Hypothesizing about the Growing Incompetence of the Singapore Government

(Image source)

Wahlau eh! Limpeh si long long time read New Mandala one lah. Just got read no comment nia lah. Cause hor, Singapore si island mah. Not “Mainland” Southeast Asia mah. Then hor, suddenly got one post come out talk about Singlish wor! Some “Sibeh Ah Beng” write one leh! So now Singapore island become part of mainland ah? OK lah, maybe cause we connect by the causeway to Johor Bahru in Malaysia, so now can call “mainland” also. Aiya, we Singaporeans can find excuse for anything one lah hor? Everything also want to chup.

Anyway, there are 2 things same same about Limpeh and “Sibeh Ah Beng”. One, we both live in Tampines. Two, both of us buay song the Singapore government. Why we buay song them leh? Cause they last time good, now so bad! Eh, we Singaporeans got very high expectations one leh. Things must work. But hor, now got one whole list can complain about Singapore government ah! Train always breakdown lah, public housing prices rise too fast lah, so high income inequality lah, stagnating wages lah, not enough hospital beds in public hospitals lah, public transport fare always rise lah, some might say growing poverty even! And the list goes on. Why become like that? Here hor, I want to share with New Mandala friends a few reasons why I think Singapore government become so jialat from last time.

Before I start hor, Limpeh now want to code-switch. Although Limpeh tak chek overseas hor, does not mean I jiak kan tang one ok! But I think code-switch to proper English hor, better for our New Mandala friends lah. Even though talkingcock.com free one hor, not easy to always refer to it mah. So now let me start:

Disconnected from the ground

One of the key reasons suggested by many people to explain the growing incompetence of the Singapore government, is that both politicians and bureaucracy are simply disconnected with the concerns of the average citizen on the ground. For over 40 years in the making, elite politicians and an elite bureaucracy could be trusted to make the best decisions to improve the lives of its citizens. But as these elites continue to pay themselves astronomical salaries over a long time to reward themselves, they have simply forgotten about the daily struggles of the common man.

Wilful blindness

Margaret Heffernan, author of Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore The Obvious At Our Peril, argues that large organizations have the tendency choose people like themselves, thus becoming victims of group think, to become deferent to authority, and become highly conformist even if decisions or conclusions reached are obviously wrong. In the Singapore case, politicians and bureaucrats have inevitably succumbed to wilful blindness in the absence of competition in the political arena. They have been sheltered from the competition of ideas and thus continue to believe that they are still fundamentally right.

Self-interest means lack of courage

Politicians and bureaucrats may be aware of and acknowledge the problems on the ground, and may even write papers to say why there should be extensive public policy changes. But because they are self-interested in career advancement, they feed information or eventually modify their papers to versions that their bosses like to hear. Lower level subordinates don’t want to jeopardize their careers by saying that their bosses are wrong and should change. The threshold for courage is very very high.

Monstrous beasts are just painfully slow

The “state”, particularly the “developmental state” has always been thought of as a single, autonomous organization with extensive powers to direct countries towards certain goals. Yet the idea of the “state-in-society” approach pioneered by Joel Migdal suggests that states, in addition to being single, autonomous entities, are also made of many different parts, and are thus cumbersome creatures. States not only struggle with society to mould and shape society, but also struggle internally amongst various internal power actors, thus making any kind of reform painfully difficult and slow. The Japanese bureaucracy is the epitome of this type of description, as is the Singapore bureaucracy.


Which explanation best explains the growing incompetency of the Singapore government? It is most likely a combination of all four factors, or even other factors not considered here. In any case, if there continues to be a lack of competition in the political arena to reintroduce the possibility of change, the gradual decline of the Singapore government, and by extension, Singapore, is painful to watch.

[Limpeh, also known as Elvin Ong, is a candidate for the Masters of Philosophy in Politics (Comparative Government) at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.]

Additional resources: