New book to mark 20 years of Economist Service highlights work of public sector economists

SINGAPORE – Housing Board flat owners are four times more likely to make partial repayments on the mortgage of their home to reduce the interest they pay if they are made aware of the benefits of doing so.

This was the finding of a behavioural study by the Ministry of National Development (MND) and HDB economists to gauge how HDB flat owners can be coaxed into repaying part of their mortgage earlier.

This finding is featured in a book, Economics In Practice: Evidence-Based Policymaking In Singapore, launched on Tuesday (Dec 14) to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Economist Service (ES), a scheme for public sector economists.

Set up in 2001 to deepen the public sector’s capabilities in the economic analysis of public policies, the ES has nearly 100 economists.

While the scheme comes under the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), the ES has expanded its scope of work beyond MTI and economic issues.

Two-thirds of its officers are posted to 20 ministries and agencies, according to Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, who spoke during the book’s launch at the National Museum.

Mr Gan said: “The book features the contributions of over 30 economists from the public sector from 12 ministries and agencies, and is a reflection of the extensive multi-agency network of the ES.

“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.”

He added that these officers have helped to design policies based on economic principles and by reviewing empirical evidence.

Current policies are also evaluated for their effectiveness using empirical methods so that changes can be recommended if needed, said the minister.

One article in the book looks at the effectiveness of the Workfare scheme for lower-wage workers. It cited the improved employment rate of workers aged 35 years and older.

Another chapter covers a programme that raises awareness of how much food is wasted through the use of food waste recycling bins equipped with radio-frequency identification access.

The book also touches on the importance of maintaining Singapore’s economic growth to build up fiscal resources to cushion the impact of economic shocks – such as the recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

An excerpt from the book reads: “Unlike other countries that experienced a surge in government debt due to the unprecedented fiscal stimulus deployed to counter the effects of the pandemic, Singapore’s strong reserves allowed it to fund a sizeable Covid-19 stimulus package and cushion the downturn, without the need to borrow or take on debt.”

For economist Yuen Wing Shan, who joined the ES in February this year, the effect that the pandemic has had on business and workers is a reminder of how policymaking has to be agile in order to  render effective help.

She said: “Beyond Covid-19, there are longer-term challenges facing Singapore, including our ageing population.
“As a young economist in the ES, I will continue to develop my skills in economic research and gain a deeper understanding of the diverse considerations behind public policies.”

Newly appointed chief economist Yong Yik Wei said the ES would need to continue to monitor external and domestic developments as well as undertake rigorous research and analysis to enhance the robustness of government policies.

“In recent years, the ES has also developed new capabilities, including data science techniques in order to keep up with the latest developments in economics and quantitative methods,” she said.

At Tuesday’s launch, Ms Yong unveiled the ES’ new logo aimed at enhancing the service’s branding and sense of identity.

She said: “We thought that it would be timely and would help raise our profile among the public.

“The choice of colour and the typeface reflects the traits of the ES – professionalism, trustworthiness and reliability.”

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