Singapore's public servants turned political leaders — the low down

By Gwen Lee and Thaqif Ismail

Representation of public servants, healthcare and academic professionals, as well as senior military personnel in the Cabinet since 1959. GRAPH: LIANG LEI

  • 6 out of the 15 Cabinet members were SAF Overseas Scholarship holders after GE2011

  • Public servants and military officer representation in the Cabinet peaked after GE2011, where 53 per cent of the Cabinet possessed no private sector experience 

  • Public sector personnel have been making up at least 50 per cent of the PAP MPs entering the Parliament for GE2006, GE2011, GE2015

  • After the promotion of four backbenchers with private sector experience in April 2018, 17 of the 36 political office-holders, including the Cabinet ministers have had some form of private-sector experience

It’s an accusation that’s always been levelled at the Singapore cabinet - that it is technocrat-driven with members hailing mainly from the public and uniformed services. Do the numbers support this view and does such a composition lead to “group think’’? Class Notes dug into the archives and looked at the data. 

She is a woman and she was in uniform. A general, to boot. This was enough to get people talking about how the People’s Action Party is once again combing the public sector to fill its slate of new candidates. Former Republic of Singapore Air Force general Gan Siow Huang is a trailblazer who became the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) first woman general in 2015, the highest ranking female officer the Armed Forces has ever had.  

She was among four women awarded the SAF Merit Scholarship in 1993, the first year it was awarded to women.  She resigned from her role as Chief of Staff-Air Staff this year, at the young age of 45. A week later on March 22, she was spotted at a walkabout alongside Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.  Hence, tongues started to wag.

The movement of generals into politics has become common since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s own induction in 1984.  A year before leaving the SAF for a political career, he was promoted to become the youngest brigadier-general in Singapore at the age of 31.  He is Singapore’s first SAF scholar-minister, among the 1971 pioneer batch of SAF scholarship recipients.  By 1995, he was joined by three former SAF scholars — George Yeo (Brigadier-General), Lim Hng Kiang (Lieutenant-Colonel) and Teo Chee Hean (Rear-Admiral). Mr Yeo and his teammates in Aljunied GRC were defeated in the 2011 general election by the Workers’ Party.

Representation of ex-SAF officers in the Cabinet peaked after GE2011, where 6 out of the 15 Cabinet members were SAF Overseas Scholarship holders. Besides PM Lee, Mr Teo and Mr Lim, the others were Mr Chan Chun Sing (Major-General), Mr Lui Tuck Yew (Rear-Admiral) and Mr Lim Swee Say, who served in the SAF till 1985. 

Class Notes was unable to ascertain Mr Lim’s last SAF designation but this was what General Winston Choo — Singapore's first three-star General and longest-serving Chief of Defence Force said of him:  “There are scholars who never went up the ranks in the military, but who are very good in their own right, like Lim Swee Say. Swee Say was a scholar in the army but he was good at other things, he went to EDB. And he was excellent in EDB.’’ 

There is a seventh minister with senior military experience although not an SAF scholar:  Dr Vivian Balakrishnan served as the commanding officer of the 2nd Combat Support Hospital between 1999 and 2002.

In his current Cabinet, Mr Lee has Mr Teo, a former Chief of Navy, and Mr Chan Chun Sing, a former Chief of Army. The current Speaker of Parliament, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin (Brigadier-General), was also drawn from the military. The PM also has a former Chief of Defence Force, Mr Ng Chee Meng (Lieutenant-General), who currently serves as the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Secretary General of the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC). 

Before 1975, ex-civil servants were a minority in the Cabinet. The most prominent was Mr Goh Keng Swee, who served as the Minister for Finance in Singapore’s First Cabinet (1959 - 61).  Other ministers drawn from the British Colonial Public Service were: Minister for Labour and Law K. M. Byrne, Minister for Health Ahmad Ibrahim and Minister for National Development Tan Kia Gan. Mr Tan was stripped of his political offices in 1966 due to corruption charges. 


After 1975, the recruitment of politicians from the public sector and the military was ramped up, leading to more ministers whose only job experience was in the military or public service.

From the graph above, public servants and military officer representation in the Cabinet stagnated at around 10 per cent (or roughly one to two ministers) from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s, before increasing dramatically to nearly 40 per cent nearing GE2001. It peaked after GE2011, where 53 per cent of the Cabinet possessed no private sector experience entirely.

The slow process of inducting civil servants started with the late Mr Hon Sui Sen, who was credited by the PAP for his contributions in talent-spotting and nurturing future leaders such as Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam and Mr S. Dhanabalan.

Before joining politics, Mr Hon served as the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance between 1959 and 1961, then helmed by Dr Goh. Mr Hon became the first Chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB) from 1961 to 1968. He entered politics two years later.

There were a number of EDB alumni who joined politics. Here are a few examples, accompanied with their years of service in EDB:

The public service is known for bringing in the brightest students from Singapore’s education system through its scholarship system — the President scholarship, the Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship and the SAF scholarship.  

In The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence, author Michael Barr detailed how the Lee Kuan Yew-led PAP faced the challenge of recruiting people who fit Mr Lee’s idea of what a leader ought to be: English-educated, highly qualified academically and professionally experienced.  Noticing a lack of suitable existing candidates, Mr Lee sought to nurture prospective ones by implementing various measures, among them placing great emphasis on English-medium education and pioneering military study awards like the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS, now known simply as the SAF Scholarship).  

The foundations for Mr Lee’s new system for identifying political leaders were laid. Scholars were sent overseas to pursue further studies and would return to Singapore to fill senior officer positions in the SAF. These ‘scholar-officers’ were constantly shifted within different branches of the SAF hierarchy. For instance, during Mr Chan Chun Sing’s SAF service from 1987 to 2011, his posting was rotated once every one to two years. 

The President's Scholarship has its roots in the Queen's Scholarship, which was founded in 1885, when Singapore was still a Straits Settlement.  When Singapore gained self-governance, the Queen’s Scholarship was replaced by the Singapore State Scholarship in 1959.  Former Cabinet Minister and former President Dr Tony Tan was a recipient of the State Scholarship in 1959.

In August 1964, the Yang di-Pertuan Negara Scholarship was inaugurated to replace the State Scholarship, and in 1966, it was renamed the President's Scholarship.

The current Cabinet consists of four President scholars, four PSC scholars, and four SAF scholars. PM Lee, SM Teo and Minister Chan were recipients of both the President Scholarship and the SAF Scholarship.


Beyond public servants and military officers, healthcare and academic professionals are also common in the cabinet.

From the graph above, representation of healthcare and academia in the Cabinet peaked at 35 per cent after its reshuffle in 2004. This Cabinet was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s first Cabinet, which saw the introduction of new healthcare and academic professionals such as:

  • Mr Ng Eng Hen (Surgical Oncologist, Mount Elizabeth Hospital → Minister for Manpower)

  • Mr Vivian Balakrishnan (CEO, Singapore General Hospital → Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports)

  • Mr Raymond Lim Siang Keat (Law Lecturer, NUS → Acting Minister for Finance)

  • Mr Yaacob Ibrahim (Associate Professor, NUS → Minister for the Environment and Water Resources)


Beyond the rarified confines of the Cabinet, what about the Members of Parliament? 

Looking at the slate of PAP candidates for GE2006, GE2011 and GE2015, public sector personnel have made up at least half of the PAP MPs entering Parliament.  After GE2011 and GE2015, a few have been parachuted into the Cabinet to fulfil Ministerial roles immediately after they were elected as MPs.

A closer look at the post-GE2015 Cabinet shows that the majority of ministers have only worked in the public sector before.  Those with private sector experience include lawyers like Mr. K. Shanmugam and Ms Indranee Rajah. There were others working in private sector companies linked to the government. For example, Mr Masagos Zulkifli was CEO of SingTel Global Offices and Ms Grace Fu was CEO of PSA South East Asia and Japan. 


Public sector staffers are likely more aware of the demands of political life and already have links to the political leadership, making them known faces to the top echelon. They are also more likely to share the same political ideology and ideas on governance. 

The political leadership has acknowledged the difficulty in drawing top private sector talent who are wary about being in a different culture, and receiving lower pay. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong disclosed in 2018 that Mr Edwin Tong, a lawyer, took a 75 per cent pay cut when he became a senior minister of state.  Mr Goh said Mr Tong previously earned more than $2 million a year as Senior Counsel and now makes about $500,000.

The current salary framework for political office holders is based on the White Paper on Salaries for a Capable and Committed Government published in 2012.  It links ministerial salaries to the median income of the top 1,000 earners who are Singaporean citizens, with a 40 per cent discount to reflect the ethos of political service. 

Taking a pay cut might be less of a concern compared to the loss of privacy and increased public scrutiny. 

Before joining politics in 2006, Ms Grace Fu was CEO of PSA Corporation (Southeast Asia and Japan). In 2012, following the Ministerial Salary Review Committee’s proposal for a pay cut for the Prime Minister, President and entry-grade ministers, Ms Fu took to her Facebook

“When I made the decision to join politics in 2006, pay was not a key factor. Loss of privacy, public scrutiny on myself and my family and loss of personal time were. The disruption to my career was also an important consideration. I had some ground to believe that my family would not suffer a drastic change in the standard of living even though I experienced a drop in my income. So it is with this recent pay cut. If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for any one considering political office.”

A former surgical oncologist before his entry into politics in 2001, Dr Ng Eng Hen, the current Defence Minister, famously said: “I will tell you squarely in the face that you’re getting a bargain for the Ministers you get.” 

An MP from the private sector can hold on to their job, drawing an income from their MP alliance and private sector salary. Public servants need to resign before contesting elections. If they are elected, they can go into the private sector but most times, these MPs move to institutions not under the direct purview of the public service.

All MPs draw an annual allowance of $192,500. Political office holders also receive a paycheck based on the previously mentioned 2012 White Paper on salary revision. This amount represents a fixed pay combined with a variable component depending on Singapore’s economic conditions and the individual’s performance. In 2017, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated in Parliament that the actual performance bonus for political office holders ranged between 3 and 6 months pay - averaging around 4.1 months.

However, not all public servants who join politics are guaranteed a seat in the Cabinet. While some were immediately moved to become either a Minister of State or Parliamentary Secretary, in recent years, only Mr Heng Swee Keat, who was MAS managing director, became a full minister after his first election. You could say he followed in the footsteps of Mr Richard Hu, who was managing director of both the MAS and the Government Investment Corporation. Mr Hu became the Minister for Trade and Industry straight after winning the election in 1984. He would go on to become the Minister for Finance and Health in 1985.

The most prominent Cabinet member with extensive private sector experience is Minister K Shanmugam. He had worked at the law firm Allen & Gledhill from 1985 till April 2008, before resigning to serve as the Minister for Law in May 2008. He was first elected to Parliament in 1988 and was a backbencher for over two decades before his promotion to full minister in 2008.


PM Lee said in 2016 that political leaders and civil servants were "cut from the same cloth" in Singapore’s founding years, so it was not surprising that some civil servants became ministers and civil servants were "talent-spotted" to join politics. But Singapore is in a different phase today, added Mr Lee, the post-independence generation, born into growth and prosperity, has more diverse experiences and wants to be heard.

The concern is that a leadership comprising people who move in the same circles, study in the same type of schools and move up the same ladder would have an outlook that reflects their own ethos and personal experiences. While they may be intelligent, the worry is that they lack empathy for others given that most of them come from the same social class and economic background. 

One oft-heard complaint said to be the result of group-think was why the Government did not act on the angst expressed on overcrowding in Singapore and only chose to stem the inflow of foreign workers after its 2011 vote share declined substantially. Or why it chose to release the White Paper on Population report with its 6.9 million figure in such a climate. There is also the worry that there will not be enough “out of the box’’ thinking and the tendency to take a more defensive stance on policies rather than to be open to changes. 

Even if they expressed concerns, no political leader or top civil servant will admit to group-think. 

Head of Civil Service Peter Ho said in a keynote address in 2009 that groupthink is a cognitive failure that can be an obstacle for the government in anticipating strategic surprises.  He added that one way to avoid the trap of groupthink is, “networking with individuals and organisations outside government as well, locally and internationally.”  

 In 2011, then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Mr Lim Boon Heng broke down when addressing a question about groupthink in the PAP in Parliament.  Mr Lim, a former naval architect with Neptune Orient Lines, told of how the Cabinet was deeply split over whether to set up a casino in Singapore. He said, “So if you think there is groupthink, that is one example you can quote – there is no groupthink.”  

In January 2016, NCMP Leon Perera from the Workers’ Party raised the issue of the current leadership’s diversity suggesting that a core leadership mostly drawn from the public service “opens up the danger of group-think, self-rationalisation and self-congratulation”. 

In response, MP for Pioneer SMC Cedric Foo stated that “the presence of Mr Perera as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) himself was a creation of the PAP Government because it believes in diversity.”  He added that the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) scheme was also introduced to allow “different segments of society and their voices (to) be heard and represented in this House’’. 

In other words, whether groupthink or not, some institutional attempts have been made to diversify the composition of Parliament. Mr Foo himself hailed from the private sector, having previously worked at Neptunes Orient Line and Singapore Airlines before entering politics. He served as Minister of State for MINDEF (2002-5) and MND (2004-5), and is currently a backbencher.

More recently, academic Eugene Tan, a law professor at the Singapore Management University said in an interview in 2019 after Mr Heng Swee Keat became DPM, that “a key challenge is to studiously ensure that (leaders) don’t fall into the seductive trap of group-think, and that they are always ready to go beyond tried-and-tested methods”.

The one who was most open about expressing his fears of groupthink was former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. The Emeritus Senior Minister said in 2019 that this was a big worry for him. He added that having a diversity of leaders with different backgrounds - the SAF, civil service, private sector and social sector - means that there will be a diversity of views.  Mr Goh also said that former generals are "good material" for politics as they understand the importance of defence, security and nation building, but if they form the "bulk of them" in the Cabinet, group-think is "very dangerous for us", he added.

He didn’t specify what these dangers are.

One common issue surrounding the entry of military men into politics is whether the hierarchical nature of the military makes it difficult for them to adopt a style of governance suitable for a democracy.  

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, a former brigadier-general, said back in 2015 when he was the Minister for Social and Family Development, that while the military is a hierarchical organisation, good leaders still need to engage with people at every rank.  

Former Chief of Defence Mr Ng rejects the idea that every officer is alike. “All of us have unique life experiences (and) I think we bring unique perspectives. Even while we were in the SAF, we spoke our minds, we shared our views.”

One former top civil servant who found himself in the private sector is current Education Minister Ong Ye Kung. He served as a civil servant in various ministries before becoming then Deputy Prime Minister Lee’s Principal Private Secretary from 2002 to 2004. From 2005 to 2008, he was the Chief Executive of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency before moving on to become NTUC’s Assistant Secretary-General. After the PAP defeat in Aljunied during GE2011, he stayed on in NTUC for two more years.  

Moving into the labour movement after a long time in the civil service was a culture shock, he said in 2015.  While the civil service was focused on processes and procedures, in the unions, “relationships trump everything’’.  He said “it’s about how you relate to people… It was humbling to walk into a factory or bus interchange and (have) to face angry workers and bus drivers. There were shouting matches and sometimes you get shouted at,” he said recalling the struggles to get the salaries of bus drivers raised.

He left the NTUC for the private sector as Keppel Corporation’s Director of Group Strategy in 2013, describing this as a "personal career move", noting that he had never been in the private sector before.  When he left Keppel in 2015 to contest in GE2015, he wrote on Facebook that his time in Keppel had been memorable.  He said, “I will miss the many friends I made here. Have returned my keys, laptop, iPad, but I will bring along with me the Keppel Can-Do spirit.” 


Can a top civil servant suddenly change hats when he becomes a politician? Does he look at the big picture or micro-manage?

Ex-EDB head Philip Yeo said in his biography, titled Neither Civil nor Servant: The Philip Yeo story, that “ministers overwork - doing everything and appearing everywhere’’. “When there were issues with CPF, the minister answered. Where was the CPF chairman? When the trains broke down, the minister answered. Where was the SMRT chairman? In the past, the civil servants would take charge”.

PM Lee himself expects his ministers to work hard. He said in a speech to top civil servants in January this year that “a minister is not a non-executive chairman who just provides strategic guidance to his ministry or permanent secretary’’. He added: “In Singapore, ministers are expected to be hands-on, executive leaders. They are intimately involved in developing policies, exploring alternatives, proposing solutions and making the final decisions.’’

He did not talk about diversifying the leadership, but the public service. He said there is a need for mid-career entrants in the public sector who can “see with fresh eyes what we have long taken for granted, and ask some basic questions why that should be so.”

MP for Jalan Besar GRC Denise Phua echoed his call during this year’s Budget Debate.  She said: “The Government should be bold enough to appoint good mid-career practitioners to leadership positions in public service – offer them a bridging learning stint if need be. That may make a big difference in the complexion and the DNA of SG Together.”

While suggestions abound on how to have a more diverse public service, less has been said about the leadership that sits on top of it. 

Private sector politicians come mainly from the professional class as lawyers, doctors and academics. There are those employed in big private sector firms but there is hardly any self-made businessman or entrepreneur in the ranks. The few would include serial entrepreneur Mr Inderjit Singh, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC from 1996 to 2015. 

Mr Singh said in 2018 that there may be a perception that the current system in the public service favours civil servants and military officers when it comes to career progression.  This may hold back some private-sector individuals from joining political office.

He added: "When we have so many people of the same mould – military officers and (those) from the civil service forming the bulk of the political office holders, it will be a negative in attracting people from the private sector who may have a very different perspective of things and who will feel they will be a minority in Cabinet, and therefore may not be able to make a big difference."

Perhaps with an eye on the need for diversity, the Government has sought to include more private sector individuals through its Cabinet reshuffles. In April 2018, four backbenchers were promoted, all possessing extensive private sector experience. This means about 17 of the 36 political office-holders, including the Cabinet ministers, have had some form of private-sector experience.

Mr Zaqy said his 19 years in the private sector could prove useful:  "Many of the policies need greater engagement with stakeholders. I hope my understanding of how corporations or businessmen think of the challenges affecting Singaporeans would improve that dialogue.’’

With the upcoming general election due by April 2021, where is the PAP sourcing its new candidates from?

RSAF brigadier-general Ms Gan Siow Huang and former SAF Colonel Mr Mohd Fahmi Aliman — who is current deputy chief executive of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) — were spotted in a photo on Mr Goh Chok Tong’s Facebook captioned “My dream team for West Coast GRC or anywhere.”  Former fighter pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Ingkiriwang Shawn who was the Parade Commander for NDP 2018 was also seen at a walkabout in Jurong GRC this year.  Mr Ingkiriwang is currently a director at Temasek Holdings.

Other than these three potential candidates who all had work experience in the SAF, other potential new faces who have been on the move so far are currently working in the private sector, including Government-linked corporations: 

  • Mr Derrick Goh, 51, managing director and head of group audit at DBS Bank

  • Mr Shawn Ingkiriwang, 37, director at Temasek Holdings

  • Ms Rachel Ong, 47, chief executive of consultancy firm Rohei

  • Ms Poh Li San, 45, Changi Airport Group vice-president

  • Mr Alvin Tan, 39, head of public policy and economics (Asia-Pacific) at LinkedIn

  • Ms Mariam Jaafar, 43, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group

  • Ms Carrie Tan, 37, founder of charity Daughters of Tomorrow 

There are also three potential candidates who are from the healthcare and academia sector:

  • Dr Tan See Leng, 55, former chief executive of IHH Healthcare

  • Mr Xie Yao Quan, 35, head of healthcare redesign at Alexandra Hospital

  • Dr Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah, 41, polytechnic senior lecturer

Four lawyers were also spotted so far:

  • Mr Raymond Lye, 54

  • Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, 39

  • Mr Kawal Pal Singh, 36

  • Mr Alex Yeo Sheng Chye, 41

Looking at the slate of potential PAP names, drawn from their presence at community events and the PAP convention last year,  it does seem to be a better mix than the past. 

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