The Singapore Design — Lee Yew Meng

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JANUARY 6 — There is much to learn from the results of Singapore’s 12th parliamentary elections last September. Winning 83 of the 89 seats contested from a 94 per cent voter turnout was sterling achievement by any standards.

And to secure 69.9 per cent popular vote from an overwhelmingly urbane electorate with a virtual 100 per cent connectivity, from a field of nine contesting parties, is a mandatory case study topic. How did PAP do it?

It used to be a top-down government

Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said: “It used to be a top-down government, often quite heavy-handed. It is no longer that way. Strong leadership is listening, engaging, moving with people ...”

In an international forum, Tharman stressed it was the social policies rather than economic which connected with the electorate. Together with his prime minister, they openly professed that many of their ideas were “borrowed” from elsewhere and customised for local implementation. To the PAP leadership, their pride is derived from a job well done, never mind the sources of ideas. This republic evidently has no false pride issues.

Seems to me a simple story here. PAP acts out in no uncertain terms that they owe Singaporeans for entrusting the nation’s well being to them. And the electorate responds heartily with, “Carry on PAP!”

The Sultan of Johor has more than once urged our authorities to emulate Singapore’s English-medium schools, which have been integral in forging national unity, societal development and economic performance.  I will add the majority ethnic Chinese still use Mandarin as their lingua franca. No apparent identity crisis thus far, or on the horizon.

If I were in politics I would waste no time to study their phenomenal electoral success. For starters, the first stop is across the Johor Causeway for all “Lawat sambil belajar” (study tour) programmes connected with public service deliveries.

Redesigning user and service experience

PS21 or Public Service for the 21st Century, launched in 1995, is the change movement of the Singapore Public Service. PS21 Office has a unit called The Human Experience Lab (The Lab), which brings the citizens’ perspectives into the design of public policies and services. They work with various agencies both frontline and in policy formulation.

The Lab uses design thinking to catalyse innovative approaches to their public service delivery. It starts with feeling the “customer journey”.

Some of their landmark successes are:

Employment Pass Service that involves two basic functions i.e. Employment Pass Online (EPOL), where applicants are still in their home countries, and Employment Pass Services Centre (EPSC), where applicants are physically in Singapore to submit the various documents and complete their applications.

The EPOL was first offered in 2002 with limited functions. Fewer than 20 per cent of applications were submitted through the system. By 2009, it reached 80 per cent usage and processing period is between three days to one week, versus three weeks for paper submission. 

As for the EPSC, the focal point was on user-centred experience. The space was divided into three areas according to their distinctive roles, ie arrival lobby, waiting area, and enrolment bar. Service ambassadors greet visitors from the arrival lobby, replacing unwieldy counter queues, complicated signage and awkward navigation. Waiting areas also offer clear window views overlooking the Singapore River and the city skyline, offering a pleasant waiting environment.

In 1996, Changi Airport introduced 16 feedback kiosks at its two terminals with postage-paid feedback forms. On average 300 feedback forms were received monthly, with 70 per cent offering compliments, 20 per cent complaints and 10 per cent suggestions. By 2013, the monthly average received went up to 3,100, with category readings as 75 per cent, 21 per cent and 4 per cent respectively. Half of the feedback came through electronic kiosks, and the rest from emails and their websites.

To them the feedback is vital to keep them rooted to the realities of what their customers are experiencing and whether they are delivering on their promises.

In 2010, they introduced their Instant Feedback Systems (IFS) at key touch-points at the airport. The idea is to be alerted of service lapses, whether at washrooms, check-in, immigration or in the retail shops, for immediate attention. Handheld devices are used to relay instant feedback to the service locations. IFS provide real-time feedback from users as well as problem anticipation from the trend analyses.

IFS was deployed at over 660 locations throughout the terminals and now receives over one million comments every month, 90 per cent of which are positive.

Changi Airport has over 430 Best Airport awards making it the world’s most conferred since its opening in 1981.

The Singapore Police Force made their foray into design thinking in 2009. They felt the needs of both the officers and the public is equally important. The senior officer who initiated the project even attended a six-month design-thinking course with the Stanford Institute of Design.


I had to coax Counsellor Loy Hui Chien of the Singapore High Commission to share the “secret” of their island-state’s famed public service delivery successes.

As the conversation flowed, I realised Loy’s initial hesitation was because his training and practice rendered him thinking that his nation was only doing the right thing and as such there wasn’t anything to reveal, so to speak. It’s like their renowned meritocracy and graft intolerance; ingrained values.

I think their “no wrong door” policy best describes the Singapore civil service attitude towards service delivery.

Actually one of the first initiatives of Datuk Seri Najib Razak as prime minister in 2009 was to introduce the innovative (design) thinking enculturation programme. He understood well effective public service delivery requirements.

I wish that he continued to be persistent, as this is not exactly an intangible endeavour. The “Singapore Design” stands testimony.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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