ETHOS Issue 19, Jul 2018
Over the past five decades, Singapore has made good use of its physical and environmental resources to achieve its national outcomes of having a competitive economy, sustainable environment and high quality of life.1 However, the best of plans can only be realised if certain conditions in the national environment are met. Without these, good plans may never see the light of day; projects may get derailed or mismanaged; a city might grow, but in a haphazard manner, hostage to the vagaries of human greed and ambition.2
Integrity as Honesty: Establishing the rule of law and a corruption-free government
The foundational condition which allowed independent Singapore’s urban development plans to bear fruit was the establishment of the rule of law. Singapore in the 1950s and 60s was rife with crime, disorder, and corruption. Moving from that to a society where people submit to the authority of the law, rather than having arbitrary decisions of individuals hold sway, was not, by far, the natural inclination of the system: it took a costly and intentional shift.
Since the very beginning of Singapore’s independence, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has staked its reputation on running a clean and honest government, free of corruption. Rooting out corruption was crucial in establishing the rule of law; for this, political will at the highest levels was vital. Through the decades, the PAP government has been consistent in its absolute intolerance for corruption. Early on in Singapore’s independence, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) was strengthened with new legislation, giving CPIB officers additional powers to investigate and arrest. Penalities for corruption were also increased, such as mandating the repayment of bribes as fines. To signal the importance placed by the political leadership on anti-corruption efforts, the CPIB reports directly to the Prime Minister as a matter of practice. No one is above the law, no matter their status. Cabinet ministers have been successfully tried for corruption, alongside rank-and-file public officers. Punishment has been and remains swift, serious and public.
Not Swayed by Status
In 1970s, Wee Toon Boon, then Minister of State for Environment, was found to have used his ministerial status to favour a property developer. In return, he had received property, a free trip and funds amounting to over S$800,000. Wee was charged in 1975 and later convicted for corruption.
In late 1986, then Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan was investigated for accepting bribes amounting to S$1 million, in return for helping property developers to retain or acquire state land. Teh initially denied wrongdoing, but later tried to strike a bargain with the CPIB and even sought to meet then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew—who rejected his request. Days before he could be formally charged in court, Teh took his own life, and left behind a letter expressing his remorse. A Committee of Inquiry later concluded that the CPIB had uncovered misdeeds which would have remained unknown if not for the thoroughness and diligence of their investigations.
On the conviction of high-profile political leaders, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew commented, “It is easy to start off with high moral standards, strong convictions and determination to beat down corruption. But it is difficult to live up to these good intentions unless the leaders are strong and determined enough to deal with all transgressors without exceptions. CPIB officers must be supported without fear or favour to enforce the rules.”3
The Largest Graft Amount in Singapore History
In 1994, the CPIB started investigating the case of Choy Hon Tim, a former Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) who was found to have accepted bribes to assist a sub-contractor doing work for PUB, on several occasions. Choy Hon Tim fled the country, but was eventually brought back to Singapore and charged on 27 October 1995 for criminal conspiracy and accepting bribes totalling around S$13.85 million. He was sentenced to prison for 14 years.
To date, the total sum Choy received remains the largest total amount of bribe monies received by a public official in Singapore’s history.
Maintaining integrity is
also about looking to
the constructive task of
Maintaining integrity in Singapore in general, and in the civil service in particular, was never just a matter of going on the offensive against corruption, but also about looking to the constructive task of institution-building. Since its formation in 1951, the Public Service Commission (PSC) has been the custodian of the values of integrity, impartiality and meritocracy for the Public Service. As an independent and neutral body, overseeing appointments promotions and discipline within the service, the PSC plays a key role in ensuring that the civil service remains both clean and effective. Then Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lee Hsien Long summed it up thus:
“The PSC is a critical component of the civil service system. It is basically there to guarantee the integrity of the civil service. It is there to give the reassurance to the public that the civil service is being properly managed. That there is no nepotism, no monkey business going on. And it gives the reassurance to the civil servants that their position is secured and they won’t be subject to political interference.”4
Another aspect of integrity is
intellectual honesty. This means
looking problems in the face and solving
them, not based on ideology, but on a hardnosed
assessment of the likely results.
Integrity as Intellectual Honesty: Nurturing good habits in policymaking
The founding generation of political leaders left a deep impression on the culture of the public service. In the first instance, integrity was understood as honesty and incorruptibility. But when speaking of a culture of integrity which enables good governance, we must not forget that habits of mind are also a manifestation of that culture. Another aspect of integrity, when applied to policymaking, is intellectual honesty. This means looking problems in the face and solving them using policies chosen not based on ideology, but on a hard-nosed assessment of the likely results. When pursued as a consistent practice, this manifests as an unsentimental pragmatism.
In Singapore’s history and in the minds of our founding generation of leaders, this results-oriented approach to policymaking was linked to the drive for clean and honest government and against corruption: a pragmatic focus on results would l ead to the efficient provision of services to the public. This in turn would remove the incentive for corruption—if citizens could consistently enjoy efficient and effective services, then there would be no need to resort to bribery to get things done. This approach to policymaking, variously described as rational, pragmatic, unsentimental, and results-oriented,5 has become a hallmark of the Singapore Public Service’s approach to governance.
Intellectual honesty can
only bear fruit where there is
courage to speak.
An extension of this results-oriented approach to policymaking is the habit of “thinking again” both successes and failures in public policy, and being willing to confront the performance, either good or bad, of existing policies—so as to rework them to obtain better results.6 Intellectual honesty can only bear fruit where there is courage to speak. Thus willingness to speak truth to power is also part of the public service’s culture of integrity, carefully nurtured over the years. Once a policy is decided, working with the elected government to serve the people of Singapore and shape Singapore’s future means that civil servants will put their full efforts behind implementing the policy well. But in the preceding process of formulating policy, civil servants are encouraged to speak their minds as they develop options, robustly defend their divergent views, and push options which their supervisors may well disagree with. We believe that the best ideas surface when our diverse, 145,000-strong Public Service are empowered to speak and make a difference to policy directions.
- 6th among 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index;
- The least corrupt country in Asia, in the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy’s 2017 Report on Corruption in Asia;
- 4th for Absence of Corruption, and top Asian country, out of 113 nations in the World Justice Project’s 2017–2018 Rule of Law index.7
Integrity as Wholeness: Moving into the future as One Public Service
Singapore has earned its international reputation for clean government. Based on available anti-corruption metrics, Singapore is doing well.
At the same time, there is a global trend of declining public trust in governments, with growing distrust of elites. In the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, the global level of public trust in governments was only 43%; Singapore was one of only a handful of countries classified by Edelman as enjoying high trust.
To maintain public trust in a shifting and increasingly complex environment, the Public Service cannot simply continue to do only the same things it has always done, in the same way it has always done them. Peter Ho, former Head of Civil Service and current senior advisor to the Centre for Strategic Futures at the Prime Minister’s Office, recently observed that the balance of public trust has shifted away from institutions and towards individuals, as people choose to believe peers in their social circles rather than experts or the authorities.8
In such an environment, ensuring that the government has the institutional and legal safeguards in place robustly to refute falsehoods is only one part of the answer.9 A second, equally important part has to do with the how of delivering public services. We must ensure that the Public Service is prepared to function less hierarchically and more transparently in an environment of greater contestation and scrutiny. It must learn to gain trust by sharing information and sometimes admitting to not knowing, even as it continues to serve citizens with heart—with passion, empathy and care. To engage in transformational change while maintaining our bearings, remaining connected to our values is key. To this end, the Singapore Public Service’s core values of integrity, service and excellence must continue to guide all aspects of our work even as we transform how we do that work.
and implementation has
become an imperative and
an essential antidote to the
dangers of reductionism.
As technology accentuates the complexity of cities as systems, every government must confront complexity well in order for their country to flourish. Governments that make the effort to understand and manage complexity will gain a competitive advantage.10 But how is a government to do this?
We have looked at integrity as honesty—in the form of clean government, and in terms of intellectual honesty when faced with policy problems. Another aspect of integrity is wholeness, undividedness. This is particularly key in a constantly changing and complex operating environment where the Public Service needs to organise itself to respond nimbly to changing circumstances. One of the mantras of Singapore’s Public Sector Transformation11 effort is accomplishing the Singapore agenda as One Public Service. The idea is that, in every aspect of building Singapore, the Public Service will emphasise alignment across all public agencies as One Public Service, so that our efforts are coordinated and not fragmented. In a complex world where everything is interconnected, and interdisciplinary collaboration is essential for solving the big urban challenges of the day, whole-of-government, integrated policymaking and implementation has become an imperative and an essential antidote to the dangers of reductionism.
This is not just relevant to urban governance, but also has broader application to all sorts of modern problems. Whether it is confronting terrorism, or regulating airborne personal vehicles or thinking about the ethics of regulating autonomous vehicles, many modern challenges fall outside existing organisational boundaries; they tend to involve multiple dimensions—security, social, economic. Seamless whole-of-government coordination gives us our best chance of addressing these challenges well. The One Public Service, whole-of-government philosophy of the Singapore Public Service is an important competitive advantage for getting Singapore ready for the future.
A vivid picture of this can be seen in the nationwide 3D mapping initiative, led by the Singapore Land Authority but involving multiple agencies—PUB, CAAS, GovTech, NParks, and URA. This project put together the most comprehensive geospatial dataset ever collected in Singapore, including buildings, roads, terrain, water bodies, vegetation, tunnels and bridges. The comprehensive 3D map data has provided a rigorous geospatial foundation for policymakers to develop solutions for complex urban challenges more effectively, and has applications in flood management, flight planning and airspace safety assessment, tree management as well as applications in studying potential solar energy harnessing, among others.
Going digital to the
core is a key part of the
Singapore Public Service’s
transformation plan. Our
goal of making Singapore a
has widespread implications
for the practice of governance.
Ongoing Transformation: Going Digital
The rapid advance of technology has fundamentally changed the nature of service delivery. Every public agency is having to think again about what it means to serve citizens. Going digital to the core is a key part of the Singapore Public Service’s transformation plan. Our goal of making Singapore a Smart Nation has widespread implications for the practice of governance. With sharing data across the Public Service as the default practice, and by fully exploiting available data for the good of the citizen, initiatives like Moments of Life—a digital platform that anticipates when citizens require government services based on significant events at different life stages—become possible.12 Services that used to be bricks-and-mortar infrastructure affairs, such as housing the population, will need to be part of an integrated suite of anticipatory services offered to citizens at appropriate junctures.
This is a departure from traditional approaches, where agencies dealingwith urban development have tended to be single-issue focused. The Housing and Development Board, for instance, was set up to tackle the issue of housing Singapore’s growing population, in the early days of independence. Re-conceiving of its mission as just one piece of the wider goal of serving every citizen through his/her different stages of life is a transformation, a re-imagining of how we should serve citizens—when we put them at the centre.
With the conviction that rigid and siloed thinking is fatal in a complex and changing world, the Singapore Public Service will need to continually demonstrate our willingness to review rules and processes to facilitate progress, even as we preserve our commitment to clean government.
Both aspects of integrity—integrity as honest, clean government, and integrity as wholeness and making progress as one unified Service—must be upheld, in order for our Public Service to succeed in its mission of serving Singapore with excellence into the future.
- Liveable & Sustainable Cities: A Framework (Singapore: Centre for Liveable Cities and Civil Service College, 2014): 8–11.
- Points made in the discussion of the five implicit principles of dynamic urban governance, in Chapter 3, “Urban Governance: Foresight and Pragmatism”, Liveable & Sustainable Cities, 101–74.
- Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First—The Singapore Story (1965-2000): Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings and Times Edition, 2000).
- Warren Fernandez, Without Fear or Favour: 50 Years of Singapore’s Public Service Commission (Singapore: Times Media Private Limited for the Public Service Commission, 2001): 14.
- Neo Boon Siong and Geraldine Chen, Dynamic Governance: Embedding Culture, Capabilities and Change in Singapore (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 2007): 166.
- The terminology of “Thinking Again” is Neo Boon Siong’s and Geraldine Chen’s, in their study of the Singapore model of governance. They define this as “the capability to confront the current realities regarding the performance of existing strategies, policies and programmes, and then to redesign them to achieve better quality and results.” See Neo and Chen, Dynamic Governance, p. 35.
- Ng Huiwen, “Singapore ranked 6th among 180 countries in 2017 corruption perceptions index,” The Straits Times, 22 February 2018, accessed 23 Mar 2018, www.straitstimes.com.
- Yuen Sin, “Balance of trust tilts more towards individuals today, says former civil service head Peter Ho,” The Straits Times, 6 February 2018, accessed 23 March 2018, www.straitstimes.com; Peter Ho, “When public trust is no longer centred on the government”, Today Online, 8 February 2018, accessed 23 March 2018, www.todayonline.com.
- The Singapore Parliament resolved to set up a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to study the phenomenon of using digital technology to deliberately spread falsehoods online, and also to report on how Singapore can prevent and combat these, including specific measures such as legislation. For more information, see www.parliament.gov.sg/sconlinefalsehoods. Accessed 23 March 18.
- A point made by Peter Ho, in the first of four IPS-Nathan Lectures, 5 April 2017, “Lecture 1—Hunting Black Swans & Taming Black Elephants: Governance in a Complex World”.
- Public Sector Transformation refers to a movement within the Singapore Public Service, led by its collective leadership, to transform the Public Service to enable the Singapore agenda, by making the Service lean, agile and digital to the core, with skilled and adaptable leaders and officers, leading globally in service delivery and innovation.
- GovTech Singapore, accessed 26 March 2018, www.tech.gov.sg.