ETHOS Issue 25, April 2023
In the wake of COVID-19, geopolitical conflict, economic volatility and climate concerns, what in your view are the most pressing challenges facing the public sector today?
The foremost challenge is public trust and reliance. In the face of so many constraints in terms of resources and new ressures, the people need to trust the public sector to deliver and be able to rely on the public sector to ensure that their rights and services are secure, that their daily needs will be met.
Politically, the challenge then is that when you are in power, you must respond to immediate demands, even if it may compromise sustainability in the long run.
Indeed, the challenge for the public sector is not only to deliver in the short term, but also in a sustainable manner. We cannot just deliver public goods in a manner that would exhaust everything, leaving nothing for future generations. We cannot act only for the current political mandate; we have to be able to feed people not only today, but also for generations to come.
We cannot just deliver public goods in a manner that would exhaust everything, leaving nothing for future generations.
Be it geopolitical conflict, climate change, or the economic value chain, the global view has now changed. During the COVID crisis, I was in Cambodia trying to get food to our people. The experience made us realise how vulnerable it is to always rely on global resources for our own needs and wellbeing. Having headed the coordination of one of the major side events for the Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit, I see that in a volatile global economy, many countries believe that there needs to be a greater push for regional onshoring of certain trades. You must make sure that you have access to the resources—either within or close to your borders, to produce enough for yourself, be it food or other needs—rather than depend on countries far away.
So, while there is still a push for multilateralism, there is also the challenge of making sure a country is self-reliant to some extent. While this may be more difficult for a country like Singapore, we also see it taking this approach, for instance in its water desalination efforts.
For Bangladesh, the constraint is that even if we can meet the basic food needs of our 170 million people domestically, we cannot make up for it in terms of nutritional value: we can produce all the rice we want, but we still need to ﬁnd sources of protein and other nutrients from elsewhere. As societies develop more complex consumer bases, they also begin to demand more complex ingredients, such as cooking oils which they can’t always produce themselves.
So as much as we should consider a certain degree of self-reliance, we also need to accept and carefully manage the risks of trade. When it comes to multilateral trade, we see that relationships can change, and then where do you go? You need to have several options open, rather than be reliant on only one source, say of your energy or food supply.
What lessons have you drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic on supporting
innovation and growth while promoting the prudent use of limited resources?
The COVID pandemic opened our eyes, but sadly it seems we may have closed them again. During the pandemic, everyone was encouraged to plant vegetables at home, which was a good thing. But once things returned to normal, we stopped doing it and we went back to consuming imported food. The same applies to working from home, which reduced pollution and use of petrol. It would have been good to integrate these practices into our development processes and daily habits, to help our people make better use of resources.
Some of these pandemic-era practices can help us better manage our resources, our time, and our health—even when we are not living in pandemic mode.
Some pandemic-era practices can help us better manage our resources, our time and our health.
There are lessons from COVID that can be integrated in the post-COVID world. In resource-poor Bangladesh, even running schools is a major challenge: even under normal circumstances, we don’t have enough Science and Math teachers to attend to our millions of students. What COVID has taught us are new ways of educating students, using technologies such as free-to-air broadcasting, or online teaching and learning.
In the past, we had the infrastructure to do this, but not the mindset to adopt these methods. Now we are developing a blended education policy to formalise some of these approaches. They will help us bridge the last mile in education—I cannot send specialised teachers to every village in the outskirts, but I can provide these audio-visual resources, with local teachers as a guide, and still improve learning outcomes for more students.
The pandemic was a wake- up call for Cambodia. Our thriving garment export industry, which we relied on economically, dried up when the global value chain was disrupted. At the same time, the agricultural sector blossomed. We realised not only did we need domestic produce to feed our people, but that we had the entire food chain and nutrient mix within our own country.
So there has been a renewed effort to push our agriculture industry forward. We already produce foods, such as rice, which are exported to other countries to be repackaged as their products. If we improve our own processing and packaging capabilities to meet international standards, we can make them our own products to export.
Without a crisis like the pandemic, we would still be looking to manufacturing industries and attracting foreign investments to those sectors to create jobs. But now we are pushing our own private sector to play a larger role in creating jobs for their fellow Cambodians. Of course, we are still going to have manufacturing, but now, apart from having international ﬁrms come to produce goods that are sold under their own brands, we also want to produce Cambodian products for the world.
Self-sufficiency is the agenda in many governments. The public sector can frame policy or set the goals, say to produce our own goods, but in our experience, that alone has not worked. In Bangladesh, we needed the dynamism of the private sector—the sectors that grew our economy were not on our public sector’s policy agenda.
The mindset change is to shift from ruling to serving—not to run everything from the centre.
Now, once the private sector takes up these growth sectors, the public sector can catch up with it, and resolve issues as they come along, such as reducing red tape. What we in the public sector need to understand is that innovation and enterprise are going to come from private initiatives, and we must try to assist them rather than try and do it by ourselves. Instead, we should focus on key areas of national importance, such as food security, and leave value-adding to private enterprise.
Having come from the private sector into the public sector, I see an enormous disconnect. The public sector mentality is that we know, we will ﬁx, we will do. Whereas the private sector thinks: you don't know very much, you are only catching up.
So, I see the public sector’s role as assisting, not taking on, the job of growth. The mindset change is to shift from ruling to serving—not to run everything from the centre up to the last mile, which was the mindset of the colonial government in South Asia.
I agree, but we also need State regulation—in a benevolent manner to ensure fair play, not for the sake of imposing obstacles.
We need to ensure that regulation by the State is conducted in a dispassionate, objective manner, as it is in Singapore, according to set prescribed criteria. The public sector has to allow the private sector to provide services subject to appropriate regulation, and transparent and prescribed criteria.
Whether to regulate or let things happen is an ongoing debate, and it is not a clear-cut issue. Some things are just going to come whether or not we chase after it, such as blockchain or e-commerce.
Public policy can bring attention to a sector that warrants it. The private sector also needs a wake-up call because they can get too comfortable.
But in other cases, such as agriculture, public policy can bring attention to a sector that warrants it. The private sector may also need a wake-up call because they can get too comfortable with making money in a conventional way, and not innovate or diversify. Sometimes it is just to remind them that there are things going on outside of their routine. I do believe the public sector needs to have a certain amount of forward thinking or foresight in its policies and regulation to do this well.
From your time at the Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP), is there anything else that you have observed to be useful or interesting? What would you like your counterparts in the Singapore public sector to consider for the future?
The leaders we met in our time in Singapore were all very personable—there seems to be a shift in leadership style and approach to policymaking away from the top-down mentality, and it bodes well for the future.
When I heard that Singapore is putting more efforts into scholarships and grooming as part of its succession planning and public sector development, it affected me, as a late bloomer myself. I grew up bullied in school, which made it difficult for me to perform. Luckily, I had a chance to get more opportunities to demonstrate my leadership skills and to shine later in life.
I feel there could be initiatives to support those who may be struggling in school because they are shy or not as social, and so may take more time to bloom. People learn in different ways and respond to different kinds of teaching. They should not be overlooked or left behind.
I believe this would also help the government better relate to young people.
Constant monitoring, assessment and streamlining are all very good for efficiency, but I wonder what effects this can have on, for example, mental health. In Singapore, we have always been meeting leaders who are high-performing—who went to Stanford and got First Class at Cambridge and so on. What about those who are mid-range, not even lowest of the class? Those who are striving to keep up with the pack?
In my work with the CEDAW (UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) Committee, we have reviewed so-called developed countries which are often much vaunted internationally, and score highly on happiness indices and so on, but when we review the data, we ﬁnd that some of their policies can have an adverse impact on citizens’ mental health. Because everyone has to conform to this model of being good, healthy, and perfect, those who are not as good may have mental health issues, and this is an aspect which many of us do not see and to which I would respectfully draw the attention of my Singaporean counterparts.
Quantification is a tough challenge. Traditionally, we understand economics in terms of consumption and production and therefore there is a financial quantiﬁcation of what is growth, what is wellbeing. But what about deﬁning, redeﬁning welfare, or happiness in non-ﬁnancial terms? For instance, might we learn to be happy without being a conformist individual chasing after material aspirations and being in an elite talent pool?
I see that there is a tendency to celebrate consumerism, which is contributing to a lot of issues, from mental health to environmental degradation. It is not sustainable.
What could Singapore do as a more enlightened society to contribute to humanism rather than to hyper-consumerism?
Could governments make an effort to sensitise their population on humanism, on charity, on volunteerism? For instance, every citizen in Singapore has wealth and skills that could be shared with the region and with the rest of the world. In this age of the shared economy, instead of having a mentality of always wanting to be the best or having the most, this could broaden the appeal of Singapore beyond being just a place of wealth. What could Singapore do as a more enlightened society to contribute to humanism rather than to hyper-consumerism?
And what about doing something completely different to increase the welfare, mental health, happiness, or aesthetic values of individuals? These questions do not show up in policy discussions at all, or at least not until the pandemic. We should continue to think about these issues.