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Some details about the government-owned Singaporean education system which produces superlative results

We saw key points regarding Singaporean education system here:

in Singapore meritocracy reigns all the way down the system. Teachers, for instance, need to have finished in the top third of their class (as they do in Finland and South Korea, which also shine in the education rankings). Headmasters are often appointed in their 30s and rewarded with merit pay if they do well but moved on quickly if their schools underperform. Tests are endemic.  [source]

Here’s some more detail – from an OECD report. The question I’m trying to resolve is how PRECISELY does Singapore manage incentives in a manner to get stupendously high quality outcomes in many fields, despite government ownership. They have clearly mastered Chanakya’s Arthashastra.


Singapore has developed a comprehensive system for selecting, training, compensating and developing teachers and principals, thereby creating tremendous capacity at the point of education delivery. Key elements of that system are described below:

  • Recruitment: Prospective teachers are carefully selected from the top one-third of the secondary school graduating class, by panels that include current principals. Strong academic ability is essential, as is commitment to the profession and to serving diverse student bodies. Prospective teachers receive a monthly stipend that is competitive with the monthly salary for fresh graduates in other fields. They must commit to teaching for at least three years. interest in teaching is seeded early through teaching internships for high school students; there is also a system for mid-career entry, which is a way of bringing real-world experience to students.
  • Training: All teachers receive training in the Singapore curriculum at the National institute of Education (NiE) at Nanyang Technological university. They take either a diploma or a degree course depending on their level of education at entry. There is a close working relationship between NiE and the schools, where all new teachers are mentored for the first few years. As NiE’s primary purpose is training all Singapore teachers, there are no divisions between arts and sciences and education faculties. Thus, according to Lee Sing Kong, the conflicting priorities that plague many Western teacher education programmes are less significant and there is a stronger focus on pedagogical content. NiE has put in place a matrix organisational structure whereby programme offices (g. office for Teacher Education) liaise with individual academic groups in drawing up initial teacher training programmes. This means that these programmes are designed with the teacher in mind, rather than to suit the interests of the various academic departments. As such, there is a stronger focus on pedagogical content and greater synergies among modules within each programme.
  • Compensation: The ministry of Education keeps a close watch on occupational starting salaries and adjusts the salaries for new teachers to ensure that teaching as seen as equally attractive as other occupations for new graduates. Teacher salaries do not increase as much over time as those in private sector jobs, but there are many other career opportunities within education for teachers. Teaching is also regarded as a 12-month position. There are retention bonuses and high-performing teachers can also earn significant amounts in performance bonuses.
  • Professional development: in recognising the need for teachers to keep up with the rapid changes occurring in the world and to be able to constantly improve their practice, they are entitled to 100 hours of professional development per year. This may be undertaken in several ways. courses at the National institute of Education focus on subject matter and pedagogical knowledge and lead towards higher degrees or advanced diplomas. Much professional development is school-based, led by staff developers. Their job is to identify teaching-based problems in a school, for example, with a group’s mathematics performance; or to introduce new practices such as project-based learning or new uses of icT. Each school also has a fund through which it can support teacher growth, including developing fresh perspectives by going abroad to learn about aspects of education in other countries. Teacher networks and professional learning communities encourage peer-to-peer learning and the Academy of Singapore Teachers, was opened in September 2010 to further encourage teachers to continuously share best practices.
  • Performance appraisal: Like every other profession in Singapore, teachers’ performance is appraised annually by a number of people and against 16 different competencies. included in this Enhanced Performance Management System is teachers’ contribution to the academic and character development of the students in their charge, their collaboration with parents and community groups, and their contribution to their colleagues and the school as a whole. Teachers who do outstanding work receive a bonus from the school’s bonus pool. This individual appraisal system sits within the context of great attention to the school’s overall plan for educational excellence, since all students in Singapore have multiple teachers, even in primary school.
  • Career development: Throughout Singapore, talent is identified and nurtured rather than being left to chance. After three years of teaching, teachers are assessed annually to see which of three career paths would best suit them – master teacher, specialist in curriculum or research or school leader. Each path has salary increments. Teachers with potential as school leaders are moved to middle management teams and receive training to prepare them for their new roles. Middle managers’ performance is assessed for their potential to become vice principals, and later, principals. Each stage involves a range of experience and training to prepare candidates for school leadership and innovation.
  • Leadership selection and training: Singapore has a clear understanding that high-quality teaching and strong school performance require effective leaders. Poor quality leadership is a key factor in teacher attrition in many countries (Ng, 2008). Singapore’s approach to leadership is modelled on that found in large corporations. The key is not just the training programme, but the whole approach to identifying and developing talent. This differs from the US or UK approach, for example, in which a teacher can apply to train as a principal or school head, and then apply for a position in a school. in Singapore, young teachers are continuously assessed for their leadership potential and given opportunities to demonstrate and learn, for example, by serving on committees, then being promoted to head of department at a relatively young age. Some are transferred to the ministry for a period. After these experiences are monitored, potential principals are selected for interviews and go through leadership situational exercises. if they pass these, then they go to NiE for six months of executive leadership training, with their salaries paid. The process is comprehensive and intensive and includes an international study trip and a project on school innovation. Only 35 people per year are selected for the executive leadership training. Asked why Singapore uses the “select then train” rather than the “train then select” model, Professor Lee Sing Kong said that while the US/UK approach is feasible, it carries a higher risk. Singapore is very confident that they consistently have the best possible leaders for their schools and that there is a wide range of inputs into their selection. Principals are transferred between schools periodically as part of Singapore’s continuous improvement strategy.

By putting its energy in the front end of recruiting high-quality people and giving them good training and continuing support, Singapore does not have the massive problems of attrition and persistently ineffective teachers and principals that plague many systems around the world. Teaching has developed into a competitive and well-regarded occupation. it is also now considered to be an honour to be a teacher in Singapore.


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The key features of the Singapore bureaucratic model in a three paras – from The Economist

Continuing from here.

One thing that stands out in Singapore is the quality of its civil service. Unlike the egalitarian Western public sector, Singapore follows an elitist model, paying those at the top $2m a year or more. It spots talented youngsters early, lures them with scholarships and keeps investing in them. People who don’t make the grade are pushed out quickly.

Sitting around a table with its 30-something mandarins is more like meeting junior partners at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey than the cast of “Yes, Minister”. The person on your left is on secondment at a big oil company; on your right sits a woman who between spells at the finance and defence ministries has picked up degrees from the London School of Economics, Cambridge and Stanford. High-fliers pop in and out of the Civil Service College for more training; the prime minister has written case studies for them. But it is not a closed shop. Talent from the private sector is recruited into both the civil service and politics. The current education minister used to be a surgeon.

Western civil services often have pretty good people at the top, but in Singapore meritocracy reigns all the way down the system. Teachers, for instance, need to have finished in the top third of their class (as they do in Finland and South Korea, which also shine in the education rankings). Headmasters are often appointed in their 30s and rewarded with merit pay if they do well but moved on quickly if their schools underperform. Tests are endemic. [Source]

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A not-so-useful additional piece of information regarding Singapore’s governance system

Continuing from here, this is an extract from: Governance and Bureaucracy in Singapore: Contemporary Reforms and Implications – M. Shamsul Haque, International Political Science Review, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Apr., 2004), pp. 227-240

Unfortunately, the article is pretty superficial and doesn’t get to the bottom of the governance system details. Nevertheless, it may be helpful as part of a broader analysis I hope to undertake in the coming weeks/ months (time permitting).

Btw, the incapability of “economists” in analysing the governance machine is what I mean when I say that most “economists” are very superficial.


First, although Singapore inherited the same British model of governance as other Commonwealth states, its governing system has become widely known for efficiency and competence, especially in terms of its role in generating an “economic miracle.

the Singapore government has adopted some major components of business-oriented public administration (sometimes called the “new public management”) which evolved in the advanced capitalist nations during the 1980s and 1990s (Haque, 2001). In general, the two main components of this business-oriented public management are the disaggregation of various ministries, departments, and agencies into autonomous executive agencies with greater autonomy and the delegation to these autonomous agencies of financial and managerial authority for formulating and implementing programs based on final results or outcomes, rather than inputs and processes (Haque, 2003).


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Another – very useful – detailed analysis of the Singaporean bureaucracy

Continuing from here. The following article shows how the Singapore bureaucracy is based on some of the word’s best economic principles of performance and accountability (In comparison, IAS and Indian systems are based on the worst).

Download PDF: Milestone programs for the administrative service in the Singapore Public Service James Low

In line with meritocratic principles, entrance into the apex of the Administrative Service is based on qualifications and is highly stringent. AOs are typically scouted from among the best and brightest of 18-year-old high school leavers. Those who excel academically and exhibit leadership abilities are offered Singaporean Government scholarships sponsoring their tertiary studies in prestigious overseas universities. On graduation, these ‘scholars’ are required to serve in the public service, typically in the Management Associates Program, in stints of three to four years at one or two government agencies (SAS n.d.(b)). If performance at these junior policy positions is deemed ‘outstanding’, they are then absorbed into the Administrative Service. AOs who do not perform to expectation during their probation of one to two years can choose other schemes of service in the public service. Entrance into the Administrative Service, in other words, is not direct and involves a highly rigorous process.

On confirmation of their appointment by the Public Service Commission, AOs are held to demanding standards as these generalists are rotated across the public service. Each posting spans two to three years to expose them ‘to a broad spectrum of policy work and acquire knowledge, experience and expertise in government administration, economic, security and social fields’ (Teo 2001). Regular postings are also meant to evaluate them in different job contexts for their suitability for promotion to senior positions. These postings and promotions are decided by the Special Personnel Board of senior permanent secretaries, whose standards are exacting. AOs who meet the standards after two to three postings are promoted to the SR9 grade as directors heading departments, typically at age 32 (Teo 2007; PSD 2010). The SR9 grade’s S$365,000 (A$357,000) annual remuneration illustrates the policy of high pay to attract and retain talent. In comparison, the MX9 grade director in the general public service receives no more than S$264,000 (A$258, 000).7

While there are no official data on MX9 salaries, the monthly salary at the midpoint of AOs with potential for higher leadership positions after two to three directorships are promoted into Public Sector Leadership—that is, chief executives of statutory boards and deputy and permanent secretaries of ministries.

note: MX9 grade was revealed as S$13,750 (A$13,400). Assuming the typical 13-month payment and three months’ performance bonus, the annual salary of the mid-scale MX9 officer is S$220,000 (A$215,000) (Teo 2012). Internet discussions listed the MX9 monthly salary range from $10,580 to $16,540 (A$10,300 to A$16,200) and typical bonuses as four months (Salary Singapore 2011).

However, if ‘an officer’s potential is assessed to be below that of at least deputy secretary when he reaches his mid-30s, he will be counselled to leave the Administrative Service’ (Teo 2001: 5). The tenures of public sector leaders are capped at 10 years to allow leadership renewal but also to accommodate rapid mobility up the ranks.

Critics argue that AOs ‘should work their way up’ (Koh 2006; see also The Straits Times 2006; Loh 2007; Lim 2008). Rapid promotion and postings may have shielded AOs from experience implementing policies on the ground and working with everyday citizens. While they may excel at writing papers and table-top planning, some AOs— detractors allege—may lack ‘soft skills’ such as working with people: from members of the public to their staff and peers. The Public Service Division (PSD) clarified that AOs ‘are subject to stricter requirements and higher expectations … those who do not measure up to the high standards are asked to leave or transfer to another Service’ (Ong 2007). In response to criticisms of AOs’ high pay, the minister in charge of the civil service pointed out:

[T]here is no perfect method for doing this benchmarking … We do not want pay to be the main reason for people to join us. But we also do not want pay to be the reason for them not to join us, or to leave after joining us. (Teo 2007)

Most of the training for AOs, as for other public service officers, is conducted by the Civil Service College (CSC). The CSC is a statutory board established by legislation specifically to provide training for the Singapore Public Service. Its status as a statutory board affords it greater autonomy than government ministries in areas such as financial arrangements and human resource management. For example, the CSC has the liberty to offer greater remuneration to attract staff. As with all statutory boards, the CSC reports to a parent ministry, which, appropriately, is the public service’s Personnel Management Ministry, the PSD, which, in turn, is located within the Prime Minister’s Office. Providing CSC management with oversight and strategic guidance is a board of directors. Chaired by the Permanent Secretary of the PSD, this board also includes permanent secretaries of several ministries, chief executives of other government agencies and senior executives from the private sector (CSC 2014).

The CSC currently has three training departments. Apart from the international training arm, the two local training departments allow the CSC to train about 40,000 public officers each year, or one in every three officers (CSC 2008b: 9). The bulk of this training is conducted through the Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM). The range of courses caters to officers from Division 1 to Division 4, and includes induction skills training (human resource management, fiscal planning, information and communications technology, and so on) and pre-retirement planning—almost a cradle-to-grave offering of training in the career of a public officer (CSC 2008a).


The department in the CSC responsible for training AOs is the Institute of Policy Development


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The secret of the outstanding performance of Singapore’s bureaucracy: attention to detailed incentives

This follows on from my periodic analysis of Singapore’s governance system (see this and this).

I found this quite helpful:

EXTRACT FROM thIS 2007 article (Download PDF – Discipline and Democratize: Patterns of Bureaucratic Accountability in Southeast Asia by Scott Fritzen The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore Forthcoming in International Journal of Public Adminisration

Singapore’s managerialist vision

Singapore’s bureaucracy presents something of a conundrum for theorists of administration: it is undoubtedly high-capacity, yet as Hamilton-Hart[15] puts it, “has
limited internal cohesion and, qua bureaucracy, occupies a subordinate role in the political process.” Singapore’s administrative reforms have fallen into virtually all of the categories in figure one’s typology, with different quadrants emphasized at different points in its short history. Two points stand out.

The first is the high degree of success in structuring the administrative system along “structural political control” lines (quadrant 3). Worthington notes that in Singapore’s “managerial state”, the bureaucracy as a tool of a “hegemonic political program” has achieved “an overwhelming presence” in both society and (through Government Linked Corporations, among other instruments) the economy[27]. Structurally, public and private sector actors – “entwined in terms of their interests, roles and career paths” – combine to form the governing elite[15]. In such a system, centers of accountability may be diffuse – witness the “enormous autonomous power” possessed by administrators of statutory boards, for instance – even while the overarching effect is to create a “centralization of power within a small group” [16].

Second, Singapore’s administrative reforms have for the most part taken place within the organizational quadrants of figure 1 (quadrants 1 and 2). Reforms to combat corruption and promote responsiveness in the civil service are widely regarded even by Singapore’s critics to have been successful in creating highly effective civil service machinery. The earliest phase of reform in Singapore drew largely on the managerialist strategies in quadrant 1. A high priority for the leadership following Singapore’s expulsion from the Malaysia in 1965 was to ensure the loyalty of civil servants to the leadership in the face of an ongoing Communist challenge and to make the civil service more sensitive to the needs of the population. Towards these ends, the People’s Action

Party (PAP) “relied on two agencies—the Political Study Centre and the Central Complaints Bureau—and a host of other measures—viz., participation in mass civil projects, recruitment of non-English educated graduates into the civil service, tougher disciplinary measures, and a policy of selective retention and retirement of senior civil
servants.” [29]

A priority emerging somewhat later was the reduction of petty corruption, held to be rife throughout the service during the colonial period. Singapore’s strategy follows the classic recommendations of the economic analysis of corruption (Rose-Ackermann 1999): raise the potential costs and lower the potential benefits of engaging in corrupt activities. Three key steps in Singapore included: 1) creation of a strong legal foundation for a broad definition of corruption (including the intention to be corrupt) and with high penalties for those convicted; 2) establishment of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Board located within the Prime Minister’s office which was primarily (especially in the early periods) focused on the investigation of malpractice; and 3) substantial increase in salaries for civil servants [30]. In addition, the political leadership consistently signaled its commitment to anti-corruption consistently and its performance in reducing corruption as an early locus of legitimacy. This anti-corruption strategy, with its mix of quadrants 1-2 control and promotional measures, has been deemed extremely effective in rooting out bureaucratic corruption. For a number of years, Singapore has ranked as one of the least corrupt countries in the world in international surveys such as the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (

A different set of reforms known as PS21 has focused further attention onto quadrant 2 in recent years. Several initiatives centering on “a culture of efficiency and customer service” if not democratic accountability [28] include the widespread use of service standards, work improvement teams, performance measurement systems linked to incentives and awards for innovative practices, and measures to enhance feedback from the consumers of public services [31]. These measures fit neatly under the ‘Reinventing Government’ or ‘New Public Management’ rubric[32]. It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of the PS21 reforms, as independent and publicly accessible evaluations appear to be lacking, but the Singaporean public sector is widely praised for its efficiency and adaptiveness.

This short review raises a question. How is it that Singapore has been apparently successful in its use of several different reform strategies, from control to promotion, and from organizational to structural change? It may be that a necessary (though insufficient) condition for reform success has been the lower transaction costs associated with monitoring bureaucratic behavior in this city-state context. Another is the virtuous circle through which resources for bureaucratic reform (such as civil service pay increases) have both contributed to, and been generated by, Singapore’s remarkable economic ascent.

The main precondition for continued reform along the managerialist path outlined above is probably the persistence of a policy orientation based on the disciplining effect of economic integration and openness. The ample evidence for such an orientation co-exists with signs suggesting it may become increasingly difficult for Singapore. Hamilton-Hart[15] emphasizes the way in which Singapore’s high-performance public sector rests on informal norms and practices reinforcing meritocracy, but questions how robust the system is in light of an emerging class of elite individuals straddling public

private sector boundaries. There is also little evidence of a move towards more political competition at present, suggesting internal reform improvements might reach a natural barrier. For example, Singaporean reforms that in other contexts might potentially occupy the democratic sector in quadrant 4 – such as the creation of Community Development Councils (CDC) in the 1990s to make service delivery more responsive to local needs – may fail to reach their potential; at present, CDC members are in fact appointed by the PAP itself[33]. Haque’s finding that the “overwhelming power of bureaucracy” and dominant social groups and classes prevent New Public Management-oriented accountability mechanisms from working properly in developing country environments[34] might apply as well to Singapore’s context.

Such a movement towards the democratic versions of the bureaucratic accountability strategy (quadrants 3 and 4) would in Singapore rely on a loosening of PAP hegemony over both bureaucracy and civil society; for the former there is no evidence to date, while analysts debate the extent to which the latter may be occurring[35].

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