Context, Connection and Continuity: Governance in the Next Decade

Three eminent participants from Singapore’s 5th Leaders in Governance Programme discuss the evolving role of the public sector, and the need for governments to engage with changing norms in society.


Ms Vani Tripathi, National Secretary, Indian Bhartiya Janta Party, India

Datuk Noharuddin Nordin, Chief Executive Officer, Malaysian Investment Development Authority, Malaysia

Ambassador S. Francis Moloi, Chief Director, Department of International Relations and Cooperation, South Africa

On Key Challenges Facing Governments Around the World

Tripathi: Despite India’s yearly economic growth of a steady 9% or so, poverty, malnutrition, education and primary healthcare remain challenges. However, the greatest challenge India faces is demographic in nature: by 2014, 60% of India’s massive population will be under 40. So we are a very old civilisation with a very young population — and young people are very difficult to please.

A young Indian person today is bombarded with stimulus that he or she often may not understand very well but which nevertheless influences their reaction to governance and policy. Some of our young people are brilliant and very well-educated, particularly in the urban centres, but there is great cynicism about political and governmental processes — and not just in India. All across the globe, young people feel disenfranchised from their political systems. Nevertheless, we cannot just disregard them because they are disengaged. So the question is how do we effectively involve the young of our countries in the processes of governance from which they feel alienated?

Moloi: In African countries and in South Africa in particular, the major challenge is not so much in having the right policies — we have good plans for education, housing, infrastructure development and so on — but in the implementation of those policies. We operate in a context where there are many interrelated demands: youth unemployment, poverty, urban slums. What should we deal with first? Do we devote more resources to education or do we address immediate issues of crime and insecurity? We do not have the luxury of parking issues to one side and dealing with them one at a time. We must find the right balance of policy priorities and solutions in order to address the many challenges that we face.

What makes this even more difficult is that South Africa as a whole (not just the public sector but the private sector and NGOs as well) lacks the right mix of managerial, organisational, technical and leadership skills needed to respond to the challenges we have on the ground. So there is a lot of trial and error both in the civil service and outside government, and since not every intervention is an appropriate one, issues are sometimes compounded.

It has also been my observation that in many African countries, the political mandate has not been viewed as a mechanism for service delivery to fulfil the needs of the people. Without greater public deliberation and understanding of the proper uses of power, we open the way to a lack of accountability, corruption and abuse.

How do we effectively involve the young of our countries in the processes of governance from which they feel alienated?

Noharuddin: To me, the biggest question is not so much what the right solutions are, but how we come to decide on the solutions and their implementation in the complex environments we have to operate in. The issue is how we define and understand our context and how we adapt the available solutions to our context.

Furthermore, not only must we develop solutions suited to the challenges we face in our own countries, but we have to do so in an interconnected world — we can no longer operate in isolation. Whatever we do, there is always an international context to consider. When I talk to businessmen in Malaysia, I tell them that there is no such thing as a domestic market versus an overseas market — there is no such clear division anymore. In the past, the competitor to a sundry shop was another store down the road or in the neighbouring state. Now with giants such as Tesco and Carrefour coming in, their competitors are not their neighbours next door but companies in Europe and America. Competition is now global.

On the Responsibilities of Public Sector Leadership and the Nature of Talent

Moloi: The question of leadership becomes very critical: we need leaders who are skilled, focused, able to take very bold decisions and also able to influence people in a diverse society such as South Africa.

When we hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, we saw how sports could unify South Africa: the entire country from village to city came together to make it succeed, and we projected a South Africa that we could be proud of. However, we have not been able to sustain that momentum after the event. Continuous and consistent leadership is important.

Mr Mandela played a key role in taking us from apartheid to democracy and attempting to unify the people; now we need the same kind of leadership to take us forward through the challenges that we have. In the case of South Africa, we also need to have the right people with the right skills at the local government level. At the moment, the best minds are concentrated at the national level, but it is at the local level where intervention is most necessary.

Without greater public deliberation and understanding of the proper uses of power, we open the way to a lack of accountability, corruption and abuse.

Tripathi: People often have the idea that because they vote you in, you are supposed to be like a god, with the power to change or save lives. Government structures are then regarded as so many ranks under god. But that is not how it is. As a politician, I think of government as a process, and a very long road.

In India, the bureaucracy would sneer if I were to say that politicians and civil servants have a shared responsibility to implement policy and they too have to exercise leadership. They might say, this is your constituency, you’re the politician, go do what you want to do. So one has to learn how best to work around the bureaucrats in the structure, and identify the ones who are effective and who can serve as a bridge between the government and the people. An important question then becomes: how do we identify these figures? How can we find out who are the best people to staff the bureaucracy?

Noharuddin: Everybody talks about talent. In every country, policymakers grapple with the “talent gap” in their country, and think about how they should adjust their education system in order to produce the right talent to match the needs of the market.

Unfortunately there is no clear definition of talent. What is it really? It is not just a function of education, or of knowledge of science and math. Sometimes the capability of a person is not a matter of intelligence but one of exposure. I have seen a lot of people who are brilliant — but neither they nor anybody else were aware of their brilliance until they were exposed to the right circumstances.

The right exposure can come very late in life — especially for those who are less fortunate or from the rural regions — so if we come up with a system where people are discounted at a very early age, we may be depriving them of the opportunity to move up and let their talents show. The country then also loses the talent. Our perception of talent can sometimes be too narrow. The kind of people we need tomorrow may not be the kind of people that delivered results in the past.

On Dealing With an Uncertain Future and the Singapore Experience

Moloi: Just as the Singapore of fifty years ago is neither the Singapore of today nor the Singapore of thirty years to come, so we will all need to deal with very different contexts in future. How do we respond to the changes and the opportunities that are out there? What type of skills and competencies will we need from our population and how do we acquire them? Can the skills that we relied on in 2000 be the same ones that we use to address the challenges of 2015? Obviously not — so this is where innovation and some creative thinking comes into play. We may be compelled not to focus so much on grades or on traditional concepts of talent but on other qualities.

One thing I have found helpful from the experience of Singapore is the concept of a whole-of-government approach to solving complex, interconnected problems. In South Africa, we do operate through what we call clusters of government, with ministries clustered under economic development, labour, international relations and so on, but these clusters do not quite communicate with each other. Yet one of the most effective ways of delivering service and developing policies that reinforce one another is for these clusters to connect and engage with each other.

Noharuddin: The most important thing is to have self-awareness. If you don’t see yourself for what you really are, then you wind up addressing the wrong issues. I think one important thing that Singapore has is a good process for self-examination and assessment. It does not mean that you have all the solutions, but you have a mechanism for clarifying the issues, for anticipating and understanding the challenges that you will face, and that is a good start.

I think your process works also because you have the right people in the right place — some of them work out and some of them don’t, but you practise meritocracy and you end up with a team that is able to deliver what Singapore aspires to be. One remarkable strength is how you are not only able to identify capable people, but also move them around from one organisation to another, apparently without any barriers at all, even to positions that they had not originally been trained for.

Our perception of talent can sometimes be too narrow. The kind of people we need tomorrow may not be the kind of people that delivered results in the past.

Tripathi: The vigorous participation of the people in democracies such as India can sometimes look like a disadvantage from the outside. But it also means that despite being very diverse, we are a people united by our political consciousness and principles. When we have issues, we fight over them, we have the means to express and debate our views — all of which enrich our policies and the country as a whole. It makes us more robust.

As a small country without resources, Singapore has developed a very successful, disciplined system thus far. You have some challenges with an ageing population and declining fertility. But I think your national debate is not really about these issues. When you began your development, you could not have envisaged the direction that society would take. Since the 1960s, society has become more progressive and more liberal. People’s ideals and values have changed.

Are you listening to the voices that are now more open and critical of the way society is governed? From the perspective of the internet generation, I think there is a big gap between your print and broadcast media and what is being expressed on social media. You have to engage your population more instead of falling back on the collective instinct of controlling or censoring the media.

You need to make a conscious effort to open your doors more to young people, who are the future of any country, and also to women, whom I notice are a minority in government. Why women? Because I believe they are intrinsic community builders even if they may not always be economic providers, and they bring a different touch to leadership. I think these are the issues that Singapore will need to address a little more, in the challenging decades you have ahead.

The ETHOS Roundtable was conducted by ETHOS Editor-in-Chief Alvin Pang in September 2012. Ms Vani Tripathi, Datuk Noharuddin Nordin and Ambassador S. Francis Moloi were participants in the 5th Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP) organised by the Singapore Civil Service College from 10–18 September 2012. Drawing from Singapore’s development experience, the LGP offers 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.

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