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UNDP Singapore Publication - Virtuous Cycles: The Singapore Public Service and National Development

UNDP Singapore Publication


Book emphasises the replicable lessons that developing and developed countries alike can learn from Singapore but also highlights the challenges faced by the nation. 

Singapore, 24 March 2011 — “Virtuous Cycles: The Singapore Public Service and National Development” is a literary journey of the highly regarded Public Service of Singapore starting from the state’s independence. The book analyses the policies, institutions and incentives that have led to its many contributions to national development. 

Mr. Peter Ong, Head of Singapore’s Civil Service and Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance launched the book with Mr. Kamal Malhotra, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam, and Dr N.C. Saxena, the book’s main author. The launch was attended by Ambassadors and other members of the diplomatic community, government officials, United Nations agencies, corporate guests and the media. 

The publication, commissioned by UNDP and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Civil Service College, Singapore, highlights the lessons and best practices on governance and service delivery from Singapore’s Public Service experience, and analyses the links and positive multipliers between the quality of the country’s Public Service and its national development, a subject which has generally remained relatively unexplored both analytically and in the public policy research literature. The Singapore experience suggests that there have been virtuous cycles between the Public Service and national development in multiple realms. 

“The Public Service has had, and will continue to have, its fair share of challenges. Some of the issues that we grapple with are not entirely dissimilar to those faced by other countries. We do not presume to have all the answers, and indeed some of the answers that have worked for us may well not be suitable for others. But we hope that this book will be a meaningful contribution to the global conversation on how the Public Service can best serve its people.” 

After the book launch, Dr Saxena delivered a presentation on the book. The presentation was followed by a panel discussion with Dr. Saxena, Dr Neo Boon Siong of the Nanyang Business School, Dr Adrian Leftwich, Honorary Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of York, United Kingdom and moderated by Mr. Malhotra.

Mr. Kamal Malhotra, UNDP Resident Representative for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei said, “This book both addresses the issues which make Singapore’s Public Service effective and seeks to explain why. What were and are the policy choices that Singapore made and continues to make, the institutional arrangements and incentives it has put in place, and the investment decisions that have allowed Singapore to become an island of excellence in the area of the management and delivery of public services? How has it created an enabling environment that empowers Public Service institutions to cope with and manage change? How has the capacity of the civil service been developed and enhanced to keep it at the cutting edge? 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly from the perspective of UNDP, what are the replicable lessons that developing and developed countries alike can learn from Singapore? This book also seeks to analyse how Singapore’s government institutions have coped with change in the context of fast accelerating globalisation. This should enable an understanding of how Singapore’s policies, institutions and incentives can be adapted to different country contexts. The book also elaborates on some of the challenges facing the Singapore Public Service going forward.” 

The book consists of six chapters that cover key issues such as a history of the state’s formative years, key national policies, building institutions for clean and effective governance, public sector capacity development and reforms, challenges facing the Public Service and key lessons that other countries can learn from Singapore. It ends with a chapter on the Singapore Cooperation Programme, which explains how Singapore actively shares its knowledge and experiences with friends from the developing countries. 

On the need for the Singapore Public Service to constantly reinvent itself, Mr Ong said, 

“The problems that face Singapore today are complex and we remain vulnerable to changes brought about by global events. 


Our officers need to collaborate across agencies as well as consider new and innovative ways of tackling problems. This requires an integrated and adaptable Public Service. We need officers willing to take some risks in policy design and implementation. 

As Singapore develops and Singaporeans become more global in orientation, the demands on the public sector will change. The public sector needs to embrace the ideas and energy that lie beyond the Public Service. By tapping on the collective wisdom and creativity of individuals, NGOs and companies, we can better tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities in a more complex and volatile external environment. ”

Although Singapore has ongoing programmes to correct strategic, policy-level and organisational deficiencies, the book highlights that policy makers have also identified other important challenges that the Public Service has been facing in recent years, among them, employing, training and retaining Public Service leaders and officers with the right skill sets and aptitude; engaging and catering to the changing needs and rising aspirations of the population; meritocracy and income inequality, and dealing with increasingly uncertain, complex and cross-cutting policy issues. 

The success of the Public Service can be attributed to reforms to capitalise on institutionalised outcomes such as assigning operational authority to delegated Boards and autonomous agencies, while retaining the power of regulatory oversight and policy direction within central agencies; budgetary reforms to maximise the public sector value proposition; instilling a culture of ownership, pride and continuous improvement in the Public Service, through on-going training as well as reform movements such as PS21; measuring and rewarding organisational performance, with incentives and awards for innovative practices; continuous innovation, such as the use of information technology, to engender greater efficiency, citizen satisfaction, timely information flows and transparency and a culture of leadership by example, which transmits strong values and principles of good governance socially rather than formally throughout the public sector. 

“As UNDP, we are particularly pleased with this opportunity to examine this specific inspiring example of development achievement because of the early significant role played by UNDP and other UN agencies in Singapore’s history. As you will learn when you read the book, one of the first acts of the new government when Singapore attained self-rule in 1959 was to request advice from the United Nations Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (UN-EPTA), which would later become UNDP, to develop a blueprint for an industrialization programme for Singapore. Dr Albert Winsemius, a Dutch economist, led the first UN assessment mission to Singapore in 1960 which presented a ten-year development plan to transform Singapore into a centre of manufacturing and industrialization to the government, most of which was implemented with considerable success. 

In the following decades, UNDP together with other UN agencies such as the FAO, ILO, ITU, UNESCO, UNIDO, UNCTAD, WHO as well as the World Bank, would provide technical expertise in areas ranging from urban planning, agriculture and fisheries, manufacturing, transportation and communication, to education, health and government reform. This was indeed a good example of effective development cooperation, which should stand as an example to the international development community.”

Download the publication here

More News from United Nation Development Programme Malaysia 24 March 2011