In 1898 former cabin boy Morgan Robertson published ‘Futility’, a novel about a vessel so huge it was deemed indestructible. During a voyage through the North Atlantic, the ship – named Titan – hit an iceberg and sank. The tale’s uncanny similarity to the real Titanic 14 years later caused Robertson to be viewed as a clairvoyant.

Most government officials do not share Robertson’s luck in foreseeing the future. So how can they prepare for what is to come? According to Lim Siong Guan, the former head of Singapore’s civil service, it is important to create a culture that can handle uncertainty, and adapt quickly to a changing world.

Lim, who is currently a professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, spoke with GovInsider to share how Singapore’s civil service encourages a future-ready mindset.

Building a future-ready culture

We are entering a more uncertain and volatile world, and government must prepare for worse to come – from extreme weather events to a second pandemic. “That the public doesn’t do. That’s a job the public leaves to the government. That’s why they elect you into office,” says Lim.

For a government to prepare, it should “worry a lot about the culture”, not about predicting what lies ahead, Lim says. “I would think of it in terms of what are the characteristics that I require of my people, so that as the future unfolds – and there’s going to be surprises along the way – I have the capacity to respond,” he says.

Back in 1995 when Lim was Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, he observed that the country’s public service needed to be more responsive. “It was no longer enough just to implement rules and enforce regulations. A mindset change was needed”, notes the civil service website.

In response, Lim spearheaded the “Public Service for the 21st Century” programme. This sought to build “a mindset of anticipating change and perceiving it as an opportunity, rather than threat”, according to the site. Civil servants were encouraged to think deeply about their nation and develop broader values that help them innovate.

“What I require is a group of people with the ability to respond, to adjust, to be aware of what’s going on, always trying to understand and half the time understanding you got it wrong,” Lim says. “Then you are going to worry about things like agility, humility, an openness of mind.”

Preparing for chaos

A useful concept, he says, is David Snowden’s “cynefin diagram”, which sets out four increasingly severe scenarios. The first is ‘simple’ and requires a routine reaction; the second is ‘complicated’ but can be analysed and solved; third is ‘complex’ and involves a great deal of uncertainty; while the fourth is ‘chaotic’. These situations require different approaches.

Take the two most severe options. The complex scenario is when government enters the world of the “unknown unknowns”, Lim says. It is the world of the Black Swan, where cause-and-effect can only be determined with hindsight. For instance, an example of a Black Swan is a sudden collapse in the price of oil, which could affect the stability of Middle Eastern regimes; global economics; and influence the result of elections as the economic fallout occurs.

The final scenario is the “chaos domain”, Lim says. “It’s just like if you see a man who is hemorrhaging. You don’t stop to ask for a theory as to why he’s hemorrhaging. You just say ‘he is hemorrhaging, and I better stop the bleeding, otherwise he’ll enter into shock, and he’ll die’. It’s the world of fix the symptom before you can even understand what the problem is”, Lim says. This is the world of Covid-19.

To Lim, it demonstrates why culture is so important to a civil service. No-one can be prepared for chaos, but they can be comfortable with uncertainty; trust one another and work across boundaries; learn to prioritise and communicate; and realise with humility that they cannot control everything.

This affects the training given to Singaporean officials. “I think in many civil service colleges in the world, people just spend an awful lot of time on mechanics, on techniques, on methodologies, on SOPs [standard operating procedures]. In Singapore, they spend quite a bit of time discussing what makes Singapore.”

A unique Singaporean brand

A crucial question for them to discuss is how Singapore, as a tiny nation with no natural resources, can ensure its continued stability in a volatile world. The nation is caught between the US and China as their relations worsen; it is a trade-reliant nation in a world of closing borders; and it’s an island on a planet where sea levels are rising.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has written in the latest Foreign Affairs magazine that “the troubled U.S.-Chinese relationship raises profound questions about Asia’s future and the shape of the emerging international order. Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore… must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.”

A further challenge for Singapore is the decline of the international system, with reduced funding to the United Nations, and a reduced respect for international legal rulings such as the United Nations Law of the Sea.

“International laws, or international precedences, are very important for small countries”, Lim notes, and Singapore values organisations such as the UN. It’s an open question, and a challenge for the nation, whether other countries will continue to support funding the UN. “The question is whether there’s enough enlightened self interest to say: ‘What’s beneficial to me is to maintain this bigger structure, is to maintain a framework. So, even though I gave something here, in the end, I benefited from the bigger structure.”

A core principle for Singapore, then, is to ensure that other nations do not push it around despite its size. “You tell people leave me alone, but they’re not going to leave you alone simply because it’s a nice moral thing to do. They’re going to leave you alone because it is in their national interest to leave you alone. So, you have to think that through.”

The founders of Singapore decided that the nation needed a strong national reputation, Lim says, as a country that is a reliable partner; follows the rules; has a clean government; and is a good place to do business.

“This whole business of being trustworthy and having integrity and so forth, is nice from a moral point of view. But certainly in the case of Singapore, they are not moral positions, they are survival positions,” Lim says.

“They are not moral positions, they are survival positions”

“The future of Singapore lies in attracting investment, both domestically and very critically foreign investment. And these are people who need to believe your word. There are people who need to know that when they set up an operation in Singapore that they are going to have the empathy or the support of the government,” he says. “It’s not just about tax incentives”.

Even as such values of integrity and trustworthiness decline around the world, Lim believes that Singapore needs to hold onto its brand. “I think the most important thing for Singapore is to be terribly clear in our minds what it is that will give us our best chances for survival and success, and just stick reliably on that course,” he adds.

Lessons from SARS

Lim had his own fair share of tackling uncertainty. He was the Head of Civil Service when SARS reached Singapore’s shores in 2003, infecting 238 people and leaving 33 dead.

Back then, medical professionals had no idea what it was, how it spread, or how to tackle it. Lim believes its lessons have helped Singapore respond to Covid-19. “We went straight away into contact tracing, we went straight away into: ‘How do I prevent or at least limit community spread?” he says.

Still, the country began to discover that there were things about Covid-19 that were unexpected. “It took us a little time to appreciate that Covid-19 has a good number of asymptomatic cases, which was not the case with SARS at all,” Lim says.

A crucial difference between SARS and Covid-19 is that SARS was eliminated from Singapore within half a year, but Covid-19 appears to require a vaccine before it goes away. Given that additional complexity, how can the civil service operate and address future challenges?

“You need really separate teams of people,” Lim says. “If you lump on the day-to-day operator the responsibility to think about the future, the future will never get solved because he’ll always be focusing his mind on the urgent”.

Agencies need “at least two teams, if not more than two teams. There’s one team that does all the moment-by-moment, day-to-day operations. And there’s another team, which says: ‘Well, what does all this thing look like? You know, where could we be one week from now? Where could be one month from now? What are we going to do in that kind of situation?’”

Lim adds that agencies should take responsibility for this, rather than having a centralised unit in the Prime Minister’s Office thinking it all through. “I wouldn’t set up a separate unit in the Prime Minister’s Office because I think the moment you do that you are taking this sense of responsibility and accountability away from the people who are responsible for the delivery. And a lot of the time the people responsible for delivery are the people with the most immediate knowledge of what the challenges are, and what issues there are”.

Singapore is in one of the most challenging times in its history; a voyage beset by uncertain conditions; changing resources; volatile storms and an ever-changing destination.

A nation may not be able to spot all of the icebergs. But it can understand the seas, train a crew with integrity and perspicacity; and build a strong enough hull to weather the storms.

Images by Phil Zofra and the Singapore Institute of Policy Studies