Adaptive Government

In this session of the ETHOS Roundtable, three eminent participants from Singapore's 4th Leaders in Governance Programme reflect on the changing roles and responsibilities of public servants in a dynamic world.

Date Posted

1 Oct 2011


Issue 10, 9 Oct 2011


Dr Adeeb Al Afifi, Director, Foreign Trade And Exports, Department of Economic Development, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Dr Do Le Chau, Director, Training Institute, Ministry of Public Security, Vietnam

Mr Puneet Kumar, Director (Highways), Ministry of Road Highways and Transport, India


ADEEB: We have never seen such sweeping changes as we have experienced in the last year or so in the Middle East. On the one hand, we are seeing the effects of bad government; on the other hand, many of the communities involved are not mature enough to understand politics or how governments are run, and what their own commitments are. What they want is the privilege of new services or subsidies, and if they don't get them, they take to the streets. It is worrying for the future.

For a society to develop, the whole community has to be involved. Everyone has to understand, believe and play a part in the national vision for it to have fruitful outcomes. Take our efforts to diversify from the oil sector and grow a stronger private sector. We are a very small country of 1.2 million citizens and one of the top five oil producers in the world. Yet even though we have the financial resources, open budgets and ability to employ the best talent from anywhere in the world, it does not mean it is easy to implement reforms. You cannot set the agenda at the top and assume everything will automatically fall into place, even with the best written strategy or policy. Much more needs to be done to make things happen.

PUNEET: Gone are the days when political power used to be concentrated in certain blocs, with little accountability for whether or not they delivered. With globalisation and a knowledge-based society and economy, this can no longer be the case: what has happened in the Middle East demonstrates this. Yet despite their present difficulties, many countries possess intrinsic strengths that can still be developed. So the biggest challenge is still that of leadership. If a country's leadership is unable to provide solutions to the needs of its population, unrest is only going to increase.

So the onus is now on political leaders and public servants to respond in time to the expectations of their citizens. This will require initiative and anticipation of future needs. India, for example, is investing almost US$1 trillion1 in infrastructure. About half of this is expected to come from the private sector in all the infrastructure sectors, which are right now developing rapidly. Investments are also being made in sectors such as education, healthcare, telecommunications and IT, all at a very fast pace.

CHAU: The world faces a serious depletion of energy and other material resources, including water, which could potentially lead to shortages serious enough to ignite war. Security — both internal and cross-border — will continue to be a concern. At the same time, we have rapid economic growth, with every country trying to develop as quickly as it can, and life expectancies are getting longer, which means an ageing population and pressure for more services. Vietnam has one of the fastest ageing populations in the world today even though 65% of our population is still under 35.

The challenge for governments everywhere will be to find fresh or alternative resources to continue economic growth, and even increase it for social development and services. Countries will have to work closely together, for instance, on security issues as scarce resources are depleted. We have to work together to find new alternatives and also to maintain stability while trying to make the best, coordinated use of what we have left.


PUNEET: We will have to go beyond safe and tried measures in order to respond to the needs of our people. We will need people who are more willing to take on challenges and innovate; at the same time, it will also be the responsibility of a stable political leadership to encourage and empower such civil servants. They should not be hounded for attempting the right sort of initiatives even if some of them may fail. Unless this kind of enabling environment is provided, public servants will find no room to innovate, and they will be unable to develop the capability needed to handle the complex and unknown challenges to come. The element of trust is important: both within the public service and between government and the people.

CHAU: Public servants will need to serve a bridging function: they have to stay connected with the ground in order to understand their needs and making sure government policies are responsive and relevant to the people. Also, the important challenges ahead will cut across political and national boundaries. Public servants will therefore need to work in close cooperation with one another and even with their counterparts in different countries. They will have to be globally aware and culturally literate, able to relate across different regions.

Nevertheless, there will not be straightforward, single solutions to the challenges of our time. In many areas, international cooperation by cross-border teams within related sectors such as healthcare and energy could be the most effective way forward.

ADEEB: We have found that it is important to be able to cascade our vision of development all the way down to the individual citizen in the community. We hold open dialogues and discussions with people on the ground in order to build mutual understanding that certain new developments or policies are in the interest of their families, and will have a positive impact on future generations. Although it is very time consuming, it is also important to engage our private sector companies individually and regularly, to understand what they do, even to the extent of trying to know their management on a personal level. If people and businesses do not perceive the benefits of public policies, it is a waste of time no matter how much we spend. Whatever our priorities, we are dealing with human beings, not machines that can be overlooked or put aside if they don't fit into the new ideal.

This has required a new mindset in government. The old way of government thinking was centred on processes and authority — a senior public servant in this system was aloof, inaccessible and did not need to account for his policies or decisions; he had no key performance indicators (KPIs), targets or goals, and was there to play a role or provide a service as he saw fit. The new thinking looks at society as customers and partners; the government official is there to serve the people. We have had to convince the community that we are doing our best to support them.

Tremendous changes have already taken place in our countries, but deep transformation will take much longer. We cannot simply cut and paste what other parts of the world are doing, nor can we forecast an exact outcome for the future. So we must try out things and assess the impact, adapting ideas and policies for ourselves as we go along. We have to have a general strategy, but not too detailed long-term plans; instead we should be able to try out short-term plans, and be prepared to stop, change direction or push forward as we go along. What happens when people are afraid to apply new policies, or change or drop existing ones? Things are fine today, everything seems to be developing at a slow and steady pace, and there are no riots or strikes, so why try a new initiative? Then the status quo rigidifies, the facts on the ground change, and the boat starts sinking. This was the lesson in the Middle East and other parts of the world.


PUNEET: It is common, perhaps even inevitable, for complacency to set in when basic needs are met and survival is not at stake. It takes visionary leadership to be able to anticipate a better future and provide motivation to forge ahead even when things are comfortable now.

CHAU: What's striking about Singapore is the sense of a common, relentless push for economic development. As a result — perhaps of your vulnerability — there is a strong zeal for survival and success. In Vietnam, as in other countries, a programme might be pushed out to the provinces but the outcomes would be mixed because there is no sense of urgency nor a shared priority in making the implementation work.

ADEEB: Your sense of common purpose is an asset. Other countries can afford not to agree: if an idea reaches an impasse, they pack up and try again in six months. In many other systems, there are often long debates between officials in different agencies with different priorities, and key projects often stagnate as a result. In Singapore, because of your constraints, you cannot afford not to agree — all parties have to sit down, compromise and come up with a win-win solution. This is not something you should take for granted.

Luck has also played some part in Singapore's development, in that certain policies you took a gamble on have paid off, but also that you had the right people at the right time in the beginning; that competent people, even those who have studied or worked abroad, chose to stay instead of leaving the country, as has frequently happened elsewhere. The loyalty of your people is part of your good fortune. But surely it is also how you handle the package that you are given. This is what differentiates Singapore from the rest of Asia.

The ETHOS Roundtable was conducted by ETHOS Editor Alvin Pang in July 2011. Mr Puneet Kumar, Dr Adeeb Al Afifi and Dr Do Le Chau were participants in the 4th Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP) organised by the Singapore Civil Service College from 4 to 12 July 2011. Drawing from Singapore's developmental experience, the LGP offers foreign delegates practical insights into the fundamentals of good governance and effective policy implementation for sustainable economic development and social cohesion. Over the eight-day programme, participants interact with senior government officials and thought leaders, and visit key government agencies to understand their operating philosophies and values.


  1. As reported in The Economist, 22 November 2010,

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