New Strategic Capabilities and Partnership Paradigms for Singapore’s Social Sector

Singapore's social compact can no longer rest on Government alone; cross-sector partnerships may better address increasingly complex social needs.

New Strategic Capabilities and Partnership Paradigms for Singapore’s Social Sector

Date Posted

14 Feb 2016


Issue 14, 14 Feb 2016

Global Trends, Domestic Pressures, Changing Needs

Singapore’s economic success1 has benefited its people with steady and significant improvement in real household income over decades. Poorer households have also been able to benefit from Singapore’s economic success through active government intervention and investment. Those who are employable are given a suite of assistance in job search, skills training, housing and childcare to help improve their livelihoods through employment. They are further supported by volunteer welfare organisations (VWOs) that address a wide spectrum of needs unmet by social assistance schemes.

The Government is often the driver of social support programmes and assistance policies, and is the largest source of funds for the social services sector. Public officers design programmes and schemes that are devolved to the many helping hands for implementation. As the primary source of social sector funds, the Government sets performance targets or key performance indicators that welfare organisations are expected to meet to continue receiving funds.

This targeted approach of providing social assistance, with efficient segregation of roles between the Government and the social services sector, is known as the “Many Helping Hands” approach and has worked well in the context of an era where assistance needs were less complex.

However, it may be time to review and recalibrate Singapore’s approach. Given the increasing volatility of the global economy, shorter employment cycles, technological displacement and wage depression, the bottom 20th percentile remains particularly vulnerable to prevailing economic trends. Evidence suggests that lower-middle income households in the 30th–50th percentile, numbering approximately 22,940, are also increasingly in need of help.2 The profile and needs of the poor and needy have become increasingly complex, rendering traditional methods less effective in breaking the poverty cycle.

To be able to more effectively support Singapore's poor and vulnerable, ongoing and contextually relevant research regarding their specific needs and difficulties is essential.

Clearly, the nature of the partnership between public, social services and community sectors needs to evolve and move towards supporting self-reliance. New challenges increasingly affect vulnerable Singaporeans in not just one, but multiple inter-related aspects of their lives.

Resourcing the Social Sector with Strategic Capabilities

Leveraging Networks

If the public sector is no longer able to cater to increasingly diverse and complex needs on its own, then moving towards a model of greater partnership and collaboration with the social services and community sectors makes sense. The Government will have to rethink its traditional role as the dominant player in social service provision, to embrace a broader spectrum and scope of responsibilities. In addition to being a provider of assistance and services, and an architect of effective structures for services delivery, the Government should take on additional roles as a developer of capabilities, facilitator, convenor, enabler and partner.

Risk management capabilities will become increasingly relevant to social sector organisations, defined not so much by profit-based objectives as qualitative outcomes.

Part of the public sector’s role as a facilitator should be to promote greater latitude for collaborations and partnerships, as other sectors assume a greater role in supporting the needy. The growing complexity and diversity of challenges faced by the poor and vulnerable is likely to be a manifestation of an underlying web of needs — employment, housing, health, behavioural barriers — that are deeply embedded and intertwined. To address such interconnected needs, timely and effective interventions may best be achieved by leveraging on more horizontal network structures3 that can facilitate access to information and feedback, help relevant players respond quickly to changes and needs,4 and allow each sector to tap on the resources of the others.

Towards this end, the rotation of public service talent across sector boundaries could improve ground-sensing and develop sense-making capabilities, inform strategic planning5 and support the design of more comprehensive solutions to complex social problems. Officers would also be better able to organise pragmatic paths of action that draw on aligned interests and shared resources across networks in support of social outcomes.

Promoting Social R&D

Until recent years, efforts to develop Singapore’s research capabilities have been disproportionately skewed in favour of the hard sciences. Despite the heterogeneity within poor and vulnerable groups, and the complexity of challenges they face, there has been a dearth of research on social issues and matters related to social services in the Singaporean context. This has, in turn, resulted in an over-dependence on studies from overseas. To be able to more effectively support Singapore’s poor and vulnerable on their path to self-reliance, ongoing and contextually relevant research regarding their specific needs and difficulties is essential.

Stepping Up the Social Services Sector

Even as the public sector has to transform itself to better engage with Singapore’s economic and social shifts, the social services sector must also restructure and renew itself. Given the new operating context of complex needs and scarce resources, the sector must move beyond simply acting as the many hands delivering services. It must step up to a more comprehensive partnership role, by harnessing its wealth of first-hand knowledge and ground understanding of their clients to co-create and co-produce better policies and programmes with the Government or public sector.

Strong Leaders, Capable Managers for the Social Sector

If the Government is to play a less dominant role in providing social services, then leadership in the social services sector becomes even more critical. Leaders will have to be highly competent in managing and growing their organisations, strategising for the future, and marshalling resources from within and across their sector to deliver better services to their beneficiaries despite scarce resources, competing demands and dynamic conditions.

Capable leadership will be called for in key areas of corporate governance — strategic planning, organisational design, change management,6 negotiation, communication and public engagement — both within each individual welfare organisation, and across the social services sector as a whole. At the same time, core management capabilities will also be needed to translate strategy into the structures, processes and operations necessary to realise social objectives in a sustainable and effective manner.

Capable leadership will be called for in key areas of corporate governance — both within each individual welfare organisation, and across the social services sector as a whole.

Managing Risks in the Social Sector

To date, the Government has taken on the bulk of social risks by funding the provision of services in essential needs such as education, health and employment. As the social services sector is given more room to grow and assume greater responsibilities as a partner and co-producer, it will also be expected to take on a greater share of risks.

In this context, as with private sector companies, risk management capabilities will become increasingly relevant to social sector organisations.7 Unlike the private sector, risk management in the social sector will be defined not so much by profit-based objectives as qualitative outcomes. These outcomes will include meeting the needs and enhancing the well-being of clients, or public accountability, which may directly impact its fundraising and resource pool. Nevertheless, risk management techniques will likely have a growing impact on the resourcing and management decisions that will contribute to effective VWOs.

New Partnership Paradigms: Examples From the UK and Canada

Singapore is not alone in its bid to redefine partnership paradigms towards a stronger social sector. In response to a confluence of global and domestic pressure for reform, countries around the world have adopted a variety of new approaches in tackling social issues.

Read More

Making the Most of Community Resources

While responsibilities for social provision have largely been borne by a vertical partnership between the public and social services sectors, there is much more that the community at large could do in supporting the social  compact.

A community with high social capital may be better at leveraging its collective resources to solve problems and improve the welfare of its residents. Trust and reciprocity are central to the social ties that facilitate information flows, resources and expertise along formal and informal networks within a community. Social capital — including both resources and relations inherent within social networks at the individual and organisational level — could be harnessed in aid of social goals, by convening resources and expertise8 for collective action, or by enforcing accountability within social groups.9 These behaviours are fundamental to constructive citizen engagement and co-ownership.10

Crowdsourcing for a Good Cause

In Singapore, a growing number of initiatives are harnessing the power of the Internet to gather community resources towards the common goal of supporting the needy.

Read More

With the increasingly multifaceted challenges faced by the poor and vulnerable, the community should constitute the third pillar of the national partnership supporting a renewed social compact in Singapore. In this regard, Laurence Lien, former CEO of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, has called for “bold experiments in community development” to help develop broader social capital towards collective causes11 (Laurence Lien shares more on “Ownership, Opportunities and Outcome”).

Trust and reciprocity are central to the social ties that facilitate information flows, resources and expertise along formal and informal networks within a community.

Technology and the Potential of  Crowdsourcing

Technological advances have revolutionised information sharing and gathering. The widespread adoption of information technology now allows developed societies to harness the collective intellect and resources of their citizenry to improve policies and solve social problems. Several countries have successfully launched online crowdsourcing initiatives to collect ideas to meet a variety of needs.

These include UK-based initiatives to improve patient experiences with the National Health Service,12 or to gather suggestions on how the government can reduce its spending.

As one of the most IT-savvy and best connected countries in the Asia-Pacific, Singapore is perfectly positioned to capitalise on the potential of crowdsourcing to support poor and vulnerable groups. With public sector support, new structures or processes can be put in place to enable such initiatives that build or strengthen the community’s role in supporting its poor and vulnerable members.


Will Singapore succeed in redefining its partnership paradigms to better provide the resources to support its changing social compact? The toughest challenge in such an endeavour may lie in the difficulty of breaking away from existing modus operandi and old institutional pathways where the Government remains omnipresent in most areas.

As Singapore works towards more inclusive growth, its social assistance system is set to play an even greater role in helping translate economic growth into quality living for all Singaporeans. While Singapore continues to “adapt, adjust, restructure, and transform”13 its economy to remain competitive, the nation’s approach to the provision for social needs should similarly evolve. Stakeholders across all sectors must come together to develop new ways of thinking, interpreting and structuring the means by which common objectives may be achieved together.


Cheryl Wu is a Researcher with the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. Her research interests include social policies, gender issues and the ageing population. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Sciences from the National University of Singapore.


  1. Per capita GDP rose from $2,832 in 1970 to $65,048 in 2012. Between 2000 and 2010, Singapore’s average household income saw an increase from $4,988 to $7,214, with an average annual growth of 2.1% in real household income. Department of Statistics Singapore, Time Series on Per Capita GDP at Current Market Prices (Singapore: Department of Statistics Singapore, 2013), accessed November 4, 2013.
  2. The Gini Coefficient grew by 10% from 0.444 in the year 2000 to 0.488 in 2012. In the past decade, the real income of individuals in the lowest 20th percentile reflected stagnating growth, and even middle-income Singaporeans in the 50th percentile saw a mere 1.3% increase in real income growth per annum. Calculated figures derived from the Key Household Characteristics and Household Income Trends 2011 and 2012, published by the Department of Statistics, and the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore Workforce, 2012 (Singapore: Ministry of Manpower, 2012), (accessed November 6, 2013).
  3. See: Dorthe Pedersen and Jean Hartley, “The changing context of public leadership and management: Implications for roles and dynamics,” International Journal of Public Sector Management 21 (2008): 327–339 and Rachid Zeffane, “The widening scope of inter-organizational networking: economic, sectoral and social dimensions,” Leadership & Organizational Development Journal 16 (1995): 26–33.
  4. Bill Ryan, “The signs are already here? Public management futures in Aotearoa/New Zealand,” Institute of Policy Studies Working Paper 11/01, April 2011, accessed July 1, 2013, (1.2MB).
  5. Karl E. Weick, Kathleen M. Sutcliffe and David Obstfeld, “Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking,” Organization Science 16 (2005): 409–421.
  6. Thomas Packard, “Leadership and Performance in Human Services Organizations,” in The Handbook of Human Services Management, ed. Rino J. Patti (California: SAGE Publications, 2009): 143–164.
  7. Melanie L. Herman, et al., Managing Risks in Nonprofit Organizations: A Comprehensive Guide (New Jersey and Canada: John Wiley & Sons, 2004).
  8. See Monica M. Whitham, “Community Connections: Social Capital and Community Success,” Sociological Forum 27 (2012): 441–457.
  9. Michael Hendryx, et al., “Access to Health Care and Community Social Capital,” Health Sciences Research 37 (2002): 87–103
  10. Stephanie Farquhar, Yvonne Michael and Noelle Wiggins, “Building Leadership and Social Capital to Create Change in 2 Urban Communities,” American Journal of Public Health 95 (2005): 596–601.
  11. “I suggest that we allow bold experiments in community development to build social capital and engaged communities. Developing empowered communities may be inefficient in the short run, but are highly efficient in the long run.” –Laurence Lien, Singapore Parliament Reports. Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth Community of Supply: Fostering Engaged Communities. Session 1, 12th Parliament, Volume 90, Sitting 16, March 15, 2013, accessed July 1, 2013
  12. “NHS Patient Feedback Challenge uses online crowdsourcing to collect ideas and support projects,” Department of Health, May 15, 2012,, accessed October 9, 2013.
  13. Singapore Parliament Reports. Debate on President’s Address (First Allotted Day). Session 1, 12th Parliament, Volume 88, Sitting 2, October 17, 2011.

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