Regulator, enabler and provider

DPM Teo Chee Hean speaks at the Administrative Service Dinner & Promotion Ceremony. Photo by WEE TECK HIAN

Govt should focus on these 3 critical roles, says DPM Teo in speech to top public officials

SINGAPORE – When it comes to addressing national issues, there will be some who expect their governments to play a bigger role, while others think the government should take a step back.

Such is the “paradox of governance” faced by governments all over the world, and rather than grapple with this, it may be more productive “to focus on doing the right things, and doing these things right”, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

Mr Teo, who is also the Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service, was speaking at the Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony yesterday evening. Those in the audience included the elite of Singapore’s Public Service, who fill the leadership positions in the ministries, statutory boards and armed forces.

The question of what should be the appropriate level of government involvement is one that will be revisited “time and again” as new challenges come up, said Mr Teo.

Mr Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister, laid out the three critical roles a government should focus on: Regulator, enabler and provider.

As the regulator or “balancer”, the government acts to safeguard the interests of the people.

“At the broader level, in social policy, the government has to find the right balance in its interventions,” said Mr Teo. In Singapore, he noted the Government introduced the Workfare Income Supplement scheme for low-wage workers to address widening income inequality after studying “many options and careful consultation and consideration”.

And at a micro-level, a government would intervene in industries where there could be some degree of monopoly power, such as telecommunications or power generation.

As an enabler, a government can create a conducive environment so that “desirable activities can flourish”. As a provider, a government will provide where there are societal needs non-government players are not able to meet, such as national security.

While there have been debates – in Singapore and elsewhere – about governments providing in areas like education, public transport, housing and healthcare, Mr Teo said the Singaporean Government has been careful to step in in “an appropriate way” and have “by and large achieved good outcomes”.

This approach will be carefully reviewed and fine-tuned as new issues, such as climate change and an ageing population, emerge, he added.

To fulfil these three roles, the public service must take a long-term perspective and work on a “Whole-of-Government” basis to develop sound policies. For instance, Singapore’s low fertility rate and ageing population will require a “well-coordinated response” across several government agencies.

Mr Teo, however, noted long-term planning and Whole-of-Government coordination “is not a precise science, and we will not always get it exactly right”.

“We have to assess the situation, make adaptations, course corrections, and fine-tune as we go along,” he said.

Also, the Public Service “does not have a monopoly on good ideas” and better policies can be made by engaging the public, Mr Teo said. But it is often not possible to satisfy everyone as there will be competing interests and demands, some of which contradict one another. “Often, there will have to be trade-offs and difficult decisions, which the Government must not shy away from,” Mr Teo said. “Some Singaporeans will suffer inconvenience which cannot be fully mitigated, and come away feeling disappointed. But as we mature as a society, we should learn to accept and manage this, and not let it paralyse us from moving forward as a nation.”

Hence, even as specialists will continue to be valued, public servants will be expected to have “good multi-disciplinary capabilities” – breadth of knowledge and experience across several domain areas, and the “mental agility to connect the dots across organisational boundaries and functional areas”, Mr Teo said.

A salary review of the elite Administrative Officers and Judiciary and Statutory Appointment Holders, announced in Parliament earlier this month, is ongoing and is expected to be completed in six to nine months.

“Beyond intellectual ability and technical competence, there will be a high premium on the ability to work well with people, and to respect and appreciate the contributions that each person in the team can make,” Mr Teo said.

DPM pays tribute to former civil servant Teo Ming Kian
His “wide-ranging” contributions to Singapore included policies such as Workfare and the Resilience Package, as well as development of the Electronic Road Pricing system.

Last night, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean paid a glowing tribute to Mr Teo Ming Kian, who retired last year after 36 years in the Public Service.

DPM Teo said he had known Mr Teo personally since he was a director in the Defence Ministry, before Mr Teo became Deputy Secretary (Technology), and later, Permanent Secretary (Defence Development).

After stints at the then-Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Finance, Mr Teo helped shape Singapore’s economy by spearheading the development of new growth industries while he was executive chairman of the Economic Development Board.

He was also “a key player” in transforming Singapore into a leading science and technology hub when he assumed the role of executive chairman of the National Science and Technology Board. Programmes such as Technopreneurship 21 and “The Enterprise Challenge” were launched, to encourage experimentation and adoption of new ideas.

During his last appointment as Permanent Secretary (National Research and Development), Mr Teo introduced policies to encourage innovation and research & development, while bringing in major new research centres. While Mr Teo, who is MediaCorp chairman, could not be present at the ceremony last night – he is overseas currently, DPM Teo said: “We thank Ming Kian for his many wide-ranging contributions to Singapore.”

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