Is an overhaul needed on how the Singapore civil service selects its leaders?

As a government scholar, I feel it is important that I echo my thoughts on this.

I attended the Integrated Programme at HCI, and proceeded on an SAF scholarship to read PPE at the University of Oxford. I then completed an MPhil in Economics at the University of Cambridge.

Government scholarships in Singapore do a good job in identifying administrators; but administrators are not leaders, and should never be mistaken for leaders.

Scholars in Singapore are chosen at a very young age. I would hesitate to say that A-level performance is correlated with how competent you will be as a person because as many people who have went through the process know very well, you can do pretty well if you were born to a good family.

From the age of 7 through when I graduated from Hwa Chong Junior College, I was waited on hand and foot by at least 4 different tutors every week, usually in more than 4 separate two-hour sessions. In JC, I averaged one two-hour session a day, which cost an average of around $80 per hour. If you run the numbers, that’s $1120 a week, $4480 a month, and $53,760 a year. A lot of Singaporean households do not even earn $50,000 a year to be spent on tutors alone.

Because I was under such strict supervision, at no point in my pre-university academic journey have I felt that I lagged behind. In fact, I have perpetually felt that I was very much ahead of my peers. This is the privilege I was awarded for having tiger parents, and as such, I suffer from one disadvantage that many scholars will never admit to because of their inferiority complex—I cannot deal with situations in which parameters are not explicit. In other words, I panic when it comes to dealing with atypical problems.

The Singapore government scholarships reward pre-adults in Singapore who have been able to be very consistent at achieving their annual KPIs. There are benefits to identifying those who can perform well in clearly specified tasks, which are what academic examinations are, the main of which is you get good workers.

The methodology of academic testing is simple—you attend school for a period of time to learn a particular set of topics based on an explicitly described set of syllabi. The examinations at the end of the term check that you have made consistent progress in understanding the material. There might be a few trick questions which would require some level of creativity, but while these questions take you outside the box, you are still pressed right up against it. This is the same for all aspects of school-based achievements, such as CCAs, competitions, community service, etc. The very best students in Singapore are basically very good at checking off items on a list.

Public administration is mostly about carrying out government services in a way that ensures the least disruption to the livelihoods of the people you serve. (i.e Trains should not fail, passports should be issued promptly, roads should be maintained, trees trimmed, etc). When you deputize people who have been able to perform tasks with well-defined parameters to complete tasks with well-defined parameters, they do well. This should be the intent of government scholarships—to identify these people such that they minimize the frustrations of the public with regards to public infrastructure and services.

What should not be the intent of government scholarships is to be of the impression that these scholars have what it takes to perform adequately as leaders in any organization. This is a flawed impression that is only getting worse from generation to generation because of the elitism that we have fostered in the civil service. The idea that scholars are the cream of the crop of every imaginable domain is poisonous, and symptoms of this hubris have started to manifest in the PAP over the past few years of leadership transition. We now have textbook teacher’s pets occupying ministerial positions; I know one when I see one because I am one. Trust me, you don’t want them as your leaders.

Who then should lead?

Lee Kuan Yew, while a remarkable student in his own right, had other qualities that made him a great leader. The qualities that made him a great student were not always the qualities that made him a great leader. I stand firm on this position.

Great leaders are resilient. They are able to think of solutions to problems with an overabundance of unknown parameters. They are able to perform well in the most complex and messy of situations; not because they can do no wrong, but because they have the gumption to get it right, even at the end of many wrongs. Make no mistake, the one thing that defines a great leader is failure; not success. And I think we, in Singapore, chronically get this upside down.

Our merry band of scholars and 4th-generation leaders may be of the impression that they share the spirit of that which underpinned the transformation of our country; but the reality is none of them have faced rock bottom in their lives. Sure, they may have botched a smattering of projects, but this is nothing compared to when your life is literally falling apart and you have to muster strength and grace in those situations in order to turn things around.

Why do top American schools produce so many inventive thinkers compared to top schools in other countries? Why have the founders of companies whose products have revolutionized the way we live, Facebook, Apple, Tesla, IBM, Microsoft, Uber, Google, Amazon, all been from top American universities? If you attribute it to the quality of education at these universities, you will be wrong. There’s nothing intrinsically superior about the education received at Harvard or Columbia compared to the education you receive at NTU or NUS. You attend lectures and take exams just the same at Harvard as you would at NUS. The difference is (and always has been) the ability of top Ivy League universities at identifying leaders of tomorrow.

Contrary to how most universities that we are accustomed to choose their students, American universities have a very different guideline. They are interested in who you are as a person, rather than just your test scores. They appreciate those who take bold risks, those who do things differently, those who overcome adversities, those who are street-smart, those who see the world for what you can do; rather than what you can’t.

In Singapore, we glorify the student who gets 9 distinctions at A-levels, and we ignore the athlete who competes every year but wins nothing. We award scholarships to those with a perfect record, but the student who achieves a 2:2 degree while battling cancer is a mere footnote.

We have talent in Singapore. We have people who have done amazing things with their lives, people have gone through incredible journeys, people who have learnt far more about this world than that which can be put from pen to paper for a letter grade. We keep telling ourselves that we need more talent, but have we ever stopped to ask ourselves, what is talent?

Do we stop giving out scholarships then?

No, we will always need public administrators. But we should start by acknowledging that public administrators are administrators, first and foremost. They have been administrators from the start and you are not going to find a Steve Jobs in Ng Wai Teck from Raffles Junior College. Give them a task and they will do it well, but in nation-building, it is easier to do the actual “building” than to think of “what to build.”

We have a lot builders in the country, now what we need are architects.

We, as a society, need to learn to harness the energy of the many Steve Jobs that we have collectively decided to be talent-free. In the next 50 years, we are going to have to deal with a lot of problems in our country that cannot be solved merely by a team of yes-men. We could do that before because we have just been meeting the basic requirements of life. Scholars are good with meeting requirements.

Our “leadership” love to make sweeping statements that we do not have enough talent and creativity in this country; which is why we need to bring them in from abroad. I have nothing against talent from abroad. They make us stronger. But perhaps we have to ask ourselves the fundamental question—how are we suppose to find talent if we do not provide incentives for talent to manifest?

Leaders do not have to know how to do everything. They just have to know who can. For that, you do not need someone who has all A’s, you need something that is far more precious—imagination.

We now have new needs that will continue to be unmet if we keep on thinking that old formulae will keep being applicable. If we insist on having builders to do the job of an architect, all we will get will be square houses. Functional, but of little value. It is not easy to separate the leaders from the best workers, but we have to start somewhere; and we can start by rewarding those who have overcome repeated bouts of absolute failure, rather than those who have had it together since day one.

As a scholar, I acknowledge my weaknesses. It is the very existence of these weaknesses that make me a good student. I do not challenge the norm, I am detail-oriented to a genuine fault, I do what is required, I will go the extra mile to get the extra points. These make me a very good worker. But as a result, I chronically miss the bigger picture. Do I deserve to be fast-tracked in the public sector when I actually perform best when doing tasks at lower-levels? I don’t think so.

Many of our civil service leaders with pristine, unblemished scholar backgrounds would be far more valuable to this country if they were workers. By that I mean, if they were led, rather than if they are forced to lead. I say that categorically. Put them in a management position and they become flustered, and they often start raising their voices, or pulling rank. I have seen too many of them in the civil service.

A good leader never becomes flustered or nervous regardless of how much unexpected and downright stupid problems exist in a project. In fact, they love when things turn completely on their heads. Do we have such people in our political leadership? Maybe. But based on the many parliamentary sessions I have watched over the years, most of them do not have a modicum of the composure that top leaders in the private sector whom I have worked with exhibit. Many (I would even say most) of the best leaders in the private sector whom I’ve become acquainted with were middling students in school.

One person who definitely has the composure to be an excellent leader is Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

We need to change our system and we need to change it now. We need send the message to parents that says, “look, you can keep sending your children to tuition but he’s not going to get a scholarship; but you know what, let him build that app he’s been talking about. Get us a prototype and we will fund it.”

Once we start rewarding our kids for who they are, not what they know, we can build a country that all of us are proud of. When you create a macrocosm of the classroom where you make the teacher’s pet class monitor, you make people hate him more. Where there is hate, there is conflict; where there is conflict, there is unrest; and where there is unrest, people are going to get hurt.

 

*The above is a response to the question “Do you think an overhaul is needed in the Singapore civil service in how we select our leaders (government scholarship)?”, first posted on Quora.

 

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38 Responses to “Is an overhaul needed on how the Singapore civil service selects its leaders?”

  • Bapak:

    Sinkapore is an old car cannot be overhauled. Scrap it, change a new car.

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  • marvellous piece:

    WOW! what a marvelous piece of writing!! we seldom read such good piece of writing for quite some time!
    I hope those ‘elites’ at the top read this and reflect upon themselves as to whether what the writer said is true!!

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  • Problem At Top:

    The clown prince thinks he is a natural aristocrat, above others, different; which is reinforced with a system they devised.

    This proud bubble builds up, As a result could only accept one of his kind,
    an overly obsession with pedigree, falling into and believing in their own lies.

    The clown prince likes yes man, with an obscenely high salaries, the stakes become too high to state the obvious or truth, creating group thinking.

    The solution is surprising simple.
    Break-up the make up.
    This is very effective, companies use that all the time, when result is dismal, the team is removed, the baggage of the past is removed.
    New team means need approach, no sacred cow.

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  • Lu siapa:

    who is the author ?
    interested to know.

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  • Great writing, but too hopeful:

    The writer proposes:
    We need to change our system and we need to change it now. We need send the message to parents that says, “look, you can keep sending your children to tuition but he’s not going to get a scholarship; but you know what, let him build that app he’s been talking about. Get us a prototype and we will fund it.”

    All it will lead to is that rich parents will pay IT people to develop apps for their dear s/d, instead of paying tutors. We already know that great looking school projects are likely done by parents and other helpers.

    And who will be in the “god” position to decide which app to fund? Isn’t there a case where parental connections likely have a strong influence?

    marvellous piece:
    WOW! what a marvelous piece of writing!! we seldom read such good piece of writing for quite some time!
    I hope those ‘elites’ at the top read this and reflect upon themselves as to whether what the writer said is true!!

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  • Bapak:

    Sinkapore is like adopting the stupidity of the Women’s Chartered Act. In the course of any divorce, the woman (as a non-working housewife) is always given the 60/40 advantage in any matrimonial split.

    AWARE was supposed to champion on gentle equality but had not done much. One example is maintenance. The woman is always in consideration whereas man can only seek maintenance if he is ill or incapacitated. Don’t they know nowadays many chikopek employers employ more women than men? Also that men are faced with 2-year NS’s commitment?

    What happened if the woman is the monster who behavior unreasonably, causing the breakdown? No wonder there are so many henpecked kiabo blp men around, the 2-yr NS has not done any good. Wife said KNN I earned more than you, I on top. Husband kuai-kuai tail behind legs.

    In Sinkland, it is Pa-PIGs who is causing the house breakdown. KNN, come GE20 you must show them who is on top. F**k them deep deep until they bleed.

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  • oxygen:

    GREAT WRITING MOST DEFINITELY, but POFMA is guaranteed to end all seeds of germination of real talent.

    PAPpypolitics decided unilaterally they are GOD, EVERY OTHERS are ghosts of falsity.

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  • oxygen:

    4Gs ARE NOT TESTED of performance in crisis, the moment some open their mouths on the public stage, you know they are empty in their coconut.

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  • Men of Truth or Crony Spirits?:

    Majulah Singapura!

    https://youtu.be/Fdb_O91d92M

    “To lead the people, walk behind them. A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say:’We did it ourselves’.”

    - Lao Tzu

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  • TruBlu:

    Civil Service is headed by all the geeedy PAPple and so ordinary sgs will CONtinue to Pay And Pay till they drop dead.

    Our civil servants act as if they are lords.
    They are uncivil towards common sgs n only suck up to grassrooters.
    Take LTA.
    How many sga have come across arrogant LTA staff?

    Yet, while acting arrogantly and collecting more money,they screq up on their core duties?

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  • Flabbergasted:

    A well thought through and written piece of work. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The problem still persists in Singapore. Cronyism and nepotism is rampant in Singapore. Just go through the directorships in our GLC’s and top positions in our Civil service. Point clearly taken that scholars do not necessarily make good leaders and vice versa. Lets start with rationalising our present situation. I would first rid ourselves of the Public Service Commission which is responsible for the present state of affairs of our civil service. I suggest let each ministry be in charge of hiring their own personnel needs. Yes it is cumbersome and repetitive instead of centralising it with the PSC. But then we had the PSC for more than five decades and that’s why we are having this discussion. Will come back with more comments a little later.

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  • Harder Truths:

    Writer needs to understand the rulers of this small island pick those who act as their minions and provide absolute loyalty to them and them only.

    Case in point – when Aljunied became an opposition ward the whole civil service turned against it because the ruling party wanted this.

    Any and every nation that has no checks and balances in its system ultimately collapses when the economy ultimately cannot function from too much abuse.

    $G is no different. The civil servants – a subset of the 70% voters – are going to find out the hard way what survival really means when there is no government to employ them.

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  • Bapak:

    Surely is not Kim look-alike. Also not that Small-boy-talk-to-big-boys. Nor Madam Butterfly.

    Lu siapa:
    who is the author ?
    interested to know.

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  • Asd:

    Robots with no brain

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  • Agree Agree Agree:

    marvellous piece:
    WOW! what a marvelous piece of writing!! we seldom read such good piece of writing for quite some time!
    I hope those ‘elites’ at the top read this and reflect upon themselves as to whether what the writer said is true!!

    well said, bro.

    agree.

    it is very well written.

    we are thankful this wonderful person has not chosen to sell backbone to pap rotting S$m money grubbing ownself justify ownself S$m via a pliant pap parleementary system.

    perhaps because the writer is of $m so no need to bend backside or sell backbone since what is $m to one who has more legitimate S$m than any pap Lj or pap Cb yes man yes woman can grub under current thieving pap system approved by a complicit pliant pap parleement.

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  • opposition dude:

    Agree with the author, them scholars are booksmart but not streetsmart. The ability to handle situations as and when they arise will show people just how good you are. Applying theory to everything will only make things worse since it’s all just theory.

    We can see it with PAP on the theory part. In theory, easing CPF rules on purchasers for older flats will make more buyers flock to these flats. In theory. But in the real world these flats’ prices haven’t gone back to the prices they were selling for before they hit 40. So much for theory.

    Same for HIP2. In theory, after a makeover the flats will be worth more. But since people aren’t exactly rushing to buy old 40 year old flats then how exactly a pretty looking 60 year old flat will attract a whole horde is beyond me.

    But oh well, theory lah you know.

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  • On the abuse of the party whip:

    Governmental checks and balances evaporated with Teng Cheong’s valiant last stand against the Supremo who incorporated Sinchiapor.
    When the President was questioned by an ST journalist why he had insisted on the transparent accountability of the national reserves during his time in the 90′s, he said that the responsibility for those funds was clearly stated in the presidential portfolio, and that he was bound by noblesse oblige to speak up on behalf of the citizenry who had elected him into that high honour.
    Most unfortunately for the probity of our national conscience, President Ong Teng Cheong was deprived of a state funeral when he passed on to join our Lord Most High.

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  • Agreed:

    Great insight…
    Understand the real problem we are facing.

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  • eaglefly:

    a story of the elite ???

    or failure of some kind ???

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  • Very Good Writing From Bapak:

    What a great writing from Bapak. I love it so much especially the last sentence. Good Job.

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  • Can React But Can"t Anticipate:

    Our leaders are book smart but not street smart. How to be leaders ?

    When problems crop up, they can only slowly react eg PMD problems, CECA unemployment, MRT breakdowns etc.. They cannot anticipate or predict or forecast these incoming problems so that preparations can be made to counter these problems.

    How to win a war like that. If you cannot predict an attack coming and get ready for it, by the time the attack comes, the war is over. You are caught with your pants down. Especially when Pinky relax and allows the leaders to go on auto pilot and these leaders switch off.

    Its time we need to get leaders who can anticipate like our first batch of leaders. VOTE PAP OUT.

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  • REGIME CHANGE is the solution:

    For the PAP civil servants are useful idiots.

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  • Who is the Servant?:

    Who do civil servants serve?
    Political masters or the People regardless of party affiliations?

    Do they serve without fear nor favor?

    Can a 53 year one party absolute domination appoint non-partisan civil servants?

    What has Singaporeans contributed to what type of civil service ?

    Can a civil servant use the excuse of being partisan by saying he is under instruction by his superior to do what he did?

    Would this be a valid excuse?

    Eg. The executioner .

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  • pap S$m Ljs and pap S$m Cbs:

    Can React But Can"t Anticipate:
    Our leaders are book smart but not street smart. How to be leaders ?

    When problems crop up, they can only slowly react eg PMD problems, CECA unemployment, MRT breakdowns etc.. They cannot anticipate or predict or forecast these incoming problems so that preparations can be made to counter these problems.

    How to win a war like that. If you cannot predict an attack coming and get ready for it, by the time the attack comes, the war is over. You are caught with your pants down. Especially when Pinky relax and allows the leaders to go on auto pilot and these leaders switch off.

    Its time we need to get leaders who can anticipate like our first batch of leaders. VOTE PAP OUT.

    and they pofma you when you tell the truth.

    for example,

    ceca ah nehs low ball fair wage in Singapore so much so many, a very large number, around 69% of nus ntu smu graduates who are citizens, are under employed or unemployed. you tell them this truth they pofma you instead of solving the problem.

    pap moe spends twice the S$m on aliens than citizens. pap moe even withholds PSLE results slip if citizen, CITIZEN, owes S$156 while the same pap moe does not bat any eyelid when wasting S$m on other people’s citizens aka aliens. you tell them this truth they pofma instead of acknowledging the problem.

    such crap shit only 70% sheep keeps voting into government.

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  • Spirituales Moralitas:

    “If we have to choose one word to characterize Confucian Ethics, that word would have to be Humanity. The main concern of Confucian ethics is the whole process of learning to be human. This process involves a total commitment, a continuous effort of self-refinement or self-improvement, and a holistic vision of the entire project of Moral Education.

    Your vital energy is returning to the Source like a flowing stream returning to the Ocean. Heaven is our Father, Earth our Mother. All people are our brothers and sisters and all things our companions. In this gentle journey, you are forming one body with heaven and earth. Entrust yourself to the transforming and nourishing care of the Cosmos. And listen to the voice of Love in silence. You have heard the Way; now return Home in Peace.”

    Prof. Tu Wei Ming, Beijing University

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  • Hum Chi Pean:

    What the writer put forward is so true and he was honest about it, being a scholar himself. So we basically have glorified administrators doing the standard processes and nobody leading the way forward. That explained why they keep looking back to past glories. The battalion of army generals are also mostly, if not all, from the scholar ranks. By extrapolation from what is expounded in the article, then we have over-egoistical administrators acting as generals; in a war our army boys would be easily slaughtered.

    True leaders could think on their feet and create opportunities and innovate to move forward. They also take full responsibility for what goes wrong under their charge. Do we see that in our national leaders? The dishonorable ones even proclaimed that even if Singapore sank, the world will simply move on; how defeatist was that!? Now as a population we are simply reacting to what is happening around us while making so many missteps in our national polices, investments and international issues. Can the real leaders please step forward in the coming election.

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  • RDB:

    From this article,what else can I say that will contribute more meaningfully

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  • Allianz kena use:

    Well, the choice is based on their preference, not merit.

    Allianz Global and Corporate Specialty, got made use of. Maybe they can’t even pay the claims. Dun buy insurance policies from them! https://www.agcs.allianz.com/global-offices/singapore.html

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  • Great Asia:

    “I panic when it comes to dealing with atypical problems.”

    Precisely!

    This is the problem of most PAP fat cats, including Lee 呆!

    I have been saying this for 15 years: In Hong Kong, politicians and property tycoons are sleeping in the same bed; in Singapore, PAP fat cats are also making love with rich towkays.

    After 15 years, still, non of the PAP fat cats can catch the ball.

    Maybe the months of riots in HK can help Lee 呆 and his team of fat cats to agin slight enlightenment.

    Ha ha ha!

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  • Great Asia:

    Atheists with a sheep mentality are still sheep!

    Can you understand the above statement? You can be a leader if you can.

    Ha ha ha!

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  • Former administrator:

    Too long to make the topic digestible. This shd be put next to the trash can if not inside!

    This is worst than a scenario paper! From a former administrator!

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  • not scenario:

    //This is worst than a scenario paper! From a former administrator!//

    aiyoh. 4 = 5 and selected = elected and “inside is not within”, reality lar not scenario paper ?

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  • George:

    Khaw BW and Tan CJ does not care for Singapore, overhaul the system and VOTE THEM OUT !

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  • Why Election Agents needed?:

    Problem At Top:
    The clown prince thinks he is a natural aristocrat, above others, different; which is reinforced with a system they devised.

    This proud bubble builds up, As a result could only accept one of his kind,
    an overly obsession with pedigree, falling into and believing in their own lies.

    The clown prince likes yes man, with an obscenely high salaries, the stakes become too high to state the obvious or truth, creating group thinking.

    The solution is surprising simple.
    Break-up the make up.
    This is very effective, companies use that all the time, when result is dismal, the team is removed, the baggage of the past is removed.
    New team means need approach, no sacred cow.

    Most sinkies perceive problem is PAP but the bigger problem is the new citizens and the brainwashed zombies.
    Why can so many not see this as issue? SG lacks Democracy precisely because of these 70%. No govt wants to give power away.
    All govts want to control the people as much as the people allow them.
    Democracy is driven by People and not govt.

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  • Longan Faint , Heng Coma:

    Will the selection be linked to Party?
    Will it be in anyway partisan?

    Civil service must never be partisan becausethey are paid with our monies.

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  • Financially Speaking:

    Scholars are conformists & pro-establishment people.
    Successful people in the Knowledge Economy are agitators & disruptors.
    This is enough to tell you where S’pore are headed under the Scholars!

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  • Vince:

    Very well say and well written about the nurturing of a leader. However, what are not mentioned or elaborated are the differences in the types of leadership in a public sector and in a private sector. Though both requires many similar qualities, the mindset required and the people they served are very different. For example, in China, leaders are trained right from the village, cities, counties, provinces and central as they grow. They are subjected to many tests in the real world with real problems and challenges. Leaders in the private sectors have only a few narrow goals to focus whereas leaders of a country have to know how to serve the public as a whole and to balance the interests and views of many groups of people with different and at time, dramatically opposite interests. Many a time, public interests are dramatically opposite to private interests. Look no further, just look at Trump and his mindset of running a country!

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  • MOH:

    Look at MOH. How much money given to it also useless. One leak after another.
    One death after another.
    GKY keep throwing smoke grenades to ask for more budget and doctors keep asking you to go back to see them. Keep telling you to make appointment to make them LOOK VERY BUSY.
    Is this health care or BS care.!
    KNN. Medical professionals are like Najib. No wonder Fake PhD can teach in NUS for 10 years within being discover.!!

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