Avoiding the Bureaucracy Trap: Lessons From the Singapore Government--a Brief Version of James Liang's Op-Ed

SHANGHAI--()--Owing to their wealth of resources, large organizations have a significant advantage in implementing large-scale projects. However, they are also burdened complicated and bloated workforces, which often lead to excessive bureaucratic red tape. Author: James Liang, Co-founder and Chairman of Trip.com Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: TCOM) * James Liang is an economist and entrepreneur. Trip.com Group Ltd. is one of largest OTAs in the world. The opinions expressed here are his own. Trip.com Group Ltd. was not involved in its creation.

Many employees are occupied with appeasing the predilections of superiors, or meeting narrow KPI assessments, and as a result, fall short of prioritising customers. Should an uncertainty or risk arise, those same employees will habitually shirk responsibility to layers of superiority, or simply turn a blind eye. These are the features of bureaucracy, or the ‘Big Company Disease’, an insidious parasite that slowly eats away the vitality of an organisation.

Such organisations may achieve a mediocre performance at times when the external environment is favourable and stable, but should disruptions or significant changes in the external environment occur, the rigidity of the bloated bureaucracy will impede crucial decision-making.

Singapore is a good reference point. The public service is one of the largest employers in the small country, with 145,000 civil servants in 16 government departments and over 60 statutory boards.

Large public organisations, including government ministries and agencies, are generally more prone to bureaucracy than private companies, in large part because financial pressures are less prominent. While Singapore’s bureaucracy is not without its critics, the government is generally recognized as efficient and effective. Singapore’s public policies, such as housing, health care, and transportation, have achieved good results and have been praised by economists. Under the leadership of several governments, including founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore has progressed from a developing country to one of the richest countries in the world over just a few decades. Its per capita income is higher than all of Greater China, Japan, South Korea and even the US. In dealing with numerous global emergencies like the COVID-19 outbreak, the response of the Singapore government has been consistently rapid and effective. So, how did the Singapore government manage and overcome bureaucracy to achieve this?

Decentralization, assessment and measurement

Regardless of how intelligent or competent a leader may be, they cannot make every single decision. Only with the decentralisation and distribution of decision-making powers can subordinates have the autonomy to effectively complete complex tasks. Each department should have clear missions and objectives, and each team must have specific targets and indicators which contribute to the overall goals of the organisation. Those indicators should be measurable, and reward high-performers.

The indicators should be comprehensive; otherwise, there will be a tendency to narrowly develop a single dimension. For example, apart from financial indicators (such as revenue and profit), a department should also have customer-specific and team-specific KPIs. Performance indicators should also be objective, otherwise, if employees are evaluated by vague judgements made by their direct superior, they will develop a tendency to blindly follow orders to appease their boss — a common symptom of rigid bureaucracy.

The allocation of responsibilities among Singapore’s various agencies and departments is clear and reasonable, with respective goals and objectives for the public good.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once noted in Parliament that he would assess ministers not only on their main portfolio, but also their broader contributions. The Prime Minister added that ministers have multidimensional, sometimes intangible responsibilities, and that their contributions could not be reduced to a formula.

Talent recruitment, training and promotion

Having good leadership and goals are important, but alone, insufficient. Competent officials across all levels are essential to the success of any organisation. The government of Singapore recognised the importance of investing in talent from its early days, and committed to cultivating and growing its talent pool.

The Singapore government has repeatedly stressed the importance of having capable leaders in the public service, and the necessity of competitive remuneration, especially given the competition for talent from the private sector. Ministerial salaries are estimated to be about 70% of the base salaries of private sector CEOs.

In addition to compensation, the Singapore government has also established a strong selection and training system. The Singapore government identifies potential “scholars” from colleges and offers scholarships for them to study at established local and overseas universities, with fast-track career options in the public service. Outstanding young “scholars” who prove their capabilities are rewarded with further responsibilities, and prepared for higher roles, such as those of chief executives, deputy secretaries and permanent secretaries. It is not uncommon for the country to have CEOs (leaders) of key agencies in their early 40s. In addition to identifying star performers earlier in their career, the Singapore government expands its pool of talent by attracting mid-career professionals to join the Administrative Service and Public Service Leadership Programme.

Training and development opportunities are provided for public servants across all levels, including domestic and foreign programmes, as well as secondments. These initiatives ensure a highly professional and qualified team of officials across the organisation. Only when officials are honest, dedicated, and capable can bureaucratic red tape be minimised.

Information feedback and processes to rectify lapses

Regardless of how well-established an organization is, we cannot expect the best public officers to never make mistakes. Therefore, it is important for an organisation to have processes to address shortcomings.

Public officers at all levels must be empowered to raise issues through formal and informal communication channels, and highlight problems in their own department as well as others. The Singapore government places emphasis on the feedback of its officers. For example, one CEO of a key agency with hundreds of employees sets aside time on one afternoon every week to meet with staff who wish to raise feedback or issues.

The government of Singapore also values the feedback of its citizens. REACH, a government agency that facilitates Whole-of-Government efforts to engage with citizens, seeks the views of Singaporeans and highlights key issues of concern. Other agencies often gauge public sentiment and satisfaction in through surveys, including public transport, government digital services, key telecommunication and media services in Singapore, and customs services.

Singapore has also earned praise for its high level of transparency. For example, the Auditor-General’s Office conducts an annual audit of the Ministries and government agencies, and thereafter publishes a detailed public report on irregularities in procurement and contract management, among other information.

A recent example of transparency is the Ministry of Health's dissemination of information on confirmed cases of COVID-19. The Ministry of Health has issued daily updates on the number of new cases and discharges, and details the previous travel of patients. The MOH’s press releases also included various details, such as the patient’s place of residence and hospital where they are receiving treatment.

The Singapore government also appoints external experts and observers as consultants. Some agencies cooperate closely with independent think tanks and consulting firms to conduct policy analysis. These experts and consulting firms provide independent market research and industry data to supplement internal analysis, information and feedback. External views help to identify potential blind spots early on.


In conclusion, large governments and large enterprises have a natural advantage in that they have the resources to implement grand strategies and projects. However, there is a tendency for large governments and organizations to struggle with bureaucracy and red tape, compromising their responsiveness and quality of implementation.

It is not by chance that Singapore’s government is today renowned for being effective, efficient and responsive. For those grappling with the rigidity of bureaucracy, Singapore’s effective decentralisation, comprehensive and objective performance assessment system, competitive remuneration, systematic training and development programmes, and internal and external feedback channels are clues worth noting.


International Affairs Department, Trip.com Group,
Leah Wang, +86 1381054565386


International Affairs Department, Trip.com Group,
Leah Wang, +86 1381054565386