Are Singapore’s civil servants overpaid and overprotected

Singaporean public and civil servants earn high salaries, enjoy good job security and other benefits. Does that guarantee success?

By John Pennington

Foreign and local workers rate Singapore’s civil service highly, and onlookers consistently view Singapore’s civil service as one of the best in the world.

Singapore’s Public Service Division (PSD) oversees and employs the country’s public and civil servants. Employees in both services are well paid, enjoy job security and significant benefits. However, does that mean everything about the system is working correctly?

In total, Singapore employs around 145,000 public servants, which includes 84,000 civil servants. Around 1.5% of the population works in the civil service and 2.6% in the public service. Those employees make up 2.3% (civil) and 4% (public) of the 3.7 million-strong labour force.

Sources: Singapore Government (1), (2), World Bank

There is one Singaporean civil servant for every 66.8 people in the country. That is more civil servants per person than the United Kingdom (118) and Indonesia (110) but fewer than Malaysia (19.4) and Japan (28).

Does the Singaporean civil service employ too many people? The country probably has the balance about right. Singapore’s civil service is much more streamlined than Malaysia’s bloated system. At the same time, it is efficient and professional. That would not be possible if it did not employ the right amount of qualified and hard-working people.

Sources: Global Government Forum, The Irrawaddy, New Straits Times, OECD (1), (2), Singapore Government, United Nations

Critics argue that the system works but it is inflexible

One of the flaws of Singapore’s public and civil service is that efficiency can stall innovation and progress. “If you apply one rule to all, you may end up, for the sake of efficiency, closing up some areas where you could help improve the economy,” entrepreneur and ex-politician Inderjit Singh argued.

Despite its perception as a well-oiled machine, Singapore’s civil service lags behind others when it comes to moving projects forward and innovating. Ong Ke Yung, Singapore’s minister for education, warned, “Innovation in the public service is not about a sudden burst of genius or flashes of divine inspiration…but a systemic and long-term slog across the board. I am doing my part, and I need you to do yours too.”

He has already announced plans to boost innovation by cutting bureaucracy and speeding up specific processes related to procurement. Furthermore, the civil service is slowly changing its approach to put workplace performance ahead of academic qualifications.

Previously, a civil servant’s qualifications were more important for career progression than his or her performance. In the private sector, the opposite is often true. It may partly explain why the government had to offer high wages and other benefits to its civil servants to motivate them.

Singapore has a long-standing high-wage policy for civil servants

In theory, a well-paid civil servant is highly unlikely to engage in corrupt practices. Paying civil servants well is a concept that Singapore took on board early and stuck to since.

The PSD reviews and amends salaries regularly to ensure they are competitive. While that guarantees that a career in the public or civil service is an attractive one, it means that wage prices in both the private and public sector stay high.

Civil servants also receive bonuses linked to the country’s economic performance. For example, all 84,000 civil servants received an additional 50% of a month’s pay this year whereas last year’s bonus was 45%, on top of the standard “13th-month” bonus.

Source: Vulcan Post

The “iron rice bowl” of job security

Singaporeans call a career in the civil service an “iron rice bowl” due to the job security it offers. However, the government maintains high standards for selection. It does not hesitate to remove those who abuse their positions. A civil servant must, therefore, earn job security and other benefits.

However, those benefits are extraordinary. They include leave, medical benefits, dental benefits, insurance cover, use of holiday resorts and use of civil service clubs in the country. The government regularly reviews these benefits. For example, the government reviewed and updated the Medisave-cum Subsidised Outpatient (MSO) scheme in 2015.

Undoubtedly, the government protects civil servants. It would make the case that it has to for the civil service, the public service, the government and the state to function correctly. The view from within Singapore is that it is almost impossible to lose a job in the civil service.

All employers must strive to give their employees a fair work-life balance. Few, if any, private companies can compete with the benefits offered to civil servants. Hence it has become an attractive career option for many. However, does that mean the Singaporean government is attracting the best candidates for the job or merely those who have their eye fixed on benefits rather than performance? That is just one of the issues the PSD must address as it continues to reform the public and civil service.