I read with interest, Peter Ho’s RSIS working paper no. 248 on “Governing for the future: what governments can do”.
It is a paper based on an adaptation of his speech delivered at the Australia-New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) Annual Conference 2012 in Wellington, New Zealand on 26 July 2012. Mr. Peter Ho is Senior Advisor to the Centre for Strategic Futures and Senior Fellow in the Civil Service College. He serves as an Adjunct Professor with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is a Senior Fellow of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and was formerly the Head of the Civil Service in Singapore.
In brief, Ho outlined in his paper, how accelerating changes in the 20th century, for example such as population growth, rapid urbanisation in combination with technological innovation has come to result in complex interconnected environments that in turn give rise to unpredictable trajectories and “wicked problems” (Horst and Webber, 1973) or interesting problems that have no immediate / obvious solution.
Globally, there are many international diplomatic talks that revolve around “wicked problem” issues such as climate change, food, water and energy supply, all preferably within a sustainable economic development framework. At a local level in Singapore, Ho cited the example of the complex nature of extremist religious pursuits that led to the need for new warfare strategies that counter forces both material and cognitive in order to keep the nation secure and how Singapore was under the constant challenge to disarm extremist ideologies.
But whether facing global political-economic environmental changes or ideological extremism, Ho’s point was governments that have the agility and capacity to act swiftly in such circumstances will benefit and thrive in today’s complex environments. And my perspective is that it is in this aspect that Singapore’s regional geo-political position and albeit seemingly contradictory socio-economic policies have most of the time benefited the country and its people on multiple levels.
As a national security strategy in coordinating counter-terrorism for example, Singapore has continuously worked towards and adopted a multi-layered, integrated and holistic “Whole-of-Government” (WOG) approach, leveraging on the diverse strengths of existing agencies and ministries at various levels from strategy and policy to operations.
Ho explained that this approach was not without its problems, where at times, the agendas and interests of each organization under the various ministries were as expected, at odds with each other. Nonetheless, Singapore’s integrated approach implicitly contained the idea of the German military mission command tactic auftragstaktik, where I believe Ho (2012:6-7) had used a more diffused definition of the term, referring to the general flattening of the hierarchy and of the horizontal flow of information between government organizations. Central to the concept of auftragstaktik is that each agency has its policies and operations in alignment with that of the central government’s strategies and goals, within which boundaries they had some liberty to act.
It was also here that I found an amusing example of another of Singapore’s multiple paradoxes of governance that some might good humouredly consider typically kitsch whether in the creation of a lively cultural scene (Wee, 2001) or in this case strategic national defense, the setting up the Centre for Strategic Futures (CSF) that plans and executes “leading edge concepts like WOG-IRM (Whole-of-Government Integrated Risk Management) resilience” (Ho, 2012:8).
Still, I think the move is perfectly congruent with the management of complexity of a Yin Yang nature, where such an organization would no doubt be both a central pillar and buttress to other governmental agencies.
Following Ho’s definition for the purposes of this blog post, the concept of auftragstaktik or empowerment beyond central control is interesting in a further application. In a critical systems approach to discourse, it can be extended in a metaphorical sense towards the socio-cultural fabric of Singapore with regards to both the use of another metaphor that has turned somewhat concrete regarding the country’s various international and trade policies that is “Singapore Incorporated” and towards the concept of “foreign talent”. Both concepts carry ambivalent connotations in the general public discourse, sometimes bordering on home-turf hostility, regarding national identity building and of foreign immigrants into the country.
A corner stone to any country’s international trade policies has much to do with its geo-political location and relations. This couldn’t hold more true than for Singapore, its very location made it the perfect place of port of call and trade that was the prize of the British East India empire of the 1800s in the Pacific and Far East that in turn led to its immigrant history.
But time moves on and the foundation laid is what Singapore has continued to build upon, meaning more international trade, being a global player for its survival with greater individual mobility, whether immigrants or visitors.
With the onset of the financial crisis in 2008 and the on-going global economic instability due to the happenings in the European financial markets that ripple throughout world global economies, it is understandable that those who have settled in Singapore a generation or two ago, might feel the onset of the scarcity in various forms, their insecurities demonstrated in behaviour whether virtually or materially with examples given by PM Lee Hsien Loong, reported by Chang (2012).
But for those who today are able to wield Singapore Colloquial English as an instrument of both inclusion and exclusion of individuals into social groups, that in turn encourage a dichotomous “we” versus “they” construct, what also needs to be acknowledged in the general public discourse of opposition is the myopia and non-sustainability of such a social consciousness for the long term development of the country, and possibly, region.
In a speech to the G-20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors in November 2001, James Wolfensohn, then President of the World Bank advocated a four-point agenda towards effecting the benefits of economic globalization, equity and the well-being of all people. This included: better governance, reduction of trade barriers, more development aid and better international cooperation. “Better governance” here would entail greater domestic integration with infrastructure and climate that encouraged investment in terms of productivity, growth, entrepreneurship and jobs for the people (Van den Bossche, 2008:27). But an attractive social climate necessarily goes beyond central governance.
Singapore has always been both defined and shaped by its immigrant and global nature. Adopting a bipolar and exclusive perspective is counter productive on multiple counts, on multiple levels, towards the ultimate socio-economic stability and financial success of the nation and its people, regardless of citizenry.
The concept of auftragstaktik could well be broadened beyond central governance to a general populous consciousness of an understanding that all individuals who somehow touch base in Singapore, for shorter or longer periods of time, share a common destiny. That a symbiosis of central governance and socio-political empowerment to the people of Singapore can be leveraged by acting in thorough understanding that economic success and comfort comes with a common responsibility of caring not just about our own immediate situation but for whom we might consider the Other.
Chang, R. (2012).PM laments ugly Singaporean behaviour, The Straits Times. 27 August 2012.
Ho, P. (2012). Governing for the future: what governments can do. RSIS Working Paper series, no. 248. 3 September 2012.
Rittel, H. W. J. and Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2): 155-169.
Van den Bossche, P. (2008). The Law and Policy of the World Trade Organization. Cambridge University Press.
Wee, Cjw. (2001). The End of Disciplinary Modernisation? The Asian Economic Crisis and the Ongoing Reinvention of Singapore. Third World Quarterly, The Post-Cold War Predicament 22(6):987-1002. Taylor & Francis.