Millions of travellers pass through Changi Airport’s state-of-the-art terminals every year, including a regular flow of policymakers from around the world. Their mission? To learn first-hand the secrets of Singapore’s enduring success.

Dr Beh Swan Gin, Chairman of the Economic Development Board, is calm and measured as he stresses that the city-state has been “very lucky” over the years. However, he also points to characteristics that have underpinned the Singapore public sector’s approach: good leadership, meritocracy and impartiality. He begins, however, with an important caveat.

“Some of the key attributes that have ensured the success of Singapore’s public sector may not necessarily work for all countries, because context matters,” he points out. “But some have clearly stood the test of time. Being able to set a direction that was unambiguous and clear was very important in the early days when there was a lot more volatility and uncertainty.” Strong leadership is just as pertinent today, he adds, with current leaders able to generate support and ideas from key stakeholders and the general public, rather than just implementing a top-down approach.

“Good leadership is something the public sector invests in for all of the thousands of civil servants who work here,” he adds. “And it has to continue to evolve because the style of leadership has changed – the needs and aspirations of citizens and what citizens expect are very different compared to 20 years ago, and 20 years from now they will again be different. But while leadership style changes, the quality of leadership must remain high.”

The principle of meritocracy has also been fundamental to Singapore’s development, he says. “The public sector believes that Singapore deserves the best and whoever takes on leadership roles represents some of the best that Singapore can offer.” And impartiality, too, is vital. “We have to act with conviction but, at the end of the day, it is the political leaders and the voters who decide what it is they want for Singapore and the civil servants have to deliver it. So we have to be impartial about the way we ultimately deliver on the policies.”

Partners in delivery

The EDB is Singapore’s lead government agency for planning and executing strategies that shape Singapore’s business and economy. It is tasked with creating sustainable economic growth with vibrant business and good job opportunities. It acts as a one-stop agency that facilitates and supports local and foreign investors in both the manufacturing and internationally tradeable services sectors. As chairman of a public sector organisation that works closely with the private sector, Dr Beh is in a good position to observe how the two need to operate together as partners in order to maximise impact.

“Political leaders possess the mandate and have to persuade the people,” he points out. “This means they have to provide the vision, and have to provide the citizens with reasons why they should be voted into power. The role of the civil servant is to work in partnership with the political leadership to translate that vision into specific policies – whether it is in the economic realm, the social realm or in foreign policy. The most important part of what civil servants do is to develop and implement those policies effectively.”

“Quite clearly, the quality of the civil service matters,” he continues. “The ability of civil servants to develop a close partnership with the political leadership can influence the size of the gap between what was promised and what is realised.” In Singapore’s case, its government has sought to prioritise the long-term needs of the population while taking into account increasing demands from citizens for a greater say in how the country is run. Engagement, says Dr Beh, is crucial.

“Quite often, politicians underestimate the ability of the voter to understand the trade-off between what they want versus what may be good for the country in the long term,” he says. “This is about persuasion and, in my view, political leaders in Singapore have invested enormous time and effort to engage the population to ensure that they are able to put in place policies that are good for Singapore for the long term.” To illustrate his point, he cites ‘workfare’ – a wage supplement which encourages Singaporeans earning up to S$1,900 per month to continue working and training – as an example of a government that listens to the people but also provides a sustainable policy solution.

“Rather than come up with welfare benefits, the government came up with workfare – a wage supplement – and this is a policy that I am very proud of because it ensures that an individual continues to be motivated to secure a job,” he says. “I think this is something that society supports because it provides dignity for the individual but with a salary top-up that comes from the government. And I think this provides the right balance between self-reliance and society helping the disadvantaged.”

Citizens at the centre

Singapore’s economic success, together with its modern infrastructure and high quality of life, has proven an attractive combination for foreign workers and foreign professionals. Dr Beh describes foreign professionals and foreign workers as “stakeholders who matter to the success of the country” but adds that Singaporeans themselves will always take precedence.

“Ultimately, all governments are responsible to the people who vote them in,” he says. “We ought to appreciate foreign professionals and foreign workers and be fair to them in terms of their quality of life and the rights afforded to them in this country. But there is a difference between being generous in spirit to the non-citizens here – many of whom have decided that Singapore will be their long-term home – and being accountable to them. The government is accountable to the voter, not someone who chooses to live here but is not a citizen. This is a key difference.”

This citizen-centric approach is one that cuts across all of Singapore’s public sector. But Dr Beh – along with his senior colleagues – is fully focused on always looking to improve, rather than stagnate. “There is a lot we can do better – whether in the economic or social domain. We continue to learn from the work that we do and constantly think about how policy can evolve in order to keep up with the needs and changing demands of the population.”

And of Singapore’s successes Dr Beh cites the decision to lay out the welcome mat for multinational companies 50 years ago as perhaps the most critical decision that spurred its rapid economic growth. “Today, most economies view multinational companies as partners. But 50 years ago they were seen by developing countries as representing a new form of economic colonialism, rather than helping create jobs or contribute toward the development of new technologies and know-how,” he recalls. “But we have done very well – it wasn’t just us, many other countries had subsequently adopted this approach – and now we have to constantly evolve the economic development strategy of our country.”

While the next chapter is yet to be written, if the past is a guide to future results, there is no doubt that Singaporeans should be confident and optimistic about what lies over the horizon.

This interview was written by the Centre for Public Impact (@4publicimpact), a not-for-profit foundation. Vincent Chin is managing director of the Boston Consulting Group, Southeast Asia.