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Unpacking Singapore's System of Government: The Public Service

Updated: Nov 17, 2023


Image: Credits to Wikipedia Commons

In this Explainer, find out...

  • How is the Public Service structured and who is part of the Public Service?

  • How is the separation of functions across Ministries and Statutory Boards beneficial?

  • What does 'One Public Service' seek to achieve?


Introduction

From ensuring the cleanliness of our streets to representing Singapore in the global arena, those in the Public Service – who are also known as public servants – occupy a critical position in our society. While they are often simply regarded as “office workers”, the actions of public servants constitute the services “delivered" by the Government. It can therefore be said that public servants serve the people of Singapore by ensuring the smooth execution of policy and day-to-day operations. But even in a country as small as Singapore, the Public Service system is intricate, comprising Ministries and Statutory Boards – each with its own specific responsibilities.


This Policy Explainer is the last of the six-part series on Singapore’s System of Government. In this piece, we will break down the Public Service and discuss the structures behind the people responsible for making Singapore better for you and me.



People of the Public Service

The Singapore Public Service employs about 150,000 officers. The Public Service is often confused with the Civil Service, which in reality, is a subset of the wider Public Service and consists of the 86,000 Civil Servants who work within the Ministries.¹


Public Servants work in various schemes of service, including the administrative service, legal, education, police, and civil defence, among others. They are centrally managed by the Public Service Division (PSD) which was established by the Ministry of Finance in 1983 and is now a subdivision of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).²

The chief duty of Public Servants is to serve the people of Singapore. Public Servants work in organisations that ultimately have the best interest of the nation and its people in mind, working to better our way of life.


Relationship between The Executive, Civil Servants, and Public Servants

The Cabinet, which is led by the Prime Minister, decides which Members of Parliament will become Ministers and manage the different Ministries. As previously explained in our issue on The Executive, Ministers provide the overall direction for Ministries and serve to make executive decisions for the Ministry.³ Civil Servants aim to provide information and guidance needed for Ministers to make a clear and good decision.


Civil Servants also ultimately help Ministers to translate the decisions that they have made into comprehensive policies. Civil Servants help to fine-tune and check the more specific and technical aspects of policies, while Ministers provide the overall big-picture view for Civil Servants to move towards.


While Public Servants are not directly involved in Ministries, many of them work in close partnership with Ministries, whether it is in Statutory Boards or other agencies that are affiliated with the Government.


It is this close-knit teamwork between the Public Service and the Executive that allows large nationwide initiatives to be translated effectively and carefully into individual policies.


Bodies within the Public Service


Ministries

Each Ministry is led by a team of Ministers (also known as the “Political Appointees”) who are appointed by the Cabinet. They are assisted by “Senior Management” consisting of a number of Permanent Secretaries (PS) and Deputy Permanent Secretaries (DS) who are the most senior civil servants within the Ministries.⁴


Ministries all serve a specific purpose and can be re-organised, re-named, or merged by the direction of the Cabinet as national priorities change over time. As of writing, there are currently 16 Ministries.⁵


Ministries are composed of Departments or Divisions with the PS and DS deciding how the Ministry should be organised to best fulfil their organisational purpose. The duties that a Ministry has to fulfil are general and routine, and they are normally very process and structure-driven.⁶


Statutory Boards

A Statutory Board is one form of public enterprise in Singapore involved in its development. They work to serve the interest of the public by helping to translate the Cabinet’s policies into actionable measures. Some definitions of a Statutory Board include “an autonomous government agency set up by special legislation to perform specific functions” and a “catchall phrase for statutory bodies established by an Act of Parliament”.⁷


There are 64 Statutory Boards in Singapore that play a pivotal role in overseeing and regulating sectors such as health, care, education and urban planning. Some examples of Statutory Boards include the Central Provident Fund Board (CPFB) and the National Environmental Agency (NEA).


Statutory Boards are also closely affiliated with Ministries. For instance, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of National Development (MND) are the Housing & Development Board (HDB) and the National Parks Board (NParks), which are responsible for public housing and Singapore’s urban ecosystem respectively. Similar to Ministries, Statutory Boards also have legal authority, so one is not allowed to breach any lawful orders by agents from a Statutory Board.


Employees of Statutory Boards are also considered Public Servants. However, in terms of legal status, Statutory Boards are not part of the Civil Service. This means that employees of Statutory Boards are not recruited and selected by the Public Service Commission (PSC).⁸


Ministries vs Statutory Boards: What are the Key Differences?

While Ministries and Statutory Boards may seem similar, there are two justified distinctions in their structure and how they operate.


1. Flexibility and Autonomy

Statutory Boards might not possess the same legal privileges and immunities as Ministries because they are not part of the Civil Service.⁹ However, Statutory Boards do benefit from increased autonomy and flexibility in executing their duties. They take charge of their lawsuits, agreements and contracts, as well as the acquisition and disposal of property in their own name.¹⁰ Statutory Boards also have their own Board of Directors.


However, Statutory Boards must still answer to the Ministries that they are affiliated with. For example, Statutory Boards are subject to financial control. When presenting their annual financial reports to Parliament, members of Statutory Boards must still seek approval from the Minister of their affiliated Ministry for their annual budgetary estimates.¹¹


2. Specificity

Ministries are the main government bodies responsible for setting broader policies and overseeing broad areas like defence, finance and education. They operate with a higher level of authority, reporting directly to the Cabinet. Meanwhile, Statutory Boards manage more detailed operational tasks, with specific powers and functions as spelt out by the Act of Parliament.


With a specific mission, Statutory Boards are laser-focused on one specific area and gain deep expertise in that area which has already been deemed an area of importance by the Government.


The Organisational Principles of the Public Service

The organisational structure of Singapore’s Public Service is deliberately set up to promote development. However, the compartmentalisation of roles played by multiple Ministries and Statutory Boards runs the risk of weak inter-agency coordination for multi-faceted matters. Furthermore, citizens are occasionally unfamiliar with the appropriate agencies to contact for their requests. Sometimes, public requests would involve multiple agencies or fall between the domains of different agencies.¹² What is the benefit of retaining such an organisational system and how do the measures taken help to alleviate the complications it presents?


Benefits of having Ministries & Statutory Boards

There are three main benefits of such an arrangement, summarised as (1) Addressing Constraints of the Civil Service, (2) Reducing Workload and (3) Preventing Brain Drain.


1. Addressing Constraints of the Civil Service

Aware of the inflexibility and strict regulations of the Civil Service whose primary focus revolves around regulatory and routine affairs, the Government decided to rely on Statutory Boards to expedite the execution of socio-economic development programmes.¹³ This divides work between the Ministries and Statutory Boards, who each have their own role to play.


The Ministries oversee regulatory and routine functions, while Statutory Boards, unaffected by procedural delays and constraints of the Civil Service, can focus solely on their mission. This will speed up the evolution of policy programmes in Singapore, while ensuring important regulatory and routine functions are still being done.


2. Reducing Workload

Strengthening an organisation’s capabilities or reducing its workload contributes to specialisation and thus increased effectiveness. While increasing the capabilities of its Civil Service through training programmes, Singapore has also attempted to reduce the load on other public agencies. This involves leveraging non-governmental agencies or creating new governmental or quasi-governmental agencies. The workload is then shared among a few organisations.¹⁴


3. Preventing Brain Drain

Talented Civil Servants may be inclined to leave the Civil Service in pursuit of other types of work in the Private Sector. To prevent this, Statutory Boards, which are more flexible in their employment and work arrangements, may provide an appealing “middle way” for Civil Servants who wish to leave the Civil Service but not the Public Service as a whole. Furthermore, eligible individuals from private companies who wish to serve the public, but prefer not to join the Civil Service, might also be drawn to work in Statutory Boards.¹⁵


One Public Service

It may seem that the way everything in the Public Service is organised currently seems to rely on the principle of compartmentalisation. The idea is that by splitting a big task into small pieces and passing each piece to someone whose only job is to deal with that specific small piece, we create a system that is efficient at dealing with these individual small pieces.


Compartmentalisation, however, is a double-edged sword. This approach has improved organisational efficiency but has given rise to challenges when addressing complex issues that require collaboration between multiple agencies. It is thus not possible to fully rely on compartmentalisation. Big problems require coordinated approaches between various Ministries and Statutory Boards, and when public servants are too used to working only within their group, there may be oversights when solving problems.


Weak inter-agency coordination was aptly depicted by Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong in his 2014 National Day Rally address. The simple, but now infamous example he cited involved a stick, discarded on the ground after the fish-ball snack it held was consumed. It was left on a turf overseen by three public agencies — NEA, NParks, and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) — for days.¹⁶ Attributing such an occurrence to uncertainties about jurisdiction, the PM Lee emphasised the importance of inter-agency cooperation.


To reduce jurisdictional ambiguities in municipal issues, the Public Service sought to enhance inter-agency coordination through building a One Public Service. This involved firstly clarifying the roles and responsibilities of agencies. For example, the NEA’s roles were defined to include the collection of all litter, to prevent episodes like the discarded fish-ball stick from happening again.


In addition, a First Responder Protocol was introduced in 2012. This required any agency that received a request from the public to coordinate among all agencies involved until the request was resolved, even if the request did not fall within its purview. A Municipal Services Office was also established to oversee the coordination of municipal concerns among respective agencies.¹⁷


These were vital initiatives that emphasised the core ethos of the Public Service – to serve Singapore by doing right by the people and for the people.¹⁸ Should Public Servants view themselves as just members of individual agencies, the progress of any country would be hindered. It is therefore important to ensure that passing the buck, drawing lines, and working in silos is avoided within the Public Service.¹⁹


Conclusion

It is important for the Public Service to be made up of dedicated individuals who work to transform the vision of the Executive into the tangible reality that we live in. The Public Service, consisting of both Ministries and Statutory Boards, may seem like a collection of separate parts, like self-contained islands that serve their own purposes. However, it is only when these individual islands come together and operate as a unified archipelago that can Singapore succeed in the future.

MAJU PE_2023_25_The Public Service
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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own.


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of Singapore.

 
¹ Government of Singapore. n.d. “The Public Service - Singapore.” Careers@Gov. Accessed October 18, 2023. https://www.careers.gov.sg/who-we-are/the-public-service.
² Singapore Infopedia. 2014. “Public Service Division.” NLB eResources. https://www.nlb.gov.sg/main/article-detail?cmsuuid=09e58ad8-047b-412e-b5a6-0c5b79035949.
³ Government of Singapore. n.d. “PMO | The Cabinet.” Prime Minister's Office Singapore (PMO). Accessed October 18, 2023. https://www.pmo.gov.sg/The-Cabinet.
⁴ Government of Singapore. 2023. “Our organisation structure.” MOE. https://www.moe.gov.sg/about-us/organisation-structure.
⁵ Government of Singapore. 2023. “Singapore Government Directory.” gov.sg | Ministries. https://www.sgdi.gov.sg/ministries.
⁶ Quah, Jon S. T. 2010. “Statutory Boards.” In Public Administration Singapore-Style, 41-69. Vol. 19. N.p.: Emerald Group Publishing Limited. 10.1108/S0732-1317(2010)0000019009.
⁷ Ibid.
⁸ Ibid.
⁹ Ibid.
¹⁰ Ibid.
¹¹ Ibid.
¹² Low, James. 2019. “Public Sector Transformation, and Whatever It Takes: Remaining Relevant in the Singapore Public Service.” ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330426439_Public_Sector_Transformation_and_Whatever_It_Takes_Remaining_Relevant_in_the_Singapore_Public_Service.
¹³ Quah, Jon S. T. 2010. “Statutory Boards.” In Public Administration Singapore-Style, 41-69. Vol. 19. N.p.: Emerald Group Publishing Limited. 10.1108/S0732-1317(2010)0000019009.
¹⁴ Ibid.
¹⁵ Ibid.
¹⁶ Yeow, Hwee Ming. 2022. “Forum: Different agencies should cooperate to make things happen.” The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/forum/forum-different-agencies-should-cooperate-to-make-things-happen.
¹⁷ Low, James. 2019. “Public Sector Transformation, and Whatever It Takes: Remaining Relevant in the Singapore Public Service.”
¹⁸ Yeow, Hwee Ming. 2022. “Forum: Different agencies should cooperate to make things happen.” The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/forum/forum-different-agencies-should-cooperate-to-make-things-happen.
¹⁹ Ibid.

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