administrative Service Appointment and Promotion Ceremony on Monday, 29 March 2021.


Let me first congratulate each of you who has been promoted or newly appointed to the Administrative Service. I want also to thank the Administrative Service for ably marshalling the response of the Public Service over the past year, to what has been the gravest crisis we have had since Singapore’s early years of independence.

It is not like the existential threat we faced then as a fledgling nation. But it has been the most complex crisis we have faced in our history, requiring the most forceful and comprehensive response – to protect public health and lives, the economy, social cohesion and trust, and our credibility internationally. Singapore has also been contributing actively to global efforts to overcome the pandemic, and providing bilateral support where we can to our friends abroad.

It has also been a massive learning experience. This is a crisis where so little was known at the outset, and a lot is still being discovered. We know a lot more now about the properties of the virus, but we continue to learn about the new variants that are emerging internationally, the efficacy of the various vaccines in countering them, and whether we will be dealing with an endemic infectious disease, with the population requiring recurrent booster shots. We are past the worst in the economy, but the course of the global recovery is still uncertain. We are seeing repeated lockdowns around the world as new waves of infection take hold, and do not yet know when economies and especially aviation will return to normal, or what the new normal will be. 

It has been a challenge everywhere in the world, but one of the stark facts of the last year has been the wide variance of outcomes among countries that are equally developed, or that had seemed before COVID-19 struck to be equally well prepared for a pandemic. 

Why so? Thoughtful observers point to the exercise of governance as a major differentiator between countries – how governments have responded in mobilising and deploying institutions, resources and skills, in convincing populations to cooperate in the public interest and stay the course, and in keeping the people’s trust.

We have to learn from the experience of this crisis: because we will very likely have to live with COVID-19 for some time; so we are well prepared for the next pandemic; and also because the lessons will help us tackle other major crises that will inevitably come. 

Trust cannot be summoned up in a crisis. We have to keep building and renewing it, in our practice of politics, and in the way we shape and deliver our policies. That has to be our culture of governance. 

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam

I will focus my remarks on five key lessons, from our own experience especially but also that of other countries in the past year. 

1: Take care of today, and avoid a spiral down

The first order of business, when dealing with a crisis of such magnitude and uncertainty, is to take care of today. Avoid a spiral down that takes society further than it can cope. Avoid the extreme downsides – first in public health, but also in joblessness, bankruptcies, and in public morale. Take care of today, so that people’s spirits hold up, and they feel they can prepare for the future.

When we don’t know how far down the bottom will be, it also means overdoing our actions, rather than trying to optimise. Better to find later that we had overdone rather than underdone our actions – be it in public health and the circuit breaker, in enabling viable businesses to survive, or in helping people cope with a loss of incomes.

It also means having to decide what our main objective is, because you cannot focus on too many objectives in a major crisis. We decided that this was, first and foremost, a public health crisis rather than an economic crisis, and our priority was to do all we could to protect lives and minimise serious infections. There was no serious trade-off in our minds between getting COVID-19 under control and the health of the economy. 

There was inevitably a short-term trade-off, because the economy would be hurt by our circuit-breaker measures, on top of the fact that COVID-19 itself had led to a collapse of demand around the world. But there was no long-term trade-off. We believed firmly that if we placed singular priority on bringing infections down in the community and the migrant worker dormitories, and holding them down, we would both protect lives and avoid even greater economic and social cost over time. 

The evidence is out there in a whole range of countries, including many of the most advanced countries, which are seeing repeated waves of infection and repeated lockdowns as a result of not having singularly prioritised that one objective of bringing infections down. If you seek to optimise continually, to find the right short-term trade-offs between public health and the economy, you end up with more uncertainty, more frequent lockdowns, and greater long-term economic damage. 

As we bring COVID-19 under control, we win ourselves the space to start taking calculated risks – and we will have to take calculated risks as we go forward, progressively opening up to business travel to and from safer locations in the first instance. Global aviation is not going to be what it used to be for several years to come, but if we do this right, Changi can bounce back to an even more competitive position. 

2: Learn quickly, and be willing to pivot

The second lesson, in a crisis where little is known at the outset, is that we’ve got to keep asking questions, and keep building better answers. Learn quickly as the evidence comes in, adapt our responses, and pivot when necessary. Never think that we’ve understood everything, set policies on that basis and stubbornly hold to them. 

A good example was around the evidence of asymptomatic transmission. When the pandemic was emerging, most medical authorities had the experience of SARS foremost in mind, especially in our part of the world. That was when transmission was through people who displayed symptoms – and on that basis you test them, isolate those infected and trace their contacts. That was what we were doing initially, and we were reasonably successful at it. We did not know until late March that asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission were possible, and it was only in early April that the WHO officially recognised that this was so. Had we known at the outset that asymptomatic transmission was a feature of COVID-19, we would have advised everyone to wear a mask much sooner, and moved more aggressively on the migrant worker dormitories. But this is all, as PM has said, wisdom after the fact. 

The key is to respond quickly to evidence, adapt and pivot. And not just change the rules and guidance, but explain the considerations to the public, so they know the facts, they know why we must shift gears, and why it is in everyone’s interest to do so.

3: Prepare early. It pays off hugely in crisis

The third lesson is that early investments and preparedness will greatly reduce the human and economic costs of a crisis. And what we do to improve our systems and reflexes after each crisis will also pay off in the future.

Like some other East Asian countries, we took the lessons from the SARS crisis. Well before COVID-19 struck, we had instituted preparedness drills, put in place national stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) and food supplies, enhanced legislative powers (the Infectious Diseases Act) to enable government to enforce orders such as on home quarantine, and worked out a carefully calibrated Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) framework.

A critical decision, made in 2013, was to replace the old Communicable Diseases Centre at Tan Tock Seng Hospital with the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID). NCID was ready in September 2019, just a few months before COVID-19 hit the world, with purpose-built labs and wards, technologies and the strong team of people needed to tackle a pandemic effectively. It has been at the forefront of our efforts – COVID-19 screenings, caring for those infected, doing urgent and critical research as data came in, and using the results to guide our strategies. 

Our investments in the biomedical sciences have also proved their value. They developed a pool of capabilities and skilled manpower over the years, that got solutions off the ground quickly when COVID-19 struck – for Singapore but also helpful globally, like the Fortitude PCR test kits and the cPass serology test (the first to specifically detect neutralising antibodies). Even the innovative swab designs, enabling high volumes to be produced through injection moulding, overcoming global shortages. 

Economically, our reserves gave the nation crucial financial – and psychological – advantage in this crisis. Again, the result of continuous practice over the years, of fiscal prudence. Even our efforts to build a smart nation, and help our SMEs and everyone go digital, have been of great value in this crisis, as we rolled out digital tools like TraceTogether and SafeEntry, and pivoted as a country towards working from home and operating virtually. 

4: It takes a Whole-of-Government and National Effort

Working together is the secret sauce of how Singapore overcomes crises. And we must keep improving how we do it. 

When people look at Singapore’s response to COVID-19, they often think about our policies and rules, and our institutions. These are important. But many of our policies and institutions are not unique to Singapore. What has mattered critically has been our ability to align and tie our policy responses together in a coherent whole, and to collaborate – across government agencies, and nationally.

The Multi-Ministry Taskforce, led by Minister Gan Kim Yong and Minister Lawrence Wong, and the Homefront Crisis Executive Group, HCEG, led by Permanent Secretary Pang Kin Keong, have been at the core of this effort, leveraging the resources and expertise of all government agencies. It is how, for example, we have devised our Safe Management Measures – tightening and then gradually loosening up, calibrating our rules sector by sector, down to the hawker centres and parks.

It is likewise how the Inter-agency Taskforce tackled the surge of infections in our migrant worker dormitories and eventually brought it down. Activating many agencies at short notice, administering diagnostic tests on a massive scale, and mobilising a whole range of alternative accommodations – for those who needed to be isolated immediately and cared for, and for medium-term capacity. An immensely complex task, carefully executed, and enabling us to open up the economy more fully.

Equally important has been our ability to come together in a whole-of-society effort. Our corporations, community partners and countless volunteers came forward, took responsibility, and worked together with government agencies. That’s how we got the Community Care Facility up and running so quickly at Singapore Expo, among many other initiatives.

Likewise on job creation. Our whole approach in the National Jobs Council has been to achieve tight coordination between government, the labour movement, employer associations, often individual employers as well, to do all we can to help Singaporeans who needed jobs. It explains why in Singapore, we have been able to match people to jobs more quickly than in most other places. The Emerging Stronger Taskforce too has been an exercise in deep collaboration between the corporate sector and the government, to develop new ideas that can add horsepower as we come out of the crisis.

But there is another key ingredient in Singapore’s secret sauce of crisis management – the way the political leadership and public service leadership work together. We have not had that simple divide where politicians mainly think of the politics, and civil servants think through the policies or even sometimes decide on them. 

In COVID-19, the political leadership had to be very involved, studying the data continuously, asking more questions, learning from the medical scientists and professionals, and thinking through our policy steps with the civil servants. The public sector leadership understood the public mood, how far we could go, and how best we could sustain the cooperation of the public. In a crisis, even more than normal times, that absence of divide is critical. It is how we have stayed the course in our efforts to bring down COVID-19, recalibrating carefully as we progressed, instead of see-sawing between lockdowns and opening up as many countries have experienced. 

As we go forward, we have to remember that these are not two separate worlds of governance in Singapore that interact politely with each other. Our thinking in government is never fixed, and must continue to evolve with Singapore’s circumstances. But it is a real strength for Singapore to have public sector leadership sharing the same basic understanding of what is in the country’s interests, and on how we can hold people together.

5: Build trust all the time

The fifth lesson from the pandemic is critical. The countries that have done best to date in countering COVID-19 are those where people had trust in government, and had trust among themselves. 

It is what upholds belief in the public good. People trust government to do what it takes to protect the public good, trust others to play their part, and therefore want to play their own part to support the public good. Trust has been a real source of why some countries have been able to respond to the crisis more resolutely than others, and why their people’s confidence has held up. 

If you look at what is happening now in many parts of the world – the public revolts against measures to combat the spread of the virus, people getting fed-up or exhausted by the lockdowns – it is tragic because the loss of staying power is inflicting even greater cost to human lives. But it does force us to think about what it takes to keep the public trust, and how keeping that trust must itself be an objective in politics, and in the design and delivery of policies. 

What’s important is this: trust is not something you can summon up in a crisis. It has to be something built and earned all the time. Being straight with the public. Telling people about the difficulties or uncertainties. Telling them when the facts change, and how we have to change course. Being transparent on mistakes or oversights, which will be inevitable when we act in crisis. And giving people a sense of the long-term direction that we must take for a better future. 

It is that constant habit of being open about the facts, that deliberative culture, that creates trust over time. 

Government communication with the public is critical to sustaining trust during a crisis. The six public addresses that PM gave on COVID-19 were indispensable. They explained what the issues are, what we have to do, how we will come out of this together. Simply, clearly, directly from the PM to the population. No gimmicks, except of course for his magic teacup. From my talking to people on the ground, I found that most people understood the messages. They might not have liked all of what we needed to do, but they understood why this was serious, and why everyone had to play their part. 

Trust cannot be summoned up in a crisis. We have to keep building and renewing it, in our practice of politics, and in the way we shape and deliver our policies. That has to be our culture of governance. 

We do not yet know how long COVID-19 will last. But we must build on the lessons learnt in this continuing crisis. They will help us tackle the next pandemic, which many scientists expect will be even more daunting, and the other major crises that will surely come.