Governance of a City-State
SP 2013: Governance

The following are highlights of the Singapore Perspectives 2013 Conference on 28 January. The report is by the Institute of Policy Studies, the organiser of the conference.

The Prime Minister (PM) of Singapore, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, engaged in a broad-ranging discussion of the future direction that governance in Singapore might take. In a no holds-barred exchange on his government’s past record and suggestions on modifications to the political system, PM Lee’s main message was that Singapore’s governance system must be designed to suit the temper of Singaporeans and what are best predictions of future trends that will shape Singapore.

The Director of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Mr Janadas Devan, said in launching today’s Singapore Perspectives 2013 conference that the founding fathers of Singapore did not see their first scenario of Singapore’s future come to pass.  Singapore lives today under the second scenario, and is a thriving but independent sovereign city-state.  While thinking about the future can be a perilous task as reality can over-take best predictions, IPS nevertheless engaged in a scenario-planning exercise to look at how Singapore would govern itself in 2022.

The speakers of the first panel discussed what were the fundamental principles of governance and political culture in Singapore and whether the current demands on the ground for greater political pluralism will precipitate a sea change in its governance system.

Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was the first speaker and she highlighted that the core values of governance that Singaporeans have imbibed and value are meritocracy; zero tolerance of corruption; diversity of race, language, religion and culture; and rule of law. They want a better implementation of these ideals going forward.  The impetus for political change and the trends for Singapore to become a ‘normal democracy’ is an inexorable one – more people are now in the professional and managerial occupational class than ever before, more have attained tertiary education and are educated abroad. They will expect to play a greater role in governance.

In response, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), shared three possible scenarios of where those trends might lead Singapore: the first, an extension of the relatively smooth transition from the current “soft authoritarianism” to greater political pluralism and a participative democracy; the second, a hard landing, where the ruling party loses power; and the third, of political gridlock and paralysis because society is deeply divided on its views on governance. Professor Tommy Koh, Special Adviser, IPS, added a fourth scenario of coalition government where there have been some examples in Europe, of effective governance.

Questions in the first session focused on political culture and liberalisation. A consensus emerged that the political context has changed greatly since the General Election in 2011, as people now have different needs. The opposition is not yet ready to take over, but will continue as an avenue for people preferring an alternative voice and offer a check on the dominant party and government.

Second session

In the second session, Mr Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth & Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information talked about the need for new interpretations of existing principles of governance in the light of societal change, the impact of globalisation and technological change. He acknowledged that it was important to have a broader definition of meritocracy, and that Singapore needed a new set of social norms to complement meritocracy, which most people he has encountered value because it ensures fairness and social justice but needs to be tempered to ensure that there is a full measure of social mobility in Singapore. Another aspect of governance he addressed was for a more calibrated relationship between the Market and the State, citing how the government managed the state’s development of the liquefied natural gas terminal in light of market failure. On the other hand, when the Public Utilities Board was privatised it was found that the pressure of market discipline created greater efficiency in the energy market to the benefit of consumers. In this way, there has to be a more pragmatic and strategic way in which the decision is taken on where the state and market have a role in providing key public goods in Singapore.

A third point is that there is need and desire on the ground for a greater role for civil society in governance – a new term was discovered in the course his dialogue sessions as part of the Our Singapore Conversation – ‘unpolicy’. This stands for a bottom-up approach to addressing public needs which do not require government intervention. He applauded this. Government would try to keep up with this trend. A fourth point was the need for a different form of leadership – a flipped model which recognises that a lot of the expertise needed for responsive policy-making lies with people on the ground. He said that Singaporeans should continue to aspire towards sustaining a democracy of deeds, rather than one of words; a problem-solving democracy rather than an adversarial one.

In response, Mr Donald Low, Senior Fellow and Assistant Dean (Research Centres), LKYSPP, talked about the need for institutions that develop resilience, or the ability of a system to bounce back to a state that allows it to continue to function well. Two things are necessary for this – exposure to shocks to inoculate the system and the accommodation of competing ideas and policy options in order. Policy experimentation should be welcomed as a governance process. In an age of disruptive change, the instinct is to respond by asserting greater control, but he urged the government to tap alternative voices to tap into the signals of where robust solutions for the future might lie.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, participants and speakers discussed how Singapore’s institutions could be modified to promote resilience. Two skills that civil servants would need were first the capacity to facilitate broad-ranging discussions that include a broader segment of citizens into policy-making, and the second, the capacity to conduct experimentation at the local level in order to test policy options on the ground before they are judged to be suitable for implementation at the national level.

Third session

In the third session, Dr Gillian Koh, Senior Research Fellow, IPS shared the findings of the IPS Prism Survey. The survey gathered the views of participants of the IPS Prism Immersive Arts Experience who were predominantly young, middle-class, Chinese and single. The survey aimed to create a values map of those who have viewed the IPS Prism materials (and not representative of views of the Singaporean public.)  This was to provide some weak signals of the trends and values that might shape governance over the next decade.

Survey respondents felt that governance should be morally-directed, and favoured a big state aiming to empower citizens. They also felt the elderly should receive priority for state support, but not at the expense of youths. Lastly, the political system should also ensure that there is a good representation of the interests and concerns of everyone across society.

The first speaker of Session Three, Mr Nizam Ismail, Director, Association of Muslim Professionals & Chairman, Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs, appealed for a new equilibrium in the relationship between state and civil society in Singapore. He favoured a model where the government enables civil society and provides a structure for it to thrive; where government and civil society work in partnership to address public needs and concerns. He felt that civil society had thus far struggled to find a space for itself – especially in its role of public advocacy – and if not properly addressed, Singaporeans may feel a sense of disenchantment because they are unable to participate fully in a policy-making and political processes of the country.

The second speaker, Ms Sylvia Lim, Chairman, The Workers’ Party & Member of Parliament, Aljunied GRC, said that the IPS Prism survey reinforced the notion that Singaporeans want the governance process to focus on addressing the sense of well-being rather than economic growth. Opposition parties can play a role through suggesting policies that promote good governance by raising issues in Parliament, keeping check on the implementation of policies on the ground, run town councils to serve the people, and engage government ministries to improve the design of policies. It is possible for opposition parties in this manner if there is a culture of mutual respect, and to give and take with the governing party.

The third speaker, Mr Lee Tzu Yang, Member, Academic Panel, IPS, focused on the key themes of the IPS Prism Scenarios in his remarks. He said that trust in the government and governance was dependent not only on political leadership and politicians but also on how robust state institutions are in playing their role. It was important for these institutions, like the civil service and judiciary, to be strengthened and ensure that good governance prevails regardless of how politics plays out. Singapore’s resilience will also be determined by how able citizens are to solve issues on their own.


In the question-and-answer session that followed, participants asked if there are areas where there should be a clearer demarcation between the government and the governing party. Ms Lim said that this should be explored, especially in relation to how the People’s Association and the Town Councils are constituted and run. She did say however that the Community Development Councils for instance, though headed by mayors of the governing party, did offer assistance to constituents of opposition wards and they therefore did not face prejudice. A participant felt that the findings of the survey were far too optimistic – he questioned if Singaporeans would really be willing to pay the price of providing more social support to the needy and whether in the current zero-sum competitive game in society today, fellow citizens would really support the ethic of ‘progressing together’ if it means they might have to be held back or be placed at the same level as others.

In the closing session, which was a dialogue with the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, participants posed questions on how the government responds to Singapore’s changing political culture as it becomes a ‘normal democracy’. PM Lee reiterated his government’s commitment to the social progress of Singapore; that the government’s responsibility remained primarily to its people and also that not all solutions come in the form of monetary support.  Some of the ways to precipitate social progress will rise from the role of citizens and civil society as well. It would be important to look at how non-government actors contribute to the development of social capital and that a more cohesive society would make for constructive politics. How governance and government function will be shaped by the temper of the people.

Responding to questions about whether the government had not effectively anticipated the demands of infrastructure that came with an increase in population over the past decade, the PM explained, in detail, the context of Singapore’s foreign manpower policy and how foresight is not 20/20 vision. The government attempted to ride the wave of rapid growth in the mid-2000s after the lag in economic growth at the beginning of the millennium. PM Lee explained that the future could change and it is difficult to predict the future but the government will now create a greater buffer in the provision of infrastructure to make the system more resilient.

PM Lee stressed the continued importance of meritocracy. He noted that it was important for each person to feel that they have a chance to move up in life in his or her generation through hard work, regardless of family background. The elite should feel a responsibility to give back to society. The definition of success in Singapore could encompass not just the academically inclined but others (e.g. sportsmen and artists) as well.

In response to whether there would be a further devolution of power to, for instance, a separate system of elections for municipal government headed by mayors, the PM said that it would be unwieldy to do so.  For instance, investors now only need to deal with central government rather than negotiate at multiple levels to conduct their business here.

The PM also responded to other suggestions of modifications to the governance system in Singapore, such as the introduction of a freedom of information law, an independent electoral commission and a proportional representation system in a very broad-ranging dialogue session.

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For more information on the IPS Prism Survey, please go to :


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