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Govt didn't always get it right during Covid-19 but it must be prepared to make tough judgement calls: PM Lee

SINGAPORE — Acknowledging again that the Government did not get every call right during the Covid-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told top civil servants that policymakers must be prepared to "make the tough calls, especially in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity”.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the annual Administrative Service dinner and promotion ceremony at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre on April 12, 2022.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the annual Administrative Service dinner and promotion ceremony at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre on April 12, 2022.
  • Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong again conceded that the Government did not get every decision right during the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Still, he stressed that policymakers must make tough judgement calls, especially in situations of uncertainty
  • Mr Lee spoke of the need to renew the trust between the fourth-generation government leaders from the ruling party and the public service 
  • He added that the Government must be able to anticipate future challenges and come up with policies that can be implemented well

SINGAPORE — Acknowledging again that the Government did not get every call right during the Covid-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told top civil servants that policymakers must be prepared to "make the tough calls, especially in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity”.

Mr Lee on Tuesday (April 12) also stressed the need to renew the trust between the political leadership and the public service, noting how the Covid-19 pandemic provided the opportunity for the fourth-generation (4G) ministers and political office-holders from the ruling People's Action Party to work closely with civil servants.

“When their turn comes to assume the responsibility of leading the country, the two will need to continue to work just as closely and deliver the same results that Singaporeans expect and have become used to,” he said.

Mr Lee was speaking at the annual Administrative Service dinner and promotion ceremony at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, which was held in-person for the first time since 2019.

FOUR LESSONS

In his speech, Mr Lee spoke about four key lessons from Singapore’s Covid-19 experience. 

First, the Government must be prepared to make tough calls, especially in uncertainty or ambiguity.

He noted how, at the start of the pandemic, Singapore took strict measures including imposing the circuit-breaker partial lockdown to prevent as many avoidable deaths as possible at a time when little was known about the coronavirus and vaccines were not yet invented.

However, when the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus emerged a year later, the Government had to judge when and how to shift from this strategy towards living with the infectious disease. 

It was not the first time Mr Lee has acknowledged shortcomings in Singapore’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In September 2020 for instance, he said then that with hindsight, the Government would have recommended the wearing of face masks sooner and acted earlier to better manage the migrant worker dormitories, which saw large outbreaks of the disease.

“But the key is to keep on learning and improving; and as we discover more information, to be prepared to update, revise or even reverse our decisions,” Mr Lee said on Tuesday, referring to how the Government did not get every decision right over the past two years.

“We had to judge what was best at that point with incomplete information and act on that in the fog of war. Indecision, or waiting for all the facts to come in, would have been far worse.”

Elaborating on how the Government timed its shift towards treating Covid-19 as endemic, he said that when the Delta variant emerged, a sizeable portion of the population, especially the older ones, were not yet vaccinated. As a result, the Government decided to wait a few more months before opening up. 

The public who have grown used to seeing low daily case counts also had to be assuaged when daily cases rose, and Covid-19 patients who were used to recovering in hospitals had to be urged to recover at home, Mr Lee said.

“Fortunately, we executed the shift at just about the right time and coped well with the subsequent Delta, followed by Omicron surges.”

Second, the Government must anticipate and plan ahead, no matter how pressing the immediate problems may be.

For instance, he noted that at a time when Singapore had a few dozen daily cases and was conducting a few hundred swab tests a day, the Government had already scrambled to order test kits, stockpile medical equipment and increase hospital capacity.

“Realistically, we can’t prepare for every contingency, but we have to do the best we can,” Mr Lee said.

Sometimes, this involved the Government having to place bets and buy the country “insurance and options”, even if they came at a substantial cost.

This included the "calculated risks" the Government took to secure promising vaccine candidates that were using different technologies long before they were ready for use, he said. 

“This cost us a tidy sum, and we accepted that not every bet would pay off. But we judged this a small price to pay to protect Singaporeans and accelerate our move to the new normal.”

Third, Mr Lee stressed that policymakers should not just come up with policy ideas but also have to implement and execute them well. "Policy is implementation," he added.

He then pointed to how the national vaccination programme was one such operation that needed successful execution, necessitating vaccination targets as well as communication channels to convince people to get vaccinated and take on the logistical challenges of running the programme.

“At the peak, 2,000 staff were running 40 vaccination centres nationwide, administering over 2 million jabs in a month. Most people will recall a smooth experience, and not realise the scale and complexity of the operations.” 

Fourth, Mr Lee said a key factor that helped Singapore handle the crisis has been the people’s trust in the Government.

As a result, Singaporeans accepted the Government’s advice and decisions, complied with strict safe management measures and came forward to get vaccinated, he added.

To continue to build and nurture that trust, he said that Singapore must have a top-notch public service, first-class minds to tackle complex problems and also a first-class team that works cohesively on getting the job done.

4G TEAM MUST RENEW TRUST WITH CIVIL SERVICE

For the public service to be able to do its job, it needs to work “hand-in-glove” with the political leadership, Mr Lee said.

Government ministers will have to get the politics right by identifying Singapore’s key issues and priorities, exercising their political mandate and charting the country’s strategy.  

However, the ministers must also be hands-on to ensure that policies are well designed and implemented.

“Just as importantly, the political leadership has to give public servants the political support and cover they need so that they can focus on their tasks, and carry out their duties professionally, and not be distracted or intimidated by political theatrics or grandstanding.” 

On their part, leaders in the public service must appreciate the political context and translate overall strategy into policies that work before implementing and executing those plans.

Mr Lee noted that the whole 4G team had been involved with the Government’s handling of the pandemic, working with their permanent secretaries and management teams. 

Through this, the 4G ministers and political office-holders have strengthened their relationship and trust with the civil servants, and that shared understanding has set the foundation for the next generation of leaders. 

“As both our political leadership and public service leadership renew themselves, we must also renew the trust that exists between the current generation of ministers and senior public service officers, and extend it into subsequent generations,” he said.

Related topics

Lee Hsien Loong public servants civil service Covid-19 4G leadership

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