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Speech by Minister Gan Kim Yong at the Economist Service’s 20th Anniversary Book Launch

Speech by Minister Gan Kim Yong at the Economist Service’s 20th Anniversary Book Launch

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen, 

I. CELEBRATING 20 YEARS OF SERVICE BY PUBLIC SECTOR ECONOMISTS

1. Good morning. It is my pleasure to join you here at the National Museum and online to celebrate the achievements of the Economist Service on its 20th anniversary. To commemorate this occasion, I am pleased to launch the book Economics in Practice: Evidence-Based Policymaking in Singapore. My heartiest congratulations to the Service for reaching this significant milestone, and to the editors and contributors for the successful completion of the book. 

2. I am also happy to learn that we are joined in-person and virtually by past and present officers from the Economist Service, as well as key stakeholders who have contributed to the Service’s progress over the years, some of whom are currently based overseas. A very warm welcome to all of you. 

II. THE ECONOMIST SERVICE – INCEPTION AND CONTRIBUTIONS OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS 

3. The Economist Service, or ES in short, was set up 20 years ago to deepen professional economic expertise in the public sector. By developing a core group of professional economists, the objective of the ES is to sharpen economic analysis in the public sector in order to strengthen public policy formulation. 

4. Prior to the formation of the ES, economic analysis was already an integral part of the policy formulation process. In particular, to ensure that the Singapore economy was underpinned by strong macroeconomic foundations, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) had built up competencies in macroeconomic analysis, such as the monitoring of macroeconomic developments and the forecasting of GDP growth. However, as the economy developed, the issues faced by Singapore became more complex. There was a growing recognition that in order to maintain our competitiveness and improve the microeconomic efficiency of our policies, the Government also needed to build up microeconomic expertise within the public sector, including in areas such as manpower, transport and housing. 

5. This culminated in the idea of establishing a dedicated team of economic specialists within the public service with expertise in both macroeconomic and microeconomic analysis. In 2001, the ES was formally set up under MTI as a professional service for economists in the public sector, with the strong support of then DPM Lee Hsien Loong and then Minister for Trade and Industry, Mr George Yeo. As a professional scheme, the ES provides economists with specific career development and training opportunities. This helps the public sector to attract and retain our share of the best economic brains in Singapore, and develop the capabilities needed for rigorous economic analysis across a broad spectrum of public policies. 

6. Over the past 20 years, the ES has achieved many milestones, and played an integral role in the public policymaking process. In particular, ES officers have helped to design policies that are founded on sound economic principles, drawing from both economic theory and a careful review of the empirical evidence. They have also evaluated the effectiveness of many existing policies using robust empirical methods, and recommended changes to improve them.

7. Let me highlight three areas in which the ES has made significant progress. 

8. First, the ES has deepened and expanded its capabilities in macroeconomic and microeconomic analysis over the years. In particular, the ES has strengthened its capabilities in macroeconomic analysis, which have proven to be critical for policy formulation during the Global Financial Crisis and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the provision of timely forecasts and simulations of the impact of the economic shocks, ES officers helped policymakers to scope and size the support needed to help businesses and workers effectively. 

9. In line with one of the key objectives for which it was set up, the ES has also successfully built up strong capabilities in the microeconomic analysis of individuals and firms. A good example is the review of the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme. Using micro data and robust econometric techniques, ES officers ascertained that WIS had positive employment effects for older and less-educated Singaporeans. These studies helped to anchor WIS as a key policy to support lower-wage workers in Singapore, with the scheme being enhanced several times over the years. ES officers also studied the impact of various government financing and grant schemes on firm-level outcomes, and through their findings, helped policymakers to refine the schemes.

10. Second, apart from the traditional areas of macroeconomic and microeconomic analyses, the ES has developed new capabilities to keep up with the latest innovations in Economics thinking and analytical methods. For example, behavioural economics has been incorporated by the ES as part of its analytical arsenal, and applied widely to nudge individuals’ behaviour in areas relating to environmental, housing and land transport policies. These include encouraging households to segregate food waste and to make partial capital repayments to their HDB housing loans. In addition, given the rise of big data, the ES has embraced data science techniques to provide new insights and monitor the economy. A good example is the Singapore News Economic Sentiments Index, which allows for high-frequency and real-time tracking of economic sentiments through the application of innovative text analytics methods on local newspaper articles. 

11. Third, the ES has expanded its scope of work, beyond MTI and beyond economic issues. Notably, around two-thirds of ES officers are posted outside of MTI in over 20 Ministries and agencies. These include the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Manpower, Ministry of Social and Family Development, Ministry of Health, and Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment. Through postings to diverse Ministries and agencies, ES officers have contributed their expertise to inform a wide range of public policies, from economic policies to fiscal, socio-economic, health, security and infrastructural policies. Reflecting the increase in demand for ES officers, as well as the success in attracting and retaining them, the ES has grown nearly twenty-fold over the past two decades, from the five officers housed in MTI when it first started in 2001 to close to 100 officers today. 

12. In sum, the ES has made significant strides over the past 20 years. Even as we celebrate these achievements, it is also important for us to look at what lies ahead for the ES. 

III. FUTURE DIRECTION AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE ECONOMIST SERVICE

13. In the coming years, the public policymaking landscape is likely to become more challenging. As a small and open economy, Singapore has to contend with a more volatile and uncertain global economic landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated structural shifts in the global economy, including supply chain re-configurations and industry consolidation and churn. Domestically, Singapore’s policy space has also become tighter and more complex. With an ageing population, Singapore will need to forge new paths of success. At the same time, we need to ensure that the fruits of economic growth percolate to all segments of society. With supply-side constraints becoming more binding, policy trade-offs will also become starker and need to be weighed more sharply. 

14. Against this backdrop, the role of the ES in public policymaking will become even more important. ES officers have to remain at the forefront of monitoring global developments and emerging issues, and helping policymakers to understand their impact on Singapore. ES officers should also continue to apply sound Economics thinking and rigorous economic analysis to shape and improve public policies. 

15. To respond to the challenge and meet the increasing demand for robust economic analysis, it is imperative for the ES to continue to grow and strengthen its capabilities in the years ahead. This in turn requires the ES to enhance its value proposition to attract and retain the best economic talent, and develop its economists to their fullest potential. 

16. In this regard, I am pleased to highlight some key initiatives. First, efforts are being undertaken to improve talent development in the ES. Given the evolving policymaking landscape, as well as continuing developments in the field of Economics, ES officers will need to be equipped with the latest Economics knowledge and quantitative skills. To this end, we are refreshing the ES competency framework and curating relevant training programmes to ensure that ES officers at different levels develop the skills and expertise required. ES officers can also look forward to postgraduate scholarship awards at an earlier point in their careers.  

17. Second, to complement the refresh of the competency framework, we will be enhancing the ES career development framework to ensure that ES officers are systematically developed through postings and other development opportunities. Promising ES officers will also be identified and groomed to take up key leadership positions within the Service. 

18. Third, we have embarked on initiatives to enhance the ES’s branding and sense of identity. Earlier, we witnessed the launch of the ES logo. In the coming year, MTI will be introducing a mentorship programme and providing more opportunities for ES officers to collaborate on projects in order to strengthen engagement among the ES community. 

19. To lead the ES in its next phase of development, I am pleased to announce that MTI has appointed Ms Yong Yik Wei as the ES’s Chief Economist. As Chief Economist, she will provide intellectual and professional leadership to the Service, as well as oversee the professional development of ES officers. Under her leadership, I am confident that the ES will continue to play an integral role in policy formulation in Singapore.

IV. BOOK LAUNCH

20. It is now my pleasure to introduce and launch the ES’s 20th anniversary book. 

21. To commemorate this special occasion, the ES has partnered World Scientific to publish the book Economics in Practice, which affirms the importance of evidence-based policymaking in Singapore. Edited by ES officers, the book features the contributions of over 30 public sector economists from 12 Ministries and agencies – this is a reflection of the extensive multi-agency network of the ES, as well as the diverse economic and non-economic policy domains that ES officers have contributed to. By illustrating the rich analytical work undertaken by ES officers over the years, the book provides an important reminder of the enduring role of rigorous economic analysis in our public policies. I hope that this book will help to inspire the next generation of economists to step forward and further advance evidence-based policymaking in Singapore. 

22. On this significant milestone of the ES, I would once again like to extend my congratulations to the ES, as well as thank its officers, both past and present, for their hard work and contributions to Singapore. I am confident that the ES will continue to play a key role in raising the quality of our policy analysis and formulation, as well as shaping economic and social development in Singapore in the years ahead.

23. Thank you. 

 
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