SINGAPORE (Feb 18): The latest session of Parliament saw ministers step up to address a series of recent incidents that has led many to wonder whether the Singapore government was losing its touch or, worse, slackening.

The latest incidents, which include deaths during Singapore Armed Forces training and the HIV database leak, come as issues with the reliability of postal, transport and power services, as well as severe breaches of data privacy, are still fresh in the public’s mind. They have drawn commentary in the national newspapers about whether there are deep-seated complacencies in our systems, as well as how the next generation of Singapore’s political leaders, known as the 4G, needs to win over the people’s trust.

Indeed, there are now concerns that any deep-seated problems could have implications for the broader economy, particularly as Singapore faces a fast-changing and challenging global environment.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat — widely tipped to be Singapore’s next prime minister — responded in an editorial in The Straits Times saying the ministers would not flinch from self-reflection when there are failures, and that they would do what was necessary to put things right. “But I reject the suggestion by some that the political leadership has allowed the whole system to go slack. And worse still, that we have gone soft on ourselves and the public service, failing to hold senior people accountable when things go wrong,” he wrote.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 57, is widely tipped to become Singapore's next and fourth prime minister. He had written a commentary in the national broadsheet refuting suggestions that the government had gone slack. Photo: Bloomberg

Closer scrutiny for incoming team

The spotlight on the lapses, and how they are being handled, is to be expected, given that Singapore is going through a leadership transition, analysts say. Further, some of the current bench of leaders are still fairly new to their posts. Of the 16 who had signed a statement in January last year saying they would pick a leader among them soon, seven had joined politics in 2011 and four came in only in 2015 — well after the last financial crisis.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is expected to step down after the next general election, due to be held by April 2021 but widely speculated to happen this year. “All of us are watching how the 4G leaders deal with the incidents that happen,” says Inderjit Singh, a former Member of Parliament who was in Lee’s Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency team from 1996 to 2015. They have also yet to deliver any game-changing policies, he adds.

But, the heightened scrutiny is not because the 4G leaders are falling short, says Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan, formerly a Nominated Member of Parliament.

In fact, where the business community is concerned, Singapore still shines as a place for business, owing to its long-standing strengths — political stability, world-class infrastructure and a skilled workforce. It has also been willing to test out new ideas, such as cryptocurrency and autonomous vehicles. And, despite slowing global growth, the Economic Development Board expects Singapore to still attract up to $10 billion in fixed asset investments this year, somewhat in line with previous years.

However, the real measure of the next generation of leadership would be how they tackle the challenges as they come, and whether they are able to take bold steps to take Singapore into the future economy.

As tech entrepreneur Darius Cheung, who co-founded property portal, says: “Nine out of 10 metrics, I’d say we have a class-A 4G leadership. Yet, they could also fare better in one important way: the courage to take risks and articulate and stick to a vision, which is an unpopular thing to do.”

Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small & Medium Enterprises, says the government is proactive in supporting small businesses. There is support through schemes for manpower development to internationalisation and intellectual property development.

“Singaporeans expect more of the authorities and are genuinely concerned that these lapses may count to deeper underlying systemic issues such as institutional culture and ethos,” says SMU’s Tan.

Indeed, political analyst Terence Lee from Murdoch University raises the common concern that the leaders are “cut from the same cloth”.

“No one can say we are confident that they have the wherewithal to manage Singapore in ways that differ from the last 50 years,” he says.

“The public cannot go away thinking that some people remain protected no matter what mistakes they make. I remember Lee Kuan Yew saying that if things don’t work, he will remove the chief. The 4G leaders must bring back this attitude so that complacency does not seep into our government.”

– Inderjit Singh, a former Member of Parliament from 1996 to 2015

A new system

Mak Yuen Teen from the National University of Singapore reckons it may be time to rethink the way leaders are picked. “There’s a sense that there’s a certain sameness in the way people are selected into the government. That’s my concern, that we have too much groupthink and not enough people to stand up and express a different viewpoint,” he says.

Given the increasingly challenging global climate, what Singapore needs is bold, innovative ideas. Says Mak: “We used to be able to rely on our position in this region and our relationship with the US and China. But now we have trade wars, segmentation of the global economy, a lot of volatility. So, how are we going to cope? If you can’t react to unusual or unexpected situations, how can you react to these situations from an economic standpoint?”

Indeed, Singapore’s reputation for planning long term, and its erstwhile success in doing so, may not be quite the reliable formula as it was before. “You can plan for 10 years, but you don’t know how ­technology can shift things,” says CIMB economist Song Seng Wun.

“The ability to draw from [the] reserves disguises the lack of vision, ideas and overall competence,” argues Murdoch’s Lee. “If there’s money in the kitty, it becomes less urgent to seriously think outside the box.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 67, has said he would like to retire before he turned 70. He is expected to hand over the reins after the next General Election due to be held by April 2021. Photo: Bloomberg

Fixing the messes

The recent lapses in the public sphere have led some to warn of the risk of a trust deficit between the government and the population. While some people believe it is still too early to make judgements based on how the 4G ministers are handling current lapses, Lily Rahim, from the department of government and international relations at the University of Sydney, points out that explanations related to National Service deaths, SingHealth hacking and the HIV database leaks were “delayed, defensive and less than transparent”.

To fix such perceptions, apologies and independent investigations alone are not enough, says Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education. “The government would also need to be more transparent in the investigations. Creating public trust is not simply apologising or denying that they were not in the wrong, but accepting that mistakes have been made, and they should avoid being always so defensive when questioned by members of the public,” he says.

SMU’s Tan says: “Much is expected of them in terms of how they respond: Are they resilient? Are they willing to take a hard look at themselves? Are they prepared to make unpopular decisions if those are needed?”

Former MP Singh says accountability also means that people must be taken to task for mistakes. “The public cannot go away thinking that some people remain protected no matter what mistakes they make. I remember Lee Kuan Yew saying that if things don’t work, he will remove the chief. The 4G leaders must bring back this attitude so that complacency does not seep into our government.”

Importantly, mistakes should not deter future innovation. “Will the 4G and the public bureaucracy become more risk-averse and shy away from making judgment calls unless they are sure they are right? If that happens, then we will all be the poorer for it,” SMU’s Tan adds.

As Finance Minister Heng put it in his commentary: “Singapore got here because our pioneers dared to take risks. All the ventures we are now so proud of — from Jurong Industrial Estate to Changi Airport — were once carried forward with no certainty they would succeed. If public officers had not dared to take risks for fear of being axed if things went wrong, we would never have built an exceptional country.”

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 869, week of Feb 18) which is on sale now. Subscribe here