Speech by Mr Leo Yip at the 2023 Annual Public Service Leadership Ceremony
SPEECH BY MR LEO YIP, HEAD OF CIVIL SERVICE, AT THE ANNUAL PUBLIC SERVICE LEADERSHIP CEREMONY ON 19 OCTOBER 2023
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat,
Chairman and Members of the Public Service Commission,
Colleagues and Friends,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. A very good afternoon to all of you.
2. Let me start by echoing Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Mr Heng Swee Keat by thanking the 17 Public Service Leaders (PSLs) who have retired or are relinquishing their appointments this year. I am grateful to each of you for your contributions and years of dedicated service.
3. I would also like to pay tribute to my two Permanent Secretary colleagues who recently retired — Ms Chan Lai Fung and Mr Loh Khum Yean. I have worked closely with both of them over the years and am deeply grateful for their partnership, and the strong personal support they have given me. I will miss, among other things, their camaraderie and wise counsel. So, on all our behalf, I thank you very much Lai Fung and Khum Yean, and we wish you both a happy retirement.
4. I also want to congratulate the 31 officers who have been appointed as PSLs, and the 123 officers appointed to both the sectoral and general phases of the Public Service Leadership Programme. I welcome you all on board this leadership journey.
100th anniversary of the birth of Mr Lee Kuan Yew
5. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It holds special significance for Singapore and Singaporeans, especially those of us in Public Service leadership.
6. This is an occasion to, among others, reflect on the key choices, the principles and values that undergird what had built today’s Singapore.
7. We have been characterised as an improbable nation, and improbable we are. There are not many countries which are as diverse as we are and yet, at the same time, a cohesive and harmonious society. We are not a big economy but yet a trusted financial and business hub. We are geographically small but yet our international standing enables us to play a part for the benefit of the region and the world.
8. Sometimes it takes a different perspective to better appreciate what we have built up in Singapore. Recently, a letter to Lianhe Zaobao by a writer who worked in the tourism industry spoke of how a Nigerian visiting Singapore for the first time described our country as, and I quote, “fascinating, enrapturing and incredible”. This visitor went to the Chamber of the Old Parliament House, and spent a long time at the Parliamentary seat that Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to occupy, deep in reflection. The visitor told the writer, who was a tourist guide, that it was his wish for his country to have a government like Singapore’s, to give his people the good life that Singapore offers its people.
9. We have built up in Singapore a system of governance — with quality education, jobs, housing, healthcare, and so on. Individuals succeed in this country because of their own hard work, but also because the system enables them to do so. But those of us in Public Service leadership would know this full well — we can never take for granted that what has enabled our success thus far will assure us, necessarily, our continued success. Singapore’s continuing success must be worked on, over and over again. So this anniversary of Mr Lee’s birth is a timely reminder that we must be relentless in making the changes needed to improve our policies but also to improve the Public Service, a point that DPM made earlier, so that we can continue to create the conditions for our people to have a good life.
Sustained change for sustained success
10. Indeed, no public service or system of governance can remain static, simply because society and the world we operate in are ever-changing. Our strategies and policies must keep evolving, even though our principles and values of governance remain. And this is apparent when we look at the changes happening around the world and in Singapore.
11. First, the world is now more turbulent, uncertain, and even dangerous. The era of geopolitical contestation has returned. At the same time, there are more problems of the global commons to deal with, such as sustaining all countries’ commitment to fight climate change.
12. Second, our own society is evolving rapidly. We face more constraints today on the manpower and carbon fronts. We are an even more diverse society and people than before. We have new challenges, but also new opportunities as a people, to build a stronger society. One such opportunity is for the government to build stronger partnerships and engagement with the people, to enable stronger co-ownership and also co-effort in building tomorrow’s Singapore.
13. This changing world means that the range of issues our agencies across the Public Service now have to deal with, as well as intensity of work, has also grown. In the wake of the once-in-a-generation pandemic, the geopolitical and economic volatility, climate change and so on, not just us, but many public services around the world are facing similar work challenges.
14. Let me just cite one case in point. Our international policy work has grown significantly over the years, even for ministries that traditionally regard ourselves with a largely domestic focus. We have to build new competencies to do this work well and align our international strategies better across our agencies. In the same way, we are building new capabilities to step up our domestic work on engagement and partnerships.
15. To ensure sustained success for Singapore, our Public Service must ensure we remain steadfast on a sustained journey of change, improvement and transformation.
Leadership responsibility in the Public Service
16. How should we do so? Let me revisit, and I say revisit as these are not new points, three key areas of focus for leaders in the Public Service — to be relentless in doing our work better, to spare no effort in making our people better, and to continue to develop ourselves to lead better.
First, continue to do our work better.
17. Foremost to this is taking good care of those who do the work — that’s our colleagues and all of us. We had World Mental Health Day last week to remind all of us of the importance of taking good care of our mental health and well-being. We as leaders must make our workplaces more caring and empathetic, so that colleagues who need support for their mental well-being, whether because of work or personal circumstances, will not hesitate to say so.
18. And as work demands and our workload increase, leaders must help our staff see the work that they do as continuing to be purposeful and meaningful.
19. To achieve this, we have to better prioritise work, and differentiate between what is important and urgent, and what is not. Second, we ought to make very clear, every time we assign work, what is the purpose and focus of the work we are assigning our colleagues. Third, we must always find new ways to do our work better.
20. In this regard, leaders must always take the initiative to make our work and work processes better. We have been working hard in our Public Service to drive transformative change, but there will always be a next wave of opportunity to do this even better. Generative AI now powers such a new wave. We have launched our in-house equivalent of ChatGPT, known as Pair. There are other tools to help us harness AI in our work such as SmartCompose, which is an AI writing assistant that can support public officers in more effective public communications. That’s my first point, do our work better.
Second, develop your people.
21. Developing your people is a key leadership competency, and a key leadership expectation. Your staff expect this of you to help them grow and develop. I and the Service expect this of all of you who are leaders.
22. We have pushed for Competency Driven Growth across the Public Service. But as leaders, we must drive this ourselves, such as by initiating competency-based career development conversations with our officers on the development plans that they themselves have drawn up.
23. To support this, the Public Service Division (PSD) has been making available and promoting over the last few years, many new experiential growth and development programmes. For instance, we are supporting more Public Service officers to take on attachments in the private or people sectors through this programme called the Talent Attachment Programme (TAP). We now have over 110 private and people sector organisations offering attachment places for public officers. Each year, about 50 of our colleagues take up such opportunities, some spending up to two years in these private sector organisations.
24. Each of us here – senior leaders, newly appointed leaders, or leaders under development – must see it as our core responsibility and priority to develop our people. Encourage your officers to adopt a mindset of growth and development, enable their development opportunities, and nurture a spirit of learning through new developmental experiences. If they have a good posting outside of your organisation that can help them grow, and they want to take this up, do not stand in their way. Spare no effort to make your people better.
25. That’s my second point. Let me finish with my third point, which is to continue to develop ourselves, as leaders.
26. I have in recent years spoken about how we have stepped up leadership development efforts in the Public Service. Some of the shifts we have made include:
(i) implementing a Leadership Competency Framework, tailored to what leaders in the Public Service do;
(ii) institutionalising the 360-degree feedback exercise, which provides feedback not just from who we work for, but also from who works for us and who we work with laterally; and
(iii) building a stronger ethos and culture of leaders building leaders, as it is the responsibility for all leaders to take ownership of their own growth.
27. We are pushing ahead with these efforts. For instance, the Permanent Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries and Chief Executives are currently taking part in the second edition of 360-degree feedback, the first being back in 2020. These efforts have just started, and they will continue.
28. Each of us as leaders must see our own leadership development as a personal priority. We owe it to our teams to be better leaders. We owe it to our teams to be more open to their feedback. And we owe it to our teams to personally demonstrate how we have embraced growth and development.
29. Let me close, I have mentioned earlier, in a changing world and an evolving society, sustained success for Singapore can come about only with sustained change. All of us here play a part to continue that sustained change journey, to make our Public Service better to serve Singapore and Singaporeans better. We must own this responsibility.
30. I have spoken about the need to relentlessly improve and transform the way we work, to spare no effort to develop our people, and to show the way by developing ourselves to lead better. In a changing world, our own leadership must remain adaptive whilst we stay anchored on our purpose and our values, what people call our true north. These are fundamental areas of focus for us to become better individuals, better leaders and, collectively, a better Public Service.
31. And the Public Service doing this well will contribute to this improbable nation continuing to defy the odds and remake our success over and over again into the future.
32. On that note, thank you very much everyone.