The Making of a Talent Magnet

The Making of a Talent Magnet

          
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The Making of a Talent Magnet

Lessons from Singapore’s Public Service
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  • Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories, transforming itself from a developing country into a modern industrial economy in only one generation. Its economic growth has averaged roughly 8 percent per year since the 1960s, and its GDP per capita has reached US$43,867, one of the highest in the world.

    Singapore has built a robust infrastructure—including one of the world’s leading airports, Changi Airport—and an extensive, high-quality public-housing system. (See “From Slums to Top-Quality Public Housing in a Generation.”) It has also dealt effectively with a number of crises, such as the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and the global financial crisis in 2008.

    From Slums to Top-Quality Public Housing in a Generation

    One of the most impressive achievements of Singapore’s public service is how it orchestrated a long-term solution to the severe housing shortage the country faced in its early years. In the process, Singapore developed high-quality public housing on a massive scale, acquiring expertise that it has even packaged as consulting services to other governments.

    A gradually worsening shortage of housing in Singapore had, by the 1960s, forced an estimated 550,000 people to become squatters in the central city and suburbs—almost 30 percent of the nation’s population. (See the exhibit below.)

    exhibit

    Private builders were not able to meet the demand for housing, so Singapore’s newly established Housing and Development Board set out to fill the need. It completed 54,000 apartment units within five years. The board launched an ownership scheme in the 1970s, allowing applicants to buy a flat using funds from their national pension.

    Over the years, housing estates became self-contained satellite towns with their own schools, supermarkets, health clinics, and recreational facilities. In the 1980s, town councils formed to encourage collective responsibility for managing these estates. And in the 1990s, the board started an upgrade program for older flats and built more condominiums for higher-income families.

    Today, more than 80 percent of Singapore’s population lives in publicly built flats, with more than 90 percent of that group owning their flat. Judged by nearly every standard, including scale, cost, affordability, community-building, and even design, Singapore’s housing experiment must be considered a remarkable public-works success.

    Taking its expertise a step further, in 1991 the Housing and Development Board did its first overseas consulting project in Indonesia. Surbana Corporation, as the board’s corporate unit is now called, has since undertaken consulting and development projects in 16 cities across Asia and the Middle East. These include architecture design, project management, coastal engineering, and urban planning.

    Singapore’s public-housing record shows that good execution by top talent is as important as good policy. Among the factors that account for the sustained success of the Housing and Development Board is the high caliber of its employees, including the persistence and deep bench of its leadership. The vision of the first chairman and members of the board was adapted by subsequent leaders to suit the shifting needs during their time in office. Skillful planning and implementation is a valuable commodity in public service; to retain that through several generations requires careful selection and training of people over a long period of time.

    How is it that Singapore excels year after year in improving its standard of living and confronting such major crises?

    A central player in all of this has been the Singapore Public Service, an institution that rivals any other public-service organization in the world for capability, transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness. Its reputation as a flexible meritocracy, with a strong focus on integrated strategic planning and detailed execution, is in addition to its top rankings on such measures as ease of doing business, lack of corruption, and educational testing. And although Singapore has to deal with the same economic and political forces roiling other countries, its public service provides a reliable team to handle each new surprise.

    By contrast, many other countries, even wealthy nations, face severe challenges when it comes to the caliber and effectiveness of their public-service organizations. Some grapple with work rules and promotion schemes that reward longevity rather than performance and, therefore, tend to retain lower performers. Others face challenges in talent development and lose too many high performers. Still others struggle to attract top talent because of competition from higher-paying and more prestigious private-sector employers. In the worst cases, some public-service organizations are plagued with endemic corruption and outright bribery, abuses known to all yet persisting because reform never advances beyond halfhearted efforts. These systems have a way of wearing down ethical, high-performing public servants, who inevitably depart for better prospects.

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