The political upheavals of 2016 must have prompted deep introspection in governments the world over. Despite (or perhaps due to) a remarkable recovery from the brink of economic disaster after the Global Financial Crisis, societies the world over remain mired in unease, made more profound by the relentless pace of social and economic change wrought by globalisation and technological advancement. Unprecedented levels of peace and prosperity may no longer sate a growing concern with the status quo nor a longing for an imagined golden past, in the face of a future that has yet to be adequately envisioned, or even agreed upon. This is a worrying failure of vision and leadership. While technical competence and clean, impartial government remain critical to good governance, the credibility, relevance and impact of the public sector seems more than ever to depend on finding ways to connect, collaborate and create consensus with the society it serves, as the world moves into ever more turbulent waters.
One way to do this, as former Head of Civil Service Peter Ho suggests, is through approaches such as games and simulations that can help policymakers and their stakeholders imagine and then play out a variety of scenarios, exploring issues from different perspectives. Such exercises build up useful cognitive muscles and habits, and help communities surface assumptions and points of contention in a safe yet focused setting, as well as to form bonds. Certainly, regular drills and a shared vocabulary have helped Singapore develop a powerful mechanism for responding swiftly to crisis in a broad, yet coordinated manner. More nimble, distributed forms of capacity and resilience, with robust ties between all agencies across government, not just a strong centre, will be important in confronting volatile times where the implications of events can reach far from the original source or intervention. Lessons from New Zealand suggest that timing is also crucial to the success of significant public sector reforms, as is the commitment of public officers to a spirit of service. Professor Gary Banks has argued that strong and inclusive independent public institutions can help achieve national outcomes that will depend as much on political knowhow as technical expertise. The experience of Singapore is that such structures — the Public Transport Council, for instance — can not only help ensure accountability and efficacy, but also gather meaningful insights from the public that may not be apparent in the design of policies and services, and in the process nurture confidence that the government welcomes and heeds well-intentioned feedback — a key step in maintaining public trust.
Research and technology offer fresh approaches to achieve public goals by means other than edict. We can help people help (and govern) themselves. Advances in data gathering, analysis and application can help make public policy and interventions much more thoughtful, targeted and pragmatic, opening up innovative opportunities to overcome seemingly intractable challenges. But this may demand a bold departure from conventional ways of thinking about the resources available to us. Government can play a catalytic role in enabling people to make the most of the rich potential available to them, for the benefit of all.
Over the past fifty years, our Public Service has worked hard to do its best for Singapore. A striking insight from the experience of celebrating the nation’s 50th anniversary last year was how fulfilling and empowering it can be to work with Singaporeans. Despite our diversity and differences, we can stand together in times of need, and strive as one when inspired by a shared vision of where we need to go. Our institutions are strong and in touch with the ground; public trust remains high. Nor do we lack a capable new generation with the passion to do well for the country. This spirit is heartening and should be embraced. If we can continue to look ahead, clear-eyed and resolutely committed to each other as a nation, we can hope to weather the 21st century with more optimism than most.
I wish you an illuminating read.