The Public Bureaucracy

Singapore Table of Contents

The government played an active role in managing the society and developing the economy and was the country's largest single employer. Government bodies and their employees fell into two distinct categories. The regular ministries and their civil service employees concentrated on recurrent and routine administrative tasks. The three ministries of education, health, and home affairs (including police, fire, and immigration) employed 62 percent (43,000) of the 69,700 civil servants in 1988. Members of the civil service in the strict sense of the term were those public employees who were appointed by the Public Service Commission and managed by the Ministry of Finance's Public Service Division. Active projects in economic development and social engineering were carried out by a large number of special-purpose statutory boards and public enterprises, which were free from bureaucratic procedures and to which Parliament delegated sweeping powers. As of 1984, there were eighty-three statutory boards employing 56,000 persons. About 125,000 members of the 1987 total work force were public employees.

The two branches of the public service served different functions in the political system. The civil service proper represented institutional continuity and performed such fundamental tasks as the collection of revenue, the delivery of such goods as potable water, and the provision of medical and educational services. The various quasigovernmental bodies, such as statutory boards, public enterprises, commissions, and councils represented adaptability, innovation, and responsiveness to local conditions. The constitutional framework of Singapore's government, with its Parliament, cabinet, courts, and functional ministries, resembled that of its British model and its peers in other countries of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The particular collection of boards and councils, which included everything from the Central Provident Fund to the Sikh Advisory Board, reflected the successful adaptation of the British model to its Southeast Asian environment.

Public service employment carried high prestige, and there was considerable competition for positions with the civil service or the statutory boards. Civil servants were appointed without regard to race or religion, and selected primarily on their performance on competitive written examinations. The civil service had four hierarchical divisions and some highly ranked "supergrade" officials. On January 1, 1988, there were 493 supergrade officers, who included ministerial permanent secretaries and departmental secretaries and constituted less than 1 percent of the 69,700 civil servants. Division one consisted of senior administrative and professional posts and contained 14 percent of the civil servants. The mid-level divisions two and three contained educated and specialized workers who performed most routine government work and who made up the largest group of civil servants, 33 and 32 percent of all civil servants, respectively. Division four consisted of manual and semiskilled workers who made up 20 percent of employees. In 1987, there were 3,153 appointments from the 9,249 applicants for positions in divisions one through three; 2,200 (some 70 percent) of the appointees were women.

The Singapore public service was regarded as almost entirely free from corruption, a fact that in large part reflected the strong emphasis the national leadership placed on probity and dedication to national values. The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau enjoyed sweeping powers of investigation and the unreserved support of the prime minister. Official honesty was also promoted by the relatively high salaries paid to public officials; the high salaries were justified by the need to remove temptations for corruption. In a system with clear echoes of the Chinese Confusian tradition, and the British administrative civil service, which recruited the top graduates of the elite universities, Singapore's public service attempted, generally successfully, to recruit the most academically talented youth. The Public Service Commission awarded scholarships to promising young people for study both in Singapore and at foreign universities on the condition that the recipients join the civil service after graduation. Young recruits to the development-oriented statutory boards were often given substantial responsibilities for ambitious projects in industrial development or the construction of housing estates. Officials had greater social prestige than their peers in business; power and official title outranked money in the local scale of esteem.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress