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Revisiting the roles of government, business and social sector in tackling Singapore’s problems

It used to be so simple. The private sector made money, the people sector did good, and the public sector governed them both. This narrative is changing around the world. What does this mean for Singapore?

Revisiting the roles of government, business and social sector in tackling Singapore’s problems

To face the coming challenges of the next 50 years, the Government, businesses and the social sector will need to play to their respective strengths, says the author.

It used to be so simple. The private sector made money, the people sector did good, and the public sector governed them both.

This narrative is changing around the world. Businesses are being held accountable for their social and environmental impact. Entrepreneurs are doing what states used to — Elon Musk is sending rockets to space.

The people sector is thinking more like businesses in a bid to achieve scale. A new range of social enterprises and B-corporations are emerging and, with them, sophisticated financial tools to fund impact.

What does this mean for Singapore?

I believe that this presents a golden opportunity to find a new Singaporean narrative about the role of each sector — one which will enable us to solve our next generation of social problems.

A uniquely Singaporean innovation for our first 50 years was our narrative around the role of government.

In a region where citizens often did not trust their governments, Singapore stood out with a Government based on incorruptibility and efficiency.

This started a virtuous cycle where the Government efficiently solved social problems, allowing the citizenry to trust it further, which in turn gave the Government the leeway to efficiently solve more problems.

Over time, this has evolved into a shared societal narrative that the Government is the primary problem solver. 

In Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s words: “The main burden of present planning and implementation rests on the shoulders of some 300 key persons...if all the 300 were to crash in one jumbo jet, then Singapore will disintegrate.”  

This narrative has served us well. But it may prove unsustainable, especially in the face of new types of problems in today’s world and at our current stage of development. 

The next wave of problems are what wonks call “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous” — Vuca  in short. This makes it difficult for any government, no matter how competent, to solve them alone. 

The problems will also likely involve trade-offs rather than right “answers”. Do we build a casino to improve economic growth?

But our narrative has led us to expect that the Government will provide the right answers to any problem. This leads to the Government being placed in a no-win situation. If we expect right answers where there are actually only hard choices, then any answer will lead to unhappiness.

This does not mean we should swing to the other extreme, where there is a loss of faith in the Government’s role entirely. 

In other countries, I have seen first-hand how non-profits provide basic services, such as housing, that could and should have been more efficiently provided by the government. 

As writers such as Anand Giridharadas remind us, we should also be wary of giving private sector billionaires an outsized say in how we run a democratic society.

To face the coming challenges of the next 50 years, we will need each sector to play to their respective strengths. But this is not as simple as substituting one sector’s role for another. 

Instead, we should move towards a nuanced narrative of each sector’s unique strengths and gaps. If we were to start from first principles, what might these be?

The Government has several key advantages. First, it has legitimacy. A fairly elected government represents its constituents. 

Second, it has scale. In 2015, all philanthropy in Singapore for social, healthcare, and education issues was about S$1.2 billion — the Government spent S$23 billion on those issues alone. 

Third, it has data. Used well, the Government’s administrative data allows for an accurate understanding of what the problems are and which solutions actually work. 

The key structural problem the Government faces is risk-taking. It is difficult for even the most forward-thinking government officers to try new things with public money, because the citizenry expects the Government to be prudent in administering taxpayer dollars, and does not take kindly to “failure”.

The private sector has a different set of strengths. First, risk-taking. In venture capital, investors are used to making 10 bets and having only one work out.

Second, adaptability. Driven by competition, private companies are used to having to make changes speedily in response to customer demand.

Third, accountability. The marketplace is brutal to companies that do not perform in the long-run. 

The structural problem the private sector faces, however, is aligning profit and purpose. The best intended corporate social responsibility officer will see his budget cut if the company is not doing well on its financial bottom line.

The social sector has its own superpowers. First, in purity of purpose. Non-profits and their staff are intrinsically driven by a strong mission to make an impact.

Second, closeness to the problems. The people with the most contact with beneficiaries and their needs are often non-profits. 

Third, ideas for solutions. Often times, I have heard from non-profit leaders a range of ideas that they would love to implement — if only they had the time and money. 

The trouble non-profits face is resources. Non-profits do not have access to the mainstream capital markets that private sector companies have, which routinely provide funds in the order of hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. 

Like a jigsaw puzzle, the only way we will see holistic solutions for our problems is if we piece these gaps and strengths together in a complementary way. 

What would that look like in practice?

The truth is that we don’t yet have any good answers at scale. And the answer, if there is one, will likely differ by context. But here are some small examples. 

Globally, the US$10 million X prize set up by philanthropists catalysed over US$100 million of private investment into space-flight, and is leading to a commercial space sector today. 

Locally, the government-linked Singapore Academy of Law has identified a series of 101 problem statements for the legal tech sector to solve, playing an agenda-setting role while allowing the private sector to provide the innovation. 

In my day-to-day work, I help to create “Pay For Success projects” around the region, where impact-driven private funders provide upfront investment into promising non-profit programmes.  

If, and only if, these programmes show results, the government involved repays the upfront funders. The idea is that the private sector helps to provide risk-taking; the non-profits can try out new solutions; and the government measures and scales only what works. 

I am hopeful that we can find a new narrative for ourselves, because multi-sector collaboration is already part of our DNA. Our Total Defence and Many Helping Hands policies have long sought “whole-of-nation” solutions to our problems.

Our new generation of leaders has also promised a more consultative approach. Our evolutionary challenge is in the details — in each task, to ensure that the sectors are collaborating in a way that in fact allows the sum to be more than its parts.

The best way to start is to change the macro-narrative around the role of each sector, and provide micro-examples of how new styles of collaboration could concretely work in practice. 

The next wave of complex problems will require a complex problem-solving system. Will we be daring enough to create a new narrative about the role of each sector in Singapore — one that will meet the needs of our society and our future?



Kevin Tan is founder of Tri-Sector Associates, a social enterprise that develops new ways for the public, private, and people sectors to work together in improving governance throughout the Asia-Pacific. This piece first appeared in The Birthday Book (2019), a collection of 54 essays on “narratives, undiscovered and underway” in Singapore. TODAY will be publishing other essays from the book.

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