Singapore's Whole-of-Government Approach in Crisis Management

Deliberate and concerted effort has been key to building up Singapore's state capacity to resolve crisis, but more should be done to strengthen the community's role in future.

Date Posted

31 Dec 2016


Issue 16, 14 Dec 2016


Literature on whole-of-government (WOG) issues rarely dwells on crisis management. Most scholarly work on WOG concentrates on improving public service delivery and addressing “wicked problems”,1 which is understandable given the extent and significance of these areas. Yet the coordination of multiple government agencies to deal with catastrophic events is critical: the lives and well-being of people in situations from large-scale disasters to terrorist attacks depend on it.

For independent Singapore, the genesis of crisis management can be traced to the Laju incident in 1974. The Laju was a ferry hijacked by four foreign terrorists in a bid to escape after setting off bombs at the Shell oil refinery.2 The terrorists’ grievances were not directed at Singapore but against the Netherlands — Shell being a Dutch company — for supporting Israel in the Middle Eastern conflict. Police prevented the terrorists from escaping but they took the Laju’s crewmen hostage. After eight days of standoff, the hijackers agreed to release the hostages in exchange for safe passage out of Singapore.

While the Laju hijack thus ended without bloodshed, the authorities at the time clearly lacked the proper capabilities to deal with the situation. An official book on the Singapore Police Force (SPF) acknowledged: “The Laju incident exposed the weakness of not having a sufficient reserve of trained officers who could be relied on to supplement regular officers during a security crisis”.3 Anti-hijacking forces and dedicated negotiators were not available as options to manage the crisis. Questions also arose over whether the director of internal security from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) or the director of intelligence from the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) should lead the crisis management.4 The political leadership placed MINDEF’s director of intelligence in charge and the hijack was eventually resolved. But the incident highlighted the need for coordination among different agencies during such crises.

The Executive Group (EG) was subsequently set up “to handle hijacking and hostage taking”.5 The structure identified the leadership for handling such situations, appointing the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs as Chairman of the EG. Comprising senior officers from the security forces and various ministries (including communications and diplomatic agencies), the EG was the first inter-agency coordination platform across the Singapore Public Service.6


1986: Hotel New World Collapse

When the Hotel New World collapsed in 1986 trapping survivors in the rubble, the Executive Group (EG) was fortuitously in the midst of a routine meeting and was able to coordinate the multi-agency rescue efforts immediately. The Singapore Police Force, Singapore Fire Service and the recently-created Singapore Civil Defence Force responded immediately. The Singapore Armed Forces, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Community Development, Public Works Department and other agencies were also mobilised to provide additional manpower, medical support, counselling for families of victims and engineering support. It was effectively a WOG operation. In all, 33 died but 17 lives were saved. The disaster vindicated earlier decisions to develop crisis response capabilities, as well as the effectiveness of the EG in coordinating inter-agency responses.

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Ideas such as whole-of-government began appearing in the discourse of the Singapore Public Service around 2004. By then, “joined-up government” and “networked government” had been gaining traction in countries like Britain and New Zealand. There, the impetus arose from the fragmentation of public services stemming from large-scale new public management reforms. Singapore, having also corporatised some government functions to enhance efficiency, had encountered similar issues. How to apply WOG approaches to prepare for and deal with complex dilemmas, including crises, has since become a recurring theme in addresses by government leaders to public officers.

Crises are not restricted to security concerns, and could be highly complex, with wide-ranging implications on society and the economy. To render Singapore’s crisis management capabilities more comprehensive, the EG was reorganised in 2004 into the Homefront Crisis Executive Group (HCEG) (see Figure 1). HCEG comprised senior representatives from all ministries, reporting ultimately to the elected leadership for political direction. Under the HCEG’s oversight were taskforce-like Crisis Management Groups which could muster different clusters of relevant agencies to deal with different types of incidents.


Figure 1. Structure of the Homefront Crisis Management System.7

Source: National Security Coordination Secretariat, 1826 days: A diary of resolve: Securing Singapore since 9/11 (Singapore: National Security Coordination Secretariat, 2016).

While the HCEG may harness the whole Public Service to respond comprehensively to complex contingencies, the number of personnel to be mobilised now ranges in the thousands. At the same time, the continual drive to inculcate a whole-of-government mindset across the entire public service has helped to orient large numbers of public sector personal — both towards improved public services, but also towards concerted action in the event that a government-wide response is needed, including during times of crisis.

Commit time, resources and practice to make it work

Commit time, resources and practice to make it work
Organisational structures by themselves have nominal authority over agencies. It is the commitment of key leaders, as expressed in the adequate investment of time and resources, including frequent drills to anchor capabilities, that cements the credibility and effectiveness of the coordinating structure. Constant exercises smooth out the interface between agencies and personnel, allowing any unforeseen frictions or hindrances to be identified and rectified. Drills may pull agencies and officers away from routine work, and managers may cite important duties as justification to skip them, but the commitment and discipline to regular exercises is the “software” that allows the “hardware” of structural arrangements to be effective in inter-agency coordination.

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Replicability and adaptability of lessons

Singapore is fortunate: its geography is relatively sheltered from natural disasters. The small jurisdiction and unitary system of government, unencumbered by multiple layers of bureaucracy seen elsewhere, aid governance. Furthermore, the country encountered crises that increased in intensity incrementally, allowing the state to scale up capabilities gradually to match. Singapore’s capacity to deal with crises has stemmed from deliberate, purposeful and comprehensive development, supported by an extended period of political continuity and economic growth.

Nevertheless, some of Singapore’s challenges are not dissimilar to those faced in other jurisdictions. Government agencies and civil servants around the world tend to be domain-specialised and instinctively turf-minded. Inter-agency collaboration can seem counter-intuitive to those in public sector in Singapore as elsewhere. In that regard, some of Singapore’s experiences in WOG could offer material for reflection.

From WOG to Whole-of-Society, Whole-of-Nation

The role the community could play in complex crises is becoming increasingly relevant. In Singapore, the public has shown itself ready to step forward in times of crisis. This was evident as early as the Hotel New World disaster, when citizen-volunteers with prior training joined regular personnel in the rescue efforts. Such civic-mindedness resurfaced during the 2003 SARS outbreak, and at the height of the 2013 haze episode, when individuals — without any prompting from the government — spontaneously stepped forward to help the needy people among the community.

The community could come to play yet more instrumental roles. After the September 11 attacks on the United States, local radicals calling themselves the Jemaah Islamiyah plotted terrorist attacks on targets in Singapore. Amidst risks of possible tension tearing at the fabric of the multi-ethnic society, leaders of different religious and ethnic communities rallied to denounce the hijacking of religion for terrorism and rallied together for ethnic harmony. Well respected Islamic teachers stepped forward to counsel and rehabilitate the detained radicals. These are roles the government cannot undertake with outcomes as effective as those played by the community.

National problems will become ever more complex: in some cases, the role government can play may be limited or constrained. While the government in Singapore has been effective in aligning the whole bureaucracy to function in whole-of-government fashion thus far, how can it seek to align the whole of society in the same way? If the Public Service is to help orient the whole of society, perhaps working as conveners, coordinators and interlocutors between government and the community in times of crisis, how can they be best prepared for this role? Some early work has started to consider these questions8 but more and deeper research on these issues should be carried out towards developing and strengthening whole-of-nation approaches to problem-solving and crisis management.


Dr James Low is Lead Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. His research interests include administrative history, case study methodology, whole of government issues, public trust and crisis management.

This article was adapted from a paper first presented at the 2016 World Congress of Political Science in Poznan, Poland, 23 to 28 July 2016. The views expressed herein are his own.


  1. See: Tom Christensen and Per Laegreid, “Post-NPM reforms: whole-of-government approaches as a new trend,” in Research in Public Policy Analysis and Management, Volume 21: New steering concepts in public administration, eds. Sandra Groeneveld and Steven van de Walle (UK: Emerald, 2011): 11–24; John Wanna and Janine O’Flynn, Collaborative Governance: A New Era of Public Policy in Australia (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2008); John Halligan, “Public Management and Departments: Contemporary Themes – Future Agendas,” Australian Journal of Public Administration 64 (2005): 25–34; Tom Ling, “Delivering Joined-Up Government in the UK: Dimensions, Issues and Problems,” Public Administration 80 (2002): 615–42.
  2. See: S. R. Nathan, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency (Singapore: Editions Didler Millet, 2011); National Archives of Singapore, Oral History Centre, Interview with Tee Tua Ba, 2001, Accession No. 2323.
  3. Singapore Police Force, Policing Singapore in the 19th and 20th centuries (Singapore: Singapore Police Force, 2002).
  4. See: S. R. Nathan, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency (Singapore: Editions Didler Millet, 2011); Yoong Siew Wah, “A MediaCorp Caricature Presentation of the Laju Saga,” 28 April 2014, accessed 25 January 2016.
  5. National Archives of Singapore, Oral History Centre, Interview with Cheong Quee Wah, 1995, Accession No. 1611.
  6. Adapted from Oral History Interview with Cheong (see note 5) and National Security Coordination Centre, The Fight Against Terror: Singapore’s National Security Strategy (Singapore: National Security Coordination Centre, 2004).
  7. See: National Security Coordination Centre, The Fight Against Terror: Singapore’s National Security Strategy (Singapore: National Security Coordination Centre, 2004); National Security Coordination Secretariat, 1826 days: A diary of resolve: Securing Singapore since 9/11 (Singapore: National Security Coordination Secretariat, 2006).
  8. Charles Ng, “National Resilience: Developing a Whole-of-Society Response,” Ethos 10 (2011): 21–29.

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