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Good politics, policies must go together for S'pore's success: PM Lee

SINGAPORE — While Singapore is “in a sweet spot” where its politics and policies have worked constructively together, such a scenario is neither a matter of course nor one that is fail-safe judging by the experience of several European countries, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cautioned on Tuesday (April 26).

It is important that the political leadership and civil service continue to work hand in hand with each understanding its respective role, says PM Lee. Photo: Wee Teck Hian/TODAY

It is important that the political leadership and civil service continue to work hand in hand with each understanding its respective role, says PM Lee. Photo: Wee Teck Hian/TODAY

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SINGAPORE — While Singapore is “in a sweet spot” where its politics and policies have worked constructively together, such a scenario is neither a matter of course nor one that is fail-safe judging by the experience of several European countries, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cautioned on Tuesday (April 26).

The system has worked so far because political leaders and civil servants — particularly at senior levels — share the fundamental beliefs, values and ideals that see them pull in the same direction. And in a new environment where expectations from a new generation of Singaporeans have shifted and politics is “no longer dormant” as compared to the past, it is important that the political leadership and Civil Service “continue to work hand in hand ... with each understanding its respective role”, said Mr Lee.

The Prime Minister was speaking at a promotion ceremony and dinner for the Administrative Service held at the Shangri-La Hotel. Reiterating the importance of “good politics and policies” — something he touched on when he announced a review of the Elected Presidency scheme in January, and separately by President Tony Tan at the opening of the 13th Parliament days earlier — Mr Lee said Singapore cannot become “normal” like any other country or it would lose its edge, perhaps for good.

Mr Lee said the Civil Service’s primary responsibility is coming up with policies that are borne of political objectives because in Singapore’s system, it must serve the elected government of the day. Nevertheless, the Service should be politically impartial and not shy away from carrying out their duties “without fear or favour” when a matter could be politically controversial, he added.

“There will always be a fine balance — between the Civil Service being neutral and non-political, and being politically sensitive and responsive,” said Mr Lee.

Singapore must maintain this constructive system if it were to retain its competitive advantage instead of becoming “normal” like other countries, which has seen “the politics  of division take hold, and policies oscillate from one end to another with the political winds”.

In explaining the need for political leadership and civil servants to “mesh together, with each one fulfilling its respective role and yet syncing smoothly”, Mr Lee cited cases in several countries where systems have malfunctioned when either politics or policies went wrong.

In Europe, many countries with a history of consensus politics have formed coalition governments clustered around the centre, he noted. But this does not hold true anymore because policies have not achieved the desired outcomes, leading people to lose confidence in politicians, political parties, and even the whole system, he said. This has led to extreme and breakaway parties gaining support in countries such as France, Germany and Spain by feeding the restiveness among the populace. As a result, some of these countries, including Spain and Belgium, were unable to form governments months after elections.

These European countries have longer histories and better-established institutions than Singapore, Mr Lee pointed out. “No system is fail-safe, and impossible to crash,” he said. “We have been very lucky but it can happen, and more quickly than most of us imagine.”

It is a “complacent and mistaken view” that with a system in place, all that is needed is to hold elections so that those who win will automatically be able to lead and run the country while the Civil Service will always be there to make things work, he added.

Mr Lee stressed that Singapore’s founding batch of political leaders made a conscious decision to create a “high quality, clean, effective and efficient” Civil Service where officers are properly rewarded and paid, as well as focused on producing good policies, said Mr Lee.

In the early years, Singapore’s political leaders and civil servants were cut from the same cloth, with many being close personal friends who had a shared mission of building a nation from scratch, Mr Lee said.

Some civil servants, such as Mr Hon Sui Sen and Mr Howe Yoong Chong, not only identified officers suitable for politics — talent they suggested include Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and former Cabinet Minister S Dhanabalan — but became political office-holders themselves subsequently.

Mr Lee also cited a suggestion by former Katong Member of Parliament Joe Conceicao in 1976 for civil servants to sit in on Meet-the-People sessions so that they would not be so “unfeeling and bureaucratic”.

Although the idea was rebuffed initially, the Government adopted the suggestion eventually to help civil servants understand the issues which MPs deal with.

In his speech at the event, Head of Civil Service Peter Ong said it is important to build a diverse leadership corps within its ranks to meet the challenges Singapore faces in a sophisticated external environment, as well as to find solutions palatable to a population with more varied values and aspirations. While there are programmes for officers to learn from diverse areas, deeper and more extensive partnerships must be cultivated with stakeholders so as to make sure “the people we serve are much more engaged”, Mr Ong said.

Mr Lee also touched on the results of last year’s General Election (GE), which the ruling People’s Action Party won by a landslide. He noted that many people were watching to see which way Singapore would go after the 2011 GE where the PAP lost a Group Representation Constituency for the first time — if it would see more divided politics feeding on angry voters or pull together and face challenges as one people.

Having been elected, the Government now carries “an extra heavy responsibility” to fulfil voters’ expectations, Mr Lee said. “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,” he said. “And with growth harder to come by, and constraints more binding, we must make tougher trade-offs than before.”

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