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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].

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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