SINGAPORE (Nov 5): In the 1980s, with the first two decades of frantic economy-building behind it, the Singapore government turned to fine-tuning its human resource policies. It tapped what Royal Dutch Shell, the multinational oil company, was already doing. The Civil Service adapted concepts such as the CEP, or current estimated potential, to assess how far individuals could progress within the bureaucracy.

“You have developed your systems since then, we have evolved our systems since then, but it was a fruitful criss-crossing of ideas,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a 2016 event marking Shell Singapore’s 125th anniversary.

Changes are indeed underway. On Oct 31, the recently appointed Public Service Commission chairman Lee Tzu Yang announced that the selection criteria of recipients of the prestigious PSC scholarship would be refined. Notably, the search would be widened to include candidates with achievements beyond academia. “We are working to widen and sharpen the process upstream, so that candidates who appear before us possess the diversity of qualities desired in the Public Service,” says Lee, in an open letter marking his 100th day as PSC chairman.

The Public Service employs about 145,000 officers across 16 ministries and more than 50 statutory boards. Within the Public Service is the Civil Service, which has about 85,000 officers in the ministries.

Each year, PSC gives out scholarships to top tertiary students who will start their career in the Public Service upon completion of their studies. Over the years, recipients have tended to be cut from the same cloth. For instance, of the 57 PSC scholars in 2007, 47 were graduates of either Raffles Junior College or Hwa Chong Institution. More recently, the PSC has started to choose candidates from a wider range of schools and polytechnics. Still, last year, even though the proportion of PSC scholars from Raffles and Hwa Chong fell, they still made up 42 of the 71 scholars.

Lee says the PSC scholar selection is still a “work in progress”. But, it seems book smarts will not be the dominant factor in the future. “We can never discount intellect as a desired attribute, but we will consider other attributes, such as evidenced by self-initiated community service and leading change in new, different and difficult directions,” he writes.

Among the new measures that could be applied to the selection of scholars are the game-based assessments to pick up attributes such as perseverance, learning orientation and risk avoidance.

Significantly, Lee also asserted that “meritocracy in the Public Service must be the allocation of opportunities to serve Singapore, on the basis of the individual’s ability to contribute to the good of the country”. The way he sees it, “too much has been made of rewards, and which people deserve how much, whether due to achievement, hard work or overcoming the odds”.

He adds: “Scholarships are not rewards but opportunities to contribute more in service.”

As such, while the PSC looks to attract talent with non-conventional attributes to the Public Service by way of scholarships, the government service may do well to look for talent among current civil servants too. For one, perhaps some have been assessed of their potential prematurely. While some have been able to progress with further education, many have found themselves facing an invisible barrier even with several years of work ahead of them.

Lee’s predecessor, Eddie Teo, was himself a President’s Scholar and lifelong civil servant. He retired after a decade in the role, and almost five decades in government service. By contrast, Lee worked for 35 years with Shell, the organisation whose HR practices the Singapore government had emulated.

Singapore looks forward to seeing the changes in effect.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 855, week of Nov 5) which is on sale now. Subscribe here