Singapore’s Administrative Service – a model from which ASEAN should adopt?

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Singapore’s civil service is the envy of many, and Hong Kong wants to emulate it. Other ASEAN countries’ civil services also need reforming.

By John Pennington, Edited by Joelyn Chan

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam indicated that Hong Kong should mirror Singapore’s civil service.

A 2015 World Bank report ranked Singapore as the world’s best for government effectiveness. By comparison, Brunei is 34th on the list, Malaysia 43rd, Thailand 62nd, the Philippines 79th, Vietnam 83rd, Indonesia 102nd, Laos 121st, Cambodia 142nd, and Myanmar 173rd. This variation in performance is due to the lack of a proficient civil service that enables ASEAN nations to work as efficiently. Analysts and onlookers view Singapore’s civil service as highly efficient, honest, and professional.

Source: The Global Economy

An excellent civil service enables good governance

The Singaporean civil service has made significant achievements. As PM Lee explained, “For the system to provide stable, consistent good outcomes for the long-term, politics and policies have to fit closely together.” Although the civil service serves the ruling government, Singaporean civil servants remain impartial and performance oriented.

Recruitment and remuneration for the civil service fall under the auspices of the Public Service Division (PSD), which handles government-wide human resources. High wages, in theory, eliminate corruption. Singapore grasped this concept quickly and paid its officer well. During both good and certain bad economic conditions, officers also benefit from increased bonus payments.

The Singaporean civil service is highly efficient

One of the greatest successes of the Singaporean system is its efficiency. They need just 84 thousand officers to run the system, far fewer than other ASEAN nations. For example, Malaysia has a total of 1.6 million officers, and even Hong Kong’s civil service has grown to 170 thousand officers. Just 1.5% of Singapore’s population works in the civil service, compared to 5.1% of Malaysia’s and 2.3% of Hong Kong’s.

Due to different governance, not all countries share the exact classification for public servants and civil servants.

Sources: Jakarta Post, The Irrawaddy, New Straits Times, Khmer Times, The Philippine Star, Global Government Forum, Singapore Public Service Department, United Nations

Another reason for Singapore’s efficiency is her willingness to embrace new technology. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, the minister in charge of civil service, recently praised outgoing civil service leader Peter Ong, for his work in driving innovation, saying that he “guided the public service’s move towards the digital government, and used technology and data to craft better policies and serve Singaporeans.”

As an example, the PSD worked with Accenture to design a system to automate regular staff appraisals. The new solution saves time, strengthens security and is more reliable than the previous system.

The PSD is continuously looking for ways to improve and refine. It increases the civil service sector’s chances of sustaining its success in a changing global environment.

The PSD Administrative Service is crucial

The PSD Administrative Service has designed a programme to develop the next generation of civil servants and political leaders with the needed skill set. Its stated aim reads as follows, “The Administrative Service aims to develop leaders with whole-of-government perspectives and capabilities, to formulate and implement policies that will improve the lives of Singaporeans.”

There are training programmes, expert coaching, opportunities to present to public service leaders, and deployment opportunities. Under the PSD programme, trainees spend time operating different roles in various agencies and ministries, therefore gaining whole-of-government knowledge and perspective.

Since its operation in 1993, the Singapore Civil Service College provides specific training and education. Singapore is not the only country in the world to operate such a higher education facility, evident from institutions in the Cayman Islands, Syria, Ukraine, and G8 countries, such as France and the United Kingdom.

ASEAN leaders committed to good governance but face problems

In April, leaders of the ASEAN nations signed the “Asean Declaration on the Role of the Civil Service as a Catalyst for Achieving the SEAN Community Vision 2025”. How committed are they to turning those words into actions?

In Malaysia, the civil service is bloated. The vast number of officers puts the economy under pressure. However, the Malaysian government does not plan to reduce the number of civil servants.

A leaked cable claimed that ex-Economic Planning Unit deputy director-general K Govindan said that the Malay-dominated civil service was, “completely loyal to (ruling party) UMNO, but increasingly incompetent.” Ethnic diversity in Malaysia is a sensitive issue. Ethnic Malays take up 67% of the population, while 90% of civil servants are ethnic Malays. This proportion does not reflect the ethnic makeup, resulting in a civil service that will work to further Malay interests first rather than Malaysia’s.

In Indonesia, the government is looking to cut the number of civil servants by offering early retirement to existing officers and by implementing a more selective recruitment policy. Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform Minister Yuddy Chrisnandi explained that ideally, 1.5% of Indonesians should be working in the civil service. Currently, that figure stands at 1.7%.

Other countries tried to reform their civil services, with varying degrees of success

The Civil Service Commission (CSC) in the Philippines launched reform initiatives in 1995 that helped improve its ailing body. “Administrative reform should not be a one-shot deal but rather a continuing endeavour. Thus, it is incumbent upon the Philippine Civil Service Commission to ceaselessly push through with its innovation,” urged Corazon Alma de Leon, its former chairman.

This year, 242 thousand applicants took the civil service exam, an increase from 203 thousand applicants who applied last year. Also, politicians approved CSC’s 2018 budget without debate, emphasising strong support for CSC’s mandate to “to handle the government workers and ensure to promote competence and integrity in the workforce”. There is an apparent appetite for progress and an understanding of what is needed to make it happen, and potentially a series of streamlining and cuts.

In other countries, there are bigger challenges

The civil service in Myanmar is outdated and employs around 900 thousand people. The National League for Democracy (NLD) launched a reform action plan earlier this year. The NLD wants to eliminate corruption although it is powerless to increase low salaries. However, efforts to make the civil service more representative continue and the gender gap is closing.

The impact of civil service reform in Vietnam was minimal. Corruption remains, the system is inefficient, and civil servants were not trained properly before starting work.

Cambodian civil servants receive low wages, and as a result, the system suffers from corruption, inefficiency and poor service. The government launched reforms in 2013, but one year later, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had to issue a directive to ensure civil servants received wages on time.

These struggles to reform highlight the different challenges ASEAN countries face. For instance, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam are still working on its transformation into corruption-free, ethical, merit-based and inclusive organisations. Those are challenges which Singapore had faced and overcame. Today, Singapore’s focus is on building capabilities, increasing efficiency, innovating and implementing policies.

Singapore’s model is not perfect, but a good one to follow

Although the Singaporean civil service and administrative service is worthy of the high praise it receives, it is not perfect. Critics alleged that the system did not promote innovation through its inflexible, non-consultative methods. PM Lee hinted that it is not infallible when he said, “If either politics or policies go wrong, the system may well malfunction.”

In Singapore, a job in the civil service is perceived to be respectable and well-paid. The same is not true across Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia and Myanmar. Reforms must also bridge this perception gap if they are to work.

Nevertheless, change takes time and effort, especially if countries with volatile political situation decide to implement significant reforms. Hong Kong is in a strong position to emulate Singapore, but it will prove much harder in countries like Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand.

Critics argue that Hong Kong’s desire to follow Singapore’s civil service is unwise as the two are not directly comparable. Every country has a different history, no two systems of governance – or civil service – are identical, and there are unique cultural, ethnic and demographic challenges to consider.

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of reasons for ASEAN nations to emulate Singapore’s policy of taking the best elements from what works elsewhere to improve their system.