How can Singapore steer through volatility?

By Joshua Chambers and Poon Yun Xuan

Interview with Aaron Maniam, Deputy Secretary of Industry & Information, Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore.

“The Chinese word for crisis combines the characters for danger and opportunity”, remarks Aaron Maniam, a senior Singaporean official. It is hard to see the opportunities of a pandemic, but civil servants must try - reshaping their nations to cope with a changing world.

This illustrates how the city-state tries to think of its major challenges. A country of under six million people - and with no natural resources - must constantly adapt to survive.

For decades, Singapore Government has inculcated this mindset in its officials. Maniam was the first head of the nation’s Centre for Strategic Futures; led the Institute of Public Sector Leadership; and is now Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Communications and Information during Singapore’s worst crisis since independence. He spoke with GovInsider about coping with a volatile future.

Rebuilding from Covid-19


Maniam’s Zoom background is a cartoon of a playground dragon from a local public housing estate. This 1970s concrete slide has become a treasured object for nostalgic Singaporeans, a symbol of continuity in a nation that must constantly demolish and rebuild for the times.

As Singapore rebuilds from Covid-19, what innocuous objects from 2019 could be relegated to rare symbols of the past? Our “assumptions of physicality” could go, he says, because “I don't think we are going to have a post-Covid world, I think we're going to have a world where we live with Covid-19.” This will affect everything from employment models to working patterns and even entire industries.

He reels off changes that could be wrought by this, from our ability to enjoy walking through the city, to the nature of employment in a globalised world. Who should qualify for employment status in a world of remote work - someone physically living in the nation, or someone who contributes more to the economy and pays taxes? These are questions that countries like Estonia are grappling with, he notes, as they explore the concept of digital nomads and e-residency.

Government itself will also change, he says. Some officials have merrily adapted to remote work, but other roles require making, mentoring, brainstorming, and experimenting - which all need a physical presence. If we don’t account for these differences, “we run the risk of not having the best possible solutions because we haven't given the space for iteration and more experimental conversational approaches”, Maniam warns.

This means that offices must adapt. Governments will need to explore hybrid approaches where virtual and physically-present colleagues interact, share information, and collaborate in creative ways, Maniam says.

These ideas are being looked at by governments across the world. The computer scientist Bret Victor is pioneering the concept of ‘seeing rooms’, for instance, where augmented reality supports decision making. This has inspired the British Government’s announcement of a new NASA-style ‘mission control’ for policy-making this month.

Yet a world of remote working highlights deep inequalities in our societies. Those with plush residences are glad to enjoy their homes, while others may lack connectivity, a space they are comfortable in, or a pleasant (or safe) social environment. “The virus has really entrenched and deepened a lot of the existing inequalities in every society”, he says, and “communities and governments have a duty to step in”.

Navigating uncertainty

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama notes that “future historians will trace comparably large effects to the current coronavirus pandemic; the challenge is figuring them out ahead of time”.

So how do we build government structures that are comfortable with uncertainty and change? “I’m not sure we can ever be comfortable,” Maniam says, but officials can be prepared. Language is crucial to this, he believes. “Even if we disagree on the conclusions of what the future might look like, we need a language which allows us to have these discussions”.

President John F Kennedy once, to his cost, discovered the importance of a shared language. In 1961 the CIA was preparing to support an invasion of Cuba at the site of the Bay of Pigs. Military planners told the President that there was a “fair chance” of success. But as Philip Tetlock writes in the book Superforecasting, it transpired that “fair chance” meant a one in three chance - 33 per cent. The language was deceptive, and the probability proved accurate - the 66 per cent chance of failure was correct and Kennedy was humiliated by the bloody defeat.

Communicating futures to decision makers

Nobody knows what will happen in the next few years, but government officials must prepare for any eventuality. How do you communicate these uncertainties to leaders?

First, the future should not be communicated as a work of pure analysis, but as a process, Maniam says. “Futuring is not just about giving someone a written report for them to read and analyse and see whether they're persuaded by the need to be involved,” Maniam says.

Leaders should be immersed in this process. “It's not just the analytical part of their brain that is engaged in foresight, it's the whole of their brain,” he notes.

One exercise could be to create the front page of a mock newspaper, ten years into the future. Participants don’t need to come up with full stories, but they can summarise the key trends. “We tried this once and it was a really powerful way of prompting people to ask questions about what the future might look like without it being a solely analytical process,” he says.

Another exercise saw the Institute of Policy Studies hire a theatre company to dramatise different versions of the future. They even sang amended versions of familiar local songs, like ‘We Are Singapore’, subtly changing lyrics to imply different futures. That led into a ‘Museum of the Future’, with artifacts such as school examinations books, which had been retired because in that future there was less emphasis on academic results compared to the development of pupils as a whole.

Simulations and role playing games are also an effective tool, Maniam believes. “You wouldn't ask someone to fly a plane if they haven't done simulation work before,” he notes.

At the Civil Service College, he started the College’s Applied Simulation Training (CAST) Laboratory, which introduced gamification techniques, learning from military wargames and scenario planning. One game, for instance, is called Cents and Sensibilities, and plays out funding new facilities in a school. “It taught people about finance and procurement rules, without ever using a single PowerPoint slide,” Maniam notes.

Communicating uncertainty to citizens

Civil servants may be expected to cope with uncertainty, but ordinary citizens just want to live their lives. How do governments communicate in a time of great flux?

“All humans crave a certain amount of order,” Maniam notes. “It's a natural part of our instincts. But Singapore is also in a situation where we don't always have that luxury. We are buffeted by the vicissitudes of globalisation”.

“The first thing to do is to humanise this communication,” Maniam continues. Rather than share macro trends, communications should emphasise what they mean for individuals, and how people can adapt to these changes.
Projects like SkillsFuture, the adult training support programme for Singaporeans, are an important way to encourage citizens, he notes. “It's about preparing people to be resilient and change-ready”, he notes.

The second thing is to involve citizens in conversations that help them understand the big policy decisions. Since the pandemic struck, the government has held a series of conversations - Singapore Together - with citizens to discuss how to cope. “There are things you will still want to make your governments decide on, like taxation and national security decisions. But there's a growing swathe of things that citizens have really good ideas for, and we want to involve them in the process,” Maniam says.

Government structures of the future

Maniam returned to government after a break studying digital government at Oxford. He examined the structures and trends shaping global success.

One of the big trends in government is the idea of ‘government as a platform’, and the potential for structures to be overhauled to fit the internet age. Why is Spotify or Netflix structured so differently to a government, with its independent Ministries and agencies, when all of them provide services?

An integrated online platform can be helpful for citizens, but “what goes into that platform will still need to come from the deep domain expertise that individual ministries have”, Maniam says. “I don't think we're going to have the Netflix equivalent of government replacing everything.”

Indeed, he believes that capacity, training and incentives are the most important priorities. “For me, it's actually people, mindsets and culture that are much more important than the structure”, he says. “Institutions themselves will always get outdated at some point, so we need to be able to envision new ones.”

This requires being “willing to sit in the untidiness”, he says, coping with uncertainty, volatility, and ever constant change.