Young Mandarins & the quest for a virtuous civil service

A very funny article from The Economist, especially the following highlighted paragraphs:

A special report on the future of the state
Go East, young bureaucrat
Emerging Asia can teach the West a lot about government

Mar 17th 2011


One thing that stands out in Singapore is the quality of its civil service. Unlike the egalitarian Western public sector, Singapore follows an elitist model, paying those at the top $2m a year or more. It spots talented youngsters early, lures them with scholarships and keeps investing in them. People who don’t make the grade are pushed out quickly.

Sitting around a table with its 30-something mandarins is more like meeting junior partners at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey than the cast of “Yes, Minister”. The person on your left is on secondment at a big oil company; on your right sits a woman who between spells at the finance and defence ministries has picked up degrees from the London School of Economics, Cambridge and Stanford. High-fliers pop in and out of the Civil Service College for more training; the prime minister has written case studies for them. But it is not a closed shop. Talent from the private sector is recruited into both the civil service and politics. The current education minister used to be a surgeon.

Western civil services often have pretty good people at the top, but in Singapore meritocracy reigns all the way down the system. Teachers, for instance, need to have finished in the top third of their class (as they do in Finland and South Korea, which also shine in the education rankings). Headmasters are often appointed in their 30s and rewarded with merit pay if they do well but moved on quickly if their schools underperform. Tests are endemic.


Heh heh, if the article writer finds it stressful sitting in meetings with these “30-something mandarins”
[probably an assortment of Deputy Directors from the various parts of the civil service, including the elite Administrative Officers from the ‘inner sanctum’/the PMO (who rove between the various govt agencies), like ravenous wolves seeking to outdo each other for the ultimate prize: not just to become the Director/Head/MD/CEO of a govt/quasi-govt agency, but to do so before turning 40 (and thereafter, leaving only one rung left to climb in the civil service — to become a permanent secretary)
he should try sitting in a classroom and competing/sparring with these same young mandarins and ultra-competitive overachievers when they were 15, 16, 17 years old, in an S-paper (GCE S-level, Scholarship level, or Special paper) tutorial or in a Mathematics/Chemistry Olympiad training squad or competing for a spot in the SRP (Science Research Programme).

The rest of the article is also pretty interesting. Especially now in the wake of the general election outcomes, and the focus/resentment on ministerial and civil service pay.

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