Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

The Youth Olympic Games: Complacency in the PAP Governance Model?

Originally published in the Temasek Review:

A couple of stories over the past few weeks on the recently organised Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Singapore caught the eye. All centred around the Ministry of Youth Sports’ (MCYS) management of YOG volunteers and the MCYS Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan’s response to the inflated YOG budget in parliament.

On 21 Sep 2010, The New Paper reported that a complimentary trip, arranged by the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee, went awry when150 students from Queenstown Secondary School were turned away from Universal Studios Singapore. The trip was organised by the YOG Committee to thank students who volunteered at the Games. Apparently the students had to go home because of a mistake in an email from the YOG Committee.

Photo Credit: Straits Times

The same week, it was discovered that the certificates for around 45,000 volunteers, participants and staff received for services rendered in support of the YOG contained “sample signatures”, rather than those of International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge and YOG Committee Chairman Ng Ser Miang. According to the YOG Committee, this was due to “an oversight in the checking process.” Vivian chimed in with an apology, “So on behalf of the organising committee, I say sorry. But I also say, far louder, a big thank you to all of you who made this Games possible.”

Earlier this week, due to an “administrative flop”, it came to light that some YOG volunteers did not receive their complimentary race tickets for the F1 Singapore Grand Prix race weekend from 24-26 September 2010. Instead, they received their tickets on 27 September 2010, after the event was over.

On 30 September 2010, a letter to the Straits Times written by one Keith Gerard Tan queried why the YOG countdown clock at Ion Orchard and the big screen near Mountbatten MRT station were still in operation more than a month after the YOG ended. He also queried when the authorities were going to remove the “Give Way” markings on the roads all over Singapore and concluded, “if the sports authorities wish to remember the YOG for posterity, build a proper Olympic park rather than leave scattered remnants that serve no purpose.”

Weeks before these shortcomings came to light, Vivian Balakrishnan in parliament no less, defended the tripling of the budget set aside to organise the event by providing a breakdown how the $387 million YOG budget was spent, since the original cost was budgeted at slightly more than $100 million. The “probing” questions came from PAP MP for Hong Kah, Zaqy Mohamad and PAP MP for Tampines Irene Ng, both of whom queried why the actual expenditure was more than initially budgeted and how other sporting events organised in Singapore compared.

Vivian’s response was that the PAP government’s inexperience in handling world-class events led to overspending and the tripling of the budget for the YOG. This odd answer aside, no MP found it appropriate to question where the additional 200-odd million dollars to fund the event came from except Non-Constituency MP and Workers’ Party Chairman Sylvia Lim (Vivian said it came from the Ministry of Finance without elaborating).

The Minister then went on to cursorily detail the breakdown of the amount spent on the YOG as follows:

  • $97 million: Technology
  • $76 million: Upgrading of sports venues and equipment
  • $45.5 million: Live broadcast plus staging of opening and closing ceremonies
  • $7 million: Journey of Youth Olympic Flame across the globe, starting in Greece
  • $44 million: Logistics
  • $18 million: Security
  • $14.3 million: Operational requirements
  • $5.4 million: Culture and Education Programme
  • $79.8 million: Miscellaneous costs such as medical services and training of volunteers

Unfortunately, Vivian did not proceed to provide details of the companies and corporate entities that received YOG-linked contracts as a result of the tripling of the YOG budget, even though he used the word “transparency” a number of times in his parliamentary address. Singapore has earned a reputation as a place where the standards of governance and corporate social responsibility are very high. It would have served Singapore’s national interests had Vivian provided a detailed breakdown of YOG-related contracts or at the very least, pointed to where Singaporeans could find that information in the name of good governance. After all, good governance, accountability and transparency are major reasons that explain the economic presence of internationally renowned MNCs in Singapore. More critically, had Vivian taken the opportunity to reach out to a higher standard of accountability, any lingering concerns Singaporeans might have had over suspicions of pork-barrelling with parliamentary elections around the corner, would have been soundly put to rest.

On a different tangent, some PAP members, senior civil servants and grassroots activists are known to privately remark how ungrateful Singaporeans are in spite of all the PAP has done in securing the opportunity to stage the first Youth Olympics for Singapore – words and terms such as unappreciative, unthankful, insensible, grumbling and a “lack of perspective” have all been employed in some way or form. What the PAP ecosystem refuses to consider is that Singaporeans are NOT an ungrateful citizenry – but that Singaporeans have become unforgiving because the PAP has made us so.

The PAP prides itself on paying ministers and the policy-making administrative service the highest salaries found anywhere in the world. At every juncture, it has championed the virtues of these individuals as men and women of the highest calibre, capability and integrity. It should then come as no surprise to the PAP that Singaporeans hold the political and administrative elites to exactingly high standards, even more so when it comes to staging high-profile events.

On 29 September, in response to the latest revelations of the YOG Committee’s ‘volunteer mismanagement’, The Online Citizen’s facebook page hosted a random poll that queried, “Weeks earlier, we asked if Vivian Balakrishnan should step down for the YOG fiasco. Do you now feel he should tender his resignation? If you do, please click like.” In a matter of hours, more than 200 individuals had done so.

But Vivian Balakrishnan’s resignation will do nothing for a reality that has entrenched itself over the last few years within the public service in Singapore. In fact, the post-YOG “cock-ups” referred to above worryingly suggest that standards of public service have stagnated and could fall in future. Amongst other reasons, the failure of the mainstream media and PAP parliamentarians to question the government more incisively, has contributed to a culture of complacency in the public service.

Credit: Scott Adams

Some have attributed this to the age-old “scholar-farmer” divide within the public service. As numerous precedents indicate, promotions to the very top echelons of public service are dominated by a small vanguard of administrative service officers. As such, it makes little sense, both cognitively and financially, for some rank-and-file public servants to strive for excellence. In addition, these very public servants are wont to reason that it makes strategic sense to save one’s energy for the high-profile endeavours rather than oversee superficially mundane matters such as YOG volunteer management with a fine-tooth comb.

A coterie of around 350 Administrative Service scholars leads the 120,000 strong Singapore Public Service (65,000 in the civil service and about 60,000 in the statutory boards). Although the public service theoretically is a separate arm of government, the Administrative Service straddles the executive and legislative arms of government, operationally forming a cocoon around the PAP political leadership. Administrative service officers write speeches for PAP ministers and they represent the brains behind many if not, all PAP policies. At the age of 32, the average administrative service officer earns in excess of $350,000 a year. By 45, he or she can expect to become a Permanent Secretary earning in excess of $1.2 million a year. When political salaries are statutorily increased, administrative service salaries follow in step. Quite simply, the relationship between the political and administrative leadership in Singapore is a symbiotic one.

Many in the 120,000 civil service understand the contours of this relationship. Some civil servants do become administrative service officers at the mid-career stage, although it has been suggested that some element of devotion to the PAP cause arguably determines this promotion. Over the years, anecdotal information suggests that a not an insignificant number have left public service because of this apparently “meritocratic” state of affairs.

Many of those who remain in service cannot afford to leave because of the relatively high civil service salaries they cannot command in the private sector and separately, because of the realities of servicing a mortgage or two and the financial realities of looking after their loved ones. Of course, there are some who genuinely believe they are in an apolitical public service, and that they serve the state, not the party in power. Sadly, these individuals do not make it to the top, and even if they do, they do not seem to last very long – and that is a travesty of the highest order. Former Attorney-General Walter Woon could have been one such individual, a prospect that was raised when in an interview with the Straits Times on the back of his short two-year tenure as Attorney-General remarked, “best to leave before you outstay your welcome, although I think among some people, I’ve already outstayed my welcome.”

These structural realities within the public service have led to the crystallization of a bifurcated civil service, partly a development of the scholar-farmer debate that characterized the public service in the 1980s. That debate has since mutated into one centred on the financial benefits of joining public service in Singapore.

Slightly more than 10 years to this day, Chua Lee Hoong, the current political editor of the Straits Times (“Boost non-monetary draw of public service”, 8 July 2000) opined – If the Singapore Public Service was to avoid monetary motivations from becoming a draw to join the public service, ways had to be found to increase the “psychic income” or spiritual satisfaction that public service brings.

Chua ended her piece as follows: “How? Well, there are probably half a dozen ways, but that, as they say, is another story for another day.”

Chua was correct in regard to the diagnosis, but absolutely wrong as far as the medicine was concerned. That was not a story for another day. That was an urgent story that required reflection ten years ago. The post-YOG fallout is proof of it. The malaise and lethargy afflicting the civil service today could foreshadow the standards of public service Singaporeans can expect in future.


Useful Links

Minister says sorry:

MCYS says sorry to YOG volunteers for latest gaffe:

Room for improvement in explaining YOG overspending:

Singaporeans unappreciative of Vivian:

YOG initial budget inaccurate:

45,000 YOG certificates to be reprinted:,000-YOG-certificates-to-be-reprinted

S’pore YOG organising committee apologies for printing errors:

Stop video clips and countdown clock:

Free F1 tickets arrive too late for YOG volunteers:


Boost non-monetary draw of public service.

8 July 2000

The Straits Times

(c) 2000 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

A LONG, long time ago, my economics tutors used to teach the concept of “psychic income”, a notion explaining why the pay of people like nurses, doctors, social workers and teachers remained low relative to other professions, despite their shortage in the economy, and the undoubted value they bring to society.

These jobs, so the theory goes, bring spiritual satisfaction, over and above that provided by pay.

Nurses and doctors hold in their hands power over health and life; social workers restore sanity and happiness; and teachers help bring children up in the way they should go.

With rewards in such lofty realms, money is but shallow and base – and therefore not a mark of one’s ability or worth.

I do not know if the concept is still taught in schools – if it isn’t, it must be a sign of changing times.

But one person, at least, still has some notion of it: Mr George Wong, who wrote in The Straits Times’ Forum page on Thursday, commenting on the pay increase for university professors.

“As an old man, I wonder what has happened to old-fashioned values like a love of learning, dedication, and job satisfaction. Have they all been replaced by monetary gain?

“In the last millennium, the greatest advances and achievements came from men who were underpaid and overworked.

“Their reward was the satisfaction of their emotional and spiritual desires, and not their desire for money,” he said.

His remarks carry added punch, coming after a week of much wringing of public hands over the ministerial pay hike.

Indeed, the subject is still the stuff of dealer-room chatter, of cafeteria conversation and of taxi monologues.

Several reporters from this newspaper carried out a street survey earlier this week. The unsurprising finding: The majority of those polled did not agree with the latest pay rise.

They might not know the details of the move; they might not have followed the Government’s rationale; they might not even know who the ministers are. But they were sure on one thing: They did not like the increase.

Envy? Yes and no, I think.

Whatever the psychic-income advocates tell you, few can resist the lure of a million-dollar salary. But to dismiss as mere envy the concerns raised would be dangerous.

There are good reasons for their worry, and it is a good thing there are people in Singapore who do.

The issue goes to the very heart of what Singapore is. Or should be.

What makes Singapore go round? It is money, and yet it is not money.

A higher standard of living is brought about not by more money alone.

Were money enough, Singapore could have opted to turn into a service economy. A casino town. A financial haven. But no, the Republic’s economic strategy has been to nci add mtr value, to create jobs for its people beyond card-dealing and number-crunching.

Of late it has gone one step further, to nci create mtr value, through greater emphasis on research and development.

And money alone won’t bring this about.

As Mr Wong argued in his letter: “If we are to remain competitive, I believe that we have to motivate our young people with values other than money. Otherwise, we will be comparing ourpay constantly with what other nationals are getting, and we will lose our competitive edge.”

He cited the examples of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and SoundBlaster pioneer Sim Wong Hoo, both of whom started out with not much more than enthusiasm and hard work.

Money was the consequence of their endeavours, not the aim. Had it been their immediate quarry, they would probably have chosen more direct routes.

And Singapore? Indeed, if its bottom line is money, only money, we might as well write nationhood off now.

The Republic’s unit labour cost up to 1998 was escalating faster than those of its rivals on the same rungs of the economic ladder. Only by ruthless cost-cutting – including the Central Provident Fund cuts – was it brought down to early-1990s levels.

But with the recent pay increases, you don’t need to be an economist to know that wage pressures will rise again.

The reason is simple: Singapore is small. All the private-sector Joes know former classmate public-sector Jack and his increased pay. And there are only so many capable Joes and Jacks to go around.

Some employers are already bracing themselves for higher wage demands.

How long can such a pay spiral last? Not long, before you need another Committee on Singapore’s Competitiveness, I’m sure.

So if pay is not the answer, what is?

Simple: Income of another sort.

In the old days, long before I learnt about the concept of psychic income, other people were already learning its meaning, first-hand.

These people brought Singapore into being. They entered politics, not because there was money in it, but because there was excitement, adventure, power and the promise of changing history.

There was no monetary income, but there was plenty of psychic income.

Is the era of revolutionary change that threw up people with deep convictions and overpowering motivations over? I’m not so sure about that: Every generation, I believe, throws up its own change agents, people who want to make a difference – their way.

In the 1950s and 1960s, these people gravitated to politics because that was where the action was.

Today, the action is in business and technology: Hence the destination of many of those who quit the Administrative Service recently.

Finian Tan, who joined venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, wanted, in his own words, to be a “player”, not a referee or a coach.

Joe Sim and Cheong Kwok Leong started a, wanting to “break out of the comfort zone” and “be part of the new economy” – psychic income that makes up for salaries “much less” than what they used to get.

I don’t know Messrs Tan and Cheong personally, but Joe I have met several times, and had the pleasure of giving a lift once.

During that half-hour ride from Pasir Panjang to town, he struck me as someone who, had he been born in an age of political ferment, would have been in the thick of the revolutionary action. He has the zeal of a change agent.

If politics in Singapore today does not attract that sort, I presume it must be because they do not find the particular kind of personal satisfaction and challenge they crave.

If we are to avoid monetary income becoming an unhealthy draw, ways must be found to boost the psychic income in that particular profession.

How? Well, there are probably half a dozen ways, but that, as they say, is another story for another day.

Written by singapore 2025

05/10/2010 at 2:54 pm

Posted in Public Service

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