How We Will Govern Ourselves in Future

Jan 04, 2016 at 10:08 am | Hits: 1908

By Eddie Choo

By 2065, I hope that Singaporeans will be able to differentiate between governance and government. This distinction has great consequences for how we think about the roles of government, the market, community, society and individual citizens.

In the history of independent Singapore, governance and government were conflated, and this still happens today. Government did governance, and no other institution could provide it.

In the decades from now, this might no longer hold true. Governance for the country in many domains could come to be provided by other institutions — some of which might be familiar to us today; others, yet to be invented. We need not be alarmed by these prospects.

A detailed history of the public service ought to make us realise that Singapore’s governing institutions have always been dynamic. The next 50 years should prove to be as dynamic as well. That dynamism though, might not take the same form as it has — and why should it be so? New times will require new kinds of institutional arrangements.

Going back to the past

In 1965, the bureaucracy was a small one, especially when compared to the present day. The public sector accomplished the building of schools and homes, and brought in companies, to name just a few. The bureaucracy was extremely efficient. It went on to complete major projects, such as the construction of new universities, the train system, the major airports and the iconic projects we take for granted today.

The earlier small bureaucracy had elements both familiar and unfamiliar to us today. Ministries such as Foreign Affairs, Health, and Defence have retained their specific portfolios, albeit with expanded functions. But between 1968 and 1981, there was a Ministry of Science and Technology. The Ministry of Trade and Industry was started in 1978. Before that, the Ministry of Finance was also driving economic development directly. In 1991, efforts were made to give the arts a major push and the National Arts Council was formed. The government’s role has constantly been changing and the privatisation of telecommunications and public transport attest to the notion that, far from being static, the role of government and the substance of governance do change.

When viewed through an organisational lens, the bureaucracy’s historical accomplishments become more apparent. The home-building and school-building programmes were all construction-heavy projects. As technically difficult as it might have been, there was much experience to be gained from embarking on so many projects over a period of time. Things learnt at an earlier period could conceivably be applied for subsequent projects. Many of these projects were also amenable to the reporting structure of a bureaucracy. One could imagine the vertical reporting of information from the construction sites to the central offices in the various ministries. While each design might be new and unique — when repeated across multiple areas, ministries could presumably adapt quickly and rise to the challenge. Building and planning excellence were thus achieved, and Tampines became a model housing estate for the world.

There have been other achievements. These include the state’s ability to harness resources to nurture the development of industries, with the development of the Life Sciences industry as the most prominent example. The state has now created a viable ecosystem of companies at the Biopolis, together with the various state-based research institutes. This example is only the tip of the iceberg for how the state bureaucracy has consistently been able to build viable industrial ecosystems that exist for many years, even decades. As a result, Singapore is now at the limits of industrial production and close to the technological frontier for some industries.

Issues, ideals and aspirations in a VUCA world

Looking ahead, Singapore will see several issues intensifying. To list a few, they are the ageing population, climate change and the need to integrate immigrants into Singapore society. These issues will intensify alongside other global trends such as shortening business cycles, the increasingly frequent occurrence of market shocks, and the depletion of global resources as countries continue to develop. All of these will test the capacities of all countries, in addition to whatever domestic woes they might have to face.

And then there are still ideals and aspirations to nurture — ensuring we are a society of open opportunity, and one that uplifts the less privileged. In building a united society, we will have to trust one another and be able to have collegial and civil dialogue. These things will become harder to achieve in light of domestic and external challenges.

The world is tending towards one that has been christened as a “VUCA” world —volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This environment is unlike the past where things were more certain and less complex, and where cause and effect were more explicit.  

A bureaucracy, even if it were adaptable and dynamic, is still only one form of social organisation. As new challenges emerge — some of which we know and already face today, others that we know will intensify, and yet others as yet unknown to us —we will have to find new ways of organising and governing ourselves.

Other types of organisations could become more relevant in a VUCA world — the “tribe” for instance, which refers to an intense affiliation with a few others, usually kin, although it can compose of non-kin. There are markets, composed of firms actively competing with one another. And then there are networks — think of the Internet, where computers are inter-connected with various links; some short links, some long links, but allowing for the flow of information. The network, as has been argued by many, has been thought of as a social organisation more suited to address the VUCA world.

Lessons to be learnt

There is yet another reason why the public sector bureaucracy might no longer be the best form of social organisation for dealing with VUCA challenges. In the past, the bureaucracy could grow and take on more challenges in part because the demographics were favourable. Our total fertility rate was buoyant. Starting from the 1980s though, there has been a decline in the number of native-born Singaporeans. This means is that the number of Singapore citizens eligible for government jobs will stagnate and decline in absolute terms.

We might then have to consider other ways of governing ourselves. The Institute of Policy Studies has done some work on these, most notably the Prism Scenarios in 2012 where IPS explored the ways in which the providers of governance might change. One scenario looked at how former businesspeople might participate more in governance; another scenario explored how communities might provide more services. These scenarios help to give us a sense of the what-ifs, and to help orient us to the possibilities.

If Singapore’s governance paths were to rely less on the state, then other actors will have to step in. Following from the IPS Prism project, Singapore could well become a place where there will be an ecosystem of governance, where different actors provide different versions of governance. A Singapore resident will transact, consult, engage, consume and co-produce with different actors and agencies on various goods.

In turn, this will require the state/public service to focus on what it deems to be a core service that only the state can provide, and leave other services to other actors and agencies in society. The role of the state will be different. Instead of identifying problems and implementing solutions, the state could well be a facilitator, tending to an ecosystem of actors to produce outcomes. Lim Siong Guan, former Head of the Civil Service and now Group President at GIC, alluded to this in 2005 when he wrote about how the civil service was beginning to see itself as a “convenor and aggregator.” The examples below might help illustrate the changing role further.

Let’s take the issue of preserving and maintaining our hawker food culture, for example. There have been difficulties leaving this to market forces, where hawkers find it challenging meeting rental costs while keeping prices affordable. One solution is to bring it out of the market, for foundations and other social actors to preserve it as a practice, where one can take some rudimentary training in it, and to give incentives to some individuals to stay in the trade if they choose to. Our food might become more mediocre, but the hope is that competition might ameliorate price increases, while excellent food might still be preserved in some way. For this to happen, the state has to expand the idea of heritage to include food too, while the rest of society has to take on the responsibility to preserve cuisines.

We will also need to educate young people for a VUCA world. No one knows what kind of economy today’s young people will be in. But it seems that coding and the ability to work with materials appear to be important. This is possibly where entrepreneurial people could come in and offer courses for students, and in those workshops, become acquainted with the idea on what it means to be good in a skill and to acquire expertise.

While the state has a monopoly on formal education, it certainly does not have a monopoly on the wider area of learning and acquiring knowledge. Working with the private sector, the state can explore how new technologies can be taught to young people and how to scale programmes up. In this way, and in other fields, it can create an ecosystem of skill acquisition. SkillsFuture seems to do most of these, although private companies will have to do more to commit their employees to training. Yet another vision could see MNCs working much closer with polytechnics to create “skills commons” – where students’ projects could have much closer linkage with business opportunities.  

Preparing our young for an uncertain future will also have to include the less privileged communities.  In low-income communities, children may not have appropriate role models and are likely to face multiple difficulties in accessing all sorts of opportunities in education and in development. These are multi-faceted problems and it is difficult for the state bureaucracy to tackle them holistically.  In this situation, it can work with voluntary welfare organisations and foundations to see how the issues can be tackled simultaneously. The state could provide welfare funding and play an evaluation role, while the other organisations could experiment with programmes for childhood development.

There obviously are many other areas where governance may not come solely from the state, especially in areas where a community element features strongly. But this has to come out of a process where communities can begin to take ownership of issues and start to ask themselves how they may address these issues. The state, on the other hand, has to begin the difficult task of examining what issues are truly core — that only it can do, and must do, and learn to work with non-state actors: communities, foundations, welfare organisations, and so on.
One of Singapore’s competitive advantages has always been how we are able to organise ourselves well. We can take courage from the past, and we can carry on with this advantage in the years to come.

Eddie Choo is doing his Masters in Sociology at NUS. He previously worked at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and the Civil Service College.

Top photo from wikipedia


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