Can there be another Pillay, another Sim Kee Boon?

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JY Pillay
JY Pillay

By Abhijit Nag

JY Pillay
JY Pillay

Can Singapore produce another JY Pillay, Sim Kee Boon or Philip Yeo? Civil servants who can create or nurture world-class institutions?

Pillay will be remembered as the visionary chairman of Singapore Airlines who turned it into a top-flight carrier, Sim as the man who helped create Changi airport, Yeo as the chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB) encouraging foreigners to invest here and as chairman of A*STAR promoting biomedical research.

Any way you look at it, they are epic heroes in the Singapore success story, nurturing institutions that helped the city-state become an economic powerhouse, inviting comparisons with Venice in its heyday.

How can they be emulated? Can there be another Changi airport, another Singapore Airlines, another EDB or A*STAR?

Is it fair to expect civil servants to create or nurture world-class institutions? Isn’t that what you expect  of an ambitious entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?

Civil servants start as faceless Renaissance men, moving up the ranks of the civil service while working behind the scenes,  drafting and implementing policies. In an arcane world of growing specialization, they are expected to be gifted generalists, able to handle, say, finance and urban planning with equal aplomb.

It is a tall order, but there are people who fit the bill. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, for example, started in the Singapore police force before joining the administrative service, where he served as the principal private secretary to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and eventually became the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

But he did not have to do what Pillay or Sim Kee Boon did. One may say the pioneers are impossible to emulate because Singapore is now a mature economy. There is not going to be another Singapore Airlines or Changi airport. But look at all the changes taking place. Old institutions have merged into new entities such as the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore and the Media Development Authority. There is a whole new airline – Tiger Airways.

The civil service has to change with Singapore. Public Service Commission (PSC) chairman Eddie Teo warns against elitism. This is his second open letter – and it marks a change from his first.

In his first open letter , in 2009, he wrote about how to prepare for the PSC scholarship interview.

This time, he stresses the need for greater diversity in the civil service to avoid “groupthink” and “appreciate the needs of a more diverse population” because of the new immigrants and more Singaporeans marrying foreigners. PSC scholarships are being offered to students from more schools, he says.

Things have changed since the 2011 election.  Sustainable growth, greater productivity and reduced  dependence on foreign workers are the new desiderata.

The government plays a bigger role in Singapore than in many countries.  It was not the US government which created Silicon Valley. That was largely done by private enterprise. In Singapore, it is the government  that decides which industries to promote.  Helping make the decisions and carrying them out is the civil service. So Singapore is really run by the mandarins.

Kishore Mahbubani  lavished high praise on the civil service in his book, The New Asian Hemisphere, in 2008. He wrote:

“The most meritocratic civil service in the world today is not found in any Western country but Singapore. The elite civil service ranks are filled by Administrative Service Officers (AOs). To get the best to serve as AOs, the Singapore government tries to pay the most senior AOs as much as the private sector… It’s a small price to pay if a country wants to progress and succeed in a far more competitive environment.”

In light of the transformation under way, the discarded old policies and the new thinking, one may – taking a leaf from Mahbubani – ask: Has the civil service been delivering the bang for the buck? Changing times call for not only new ideas but the vision to anticipate the future. The move for greater diversity in the civil service shows a quest for new perspectives, fresh pairs of eyes.