Speech by Mr Teo Chee Hean at Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony
Speech by Mr Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister In Charge of the Civil Service, at Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony
1 APRIL 2015, GRAND COPTHORNE WATERFRONT HOTEL SINGAPORE
Reflecting on Our Past, Working Together for Our Future
Chairman and Members of the Public Service Commission
Permanent Secretaries, past and present
Ladies and Gentlemen
1. This year, we mark Singapore’s 50th year of independence. Sadly, we also mourn the passing of our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It is a time for the Public Service to reflect on our past, and ready ourselves for the future.
2. Tonight, we have several former Heads of Civil Service and Permanent Secretaries with us. They represent generations of public officers who worked hard to make Singapore what it is today. I would like to thank our public officers — past and present — for your service to the nation. Let me also congratulate the officers who are being promoted this year.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore Public Service
3. Mr Lee shaped the ethos of the Singapore Public Service. He instilled the values of excellence, incorruptibility and meritocracy that we have preserved to this day.
4. He was a powerful orator, but for him, Government was not just about rhetoric. He lived up to what he said. He delivered on his promises. He led by example and set high standards – working hard to get things done for Singaporeans. He had an eye for detail, getting the small things right, along with the big things. Greening the city. Building homes and schools. Cleaning up the Singapore River. Attracting investments and creating jobs. And lots more. For him, any policy or programme was only as good as its implementation. For him, if something was worth doing for Singapore, it was worth doing very well.
5. His commitment to clean government is legendary. In the early days, corruption was rampant. When Mr Lee won the mandate to form the government, he strengthened our anti-corruption laws and gave the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau wider powers to investigate and eradicate corruption. Today, it is not just the Public Service, but Singaporeans as a whole, who are committed to maintaining a corruption-free society.
6. Mr Lee believed strongly in meritocracy. He was adamant that public officers should be appointed, and advance, on the basis of their abilities, effort and achievements, not connections. For Singapore to succeed, he believed in picking the best person for the job, regardless of race or family background. Mr Lee established the practice of paying public officers market-competitive salaries that move with the market – a practice which we still maintain today. There is no “iron rice bowl”, as poor performers are exited. All this allowed us to build a high quality Public Service that attracts and retains capable people, committed and focussed on serving the public.
7. Mr Lee had firm views on how public officers should work with citizens. Mr Lee believed that public officers needed to understand the ground, in order to hold the trust of Singaporeans. In 1960, he told public officers that he expected them to know the problems facing citizens, whether they were city-dwellers, farmers, or fishermen. He wanted a Government that grows “from the ground up”, putting Singaporeans at the centre of all that they do.
8. He expected public officers to communicate clearly and simply, especially to citizens. He had a poor view of public officers who spoke “in code”. He expected internal documents to be brief and straightforward. He emphasised that without clarity in writing, there would be misunderstanding and confusion. Complex ideas should be put into simple words.
9. Mr Lee also spoke about how public officers should work with the political leadership – offering frank and impartial advice to ministers, so that ministers could make sound decisions. Mr Lee and his Cabinet continually emphasised that public officers should consider more than just the technical aspects of policy-making, but also ground realities — whose interests are affected, how the policy fits into the Government’s long-term objectives, what the reactions might be, and how to communicate the policy. Once the decisions were made, it was the duty of public officers to implement them well.
10. Mr Lee was a great leader with a vision for Singapore. What kind of Singapore should we be, what kind of people Singaporeans should aspire to be. But he was also a pragmatist. He said:
“At the end of the day, you must also have the idealism to succeed, to make people come with you. You must have that vision of what is at the bottom of the rainbow you want to reach. But you must have a sense of reality … to feel when this vision is not practical, that it will ruin us.”
11. Mr Lee and our founding fathers led Singapore in the difficult years after independence. Their vision and hard work made Singapore what it is today. They made Singapore a flourishing metropolis connected to the world, a good home for Singaporeans, and a model for other countries. Few other post-colonial societies made it from Third World to First, certainly not in one generation.
12. In the past week, as we mourned the loss of Mr Lee, Singaporeans also reflected on how he has led us to make the achievements that are the Singapore of today. The pioneer generation of Singaporeans and public officers lived through this. Newer generations of Singaporeans and public officers rediscovered this, and developed a deeper understanding and appreciation of his leadership, and the ideals, and principles that have brought us here.
13. So let us uphold the high standards of Mr Lee that he exemplified in words and actions, and re-dedicate ourselves to making Singapore even better for the future.
A Public Service Ready for the Future
14. While we hold fast to sound principles and values, the Public Service has to continually evolve so that our structure, programmes and services, and our officers are ready to serve Singapore and Singaporeans. While we focus on making a difference now to deliver good public services and programmes to Singaporeans every day, we must also keep an eye on the long term, and prepare ourselves well, for the future.
Improving Coordination within Government
15. In the early days, Singapore had a relatively small, centralised government, providing a limited set of services. Over time, as the number and range of public services grew, we decentralised more policy-making and implementation, with each ministry and statutory board looking after its own responsibilities. This worked well, making us more agile and responsive.
16. Increasingly however, we are seeing more issues that cut across agency boundaries, and which require optimisation across boundaries and trade-offs to be made. In recent years, we have sought to improve coordination across Government. Within the Prime Minister’s Office, there are existing departments which lead whole-of-government coordination for specific domains such as national security, research and development, population, and climate change. And also have a number of inter-ministry committees chaired by various Ministers. New units such as the Smart Nation Programme Office help to incubate new areas of work, and drive policy and implementation in the initial stages.
17. We have also sought to deliver more seamless services to citizens, through the Social Services Offices run by Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Municipal Services Office now under the Ministry of National Development.
18. But there is still room to improve how we work as one Government.
19. In July this year, we will set up a new strategic policy unit in the Prime Minister’s Office headed by the Head of Civil Service. The unit will be responsible for strategic planning to identify whole-of-government priorities early, and translate these into policy action plans. It will partner ministries to achieve whole-of-government outcomes more effectively. I see the new unit playing three primary roles.
20. First, greater coordination to anticipate and tackle medium to long-term issues. The office will support the Prime Minister and his Cabinet to establish priorities and strengthen strategic alignment across Government. It will create the capacity and space for Government to do medium to long-term planning – three, five, 10 years, and even further into the future. It will help build a shared understanding of the Government’s priorities, and be responsible for strategic resource allocation, in terms of budget, manpower, and where necessary, land, or even carbon emissions.
21. Ministries will remain responsible for policy development and implementation in their own domain areas. The new strategic policy unit will “join the dots” across policy initiatives. In particular, this unit will consider how a policy affects other government programmes or services, and flag up areas where more synergy could be reaped, or where trade-offs have to be resolved.
22. Second, incubating new functions and capabilities. The strategic policy unit will also identify new emerging issues that cut across ministry boundaries for which there is no clear ministry or agency currently responsible. This unit can take the lead to shape and incubate the new programme or capability. This approach allows us to scope and refine solutions for such cross-ministry issues until its form is clearer, after which these new functions can be incorporated into the most appropriate ministry or agency to continue with its policy and operational work.
23. We had incubated the concept of the new Municipal Services Office in the Public Service Division of PMO before it was placed in the Ministry of National Development with a Minister in charge. Another example is our ongoing effort to build up engineering capabilities in the Public Service, which is currently being led from PSD, and will eventually be devolved back to the domain leads. The strategic policy unit will also incubate other new areas in the future.
24. Third, resolving current issues with no single owner. We all know of issues that cut across multiple agencies and domains, or fall in the cracks between agencies. In the past, we have set up dedicated units looking into emerging cross-cutting areas such as climate change and cyber-security. But as issues become more complex and inter-connected, we expect to see more of such cross-cutting issues, and it may not be tenable or desirable to keep setting up new outfits for each area. The new unit will also provide a platform for different agencies to come together to resolve current issues, and where necessary, identify the most appropriate owner agency to take the lead on each such issue.
25. We will keep the new unit small and nimble, so that it will and can only focus on the most critical areas. It will take some time to build up the capabilities of this unit and to develop its form in full.
26. There is no immediate need to rationalise the existing coordinating units in PMO. This can be done in the next phase, to better organise the whole-of-government planning and coordination work.
27. Better coordination at the centre of government, will also help line ministries and agencies to do their work in their own domains better – developing policies and implementing programmes that are better aligned with whole-of-government objectives to serve the needs of Singapore and Singaporeans.
People Development in the Public Service
28. We also need to ensure that we have the right people and capabilities across the Public Service to match our changing needs and I will touch on three of these initiatives.
29. In April 2013, we launched the Public Service Leadership Programme to build a pool of specialist leaders with deep domain expertise. The PSLP complements the Administrative Service, which develops generalist leaders who can integrate work across multiple domains and multiple sectors. This is important because the issues that we deal with today are increasingly complex and diverse, as well as inter-connected. While we need cross-boundary thinking from Administrative Service officers, we also need deep specialisation from PSLP officers so that we can tackle complex issues more effectively as one Public Service.
30. We are also growing the pool of engineering expertise within the Public Service. Our engineers in the Public Service have delivered remarkable solutions for our nation – building Marina Barrage to meet our water needs; creating new underground industrial land with the Jurong rock caverns; building new flats while regenerating old estates; keeping our critical systems such as the electricity grid, sewerage system, water plants, and IT systems, running 24/7.
31. There are still many more opportunities for engineers in the Public Service to do important work that will make a real difference to the lives of Singaporeans. We will need to build up engineering capabilities in the Public Service, and develop them in a more concerted manner. We are identifying some agencies as centres of excellence to build up strategic and critical engineering capabilities at the whole-of-government level. These agencies will ensure that engineering capabilities are developed and sustained to meet present and future needs. They will also outline technology roadmaps to build up transformational capabilities to meet the future needs of our nation.
32. The Public Service has always believed in developing and bringing the best out of our people. Most recently, I had announced during this year’s Committee of Supply debate that both degree and non-degree holders will be recruited on, and progress along, the extended Management Executive Scheme, with effect from August 2015. Officers assessed to have the same performance and potential will have the same opportunities for advancement and career development, whether they are degree holders or not. We will see how to expand this to other schemes of service to help our officers deepen their skills and take up better jobs, in line with the SkillsFuture vision.
Looking Ahead with Confidence
33. Because of the leadership and hard work of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and our founding generation of leaders, Singapore has achieved much since we gained independence in 1965.
34. Over the past week I spent quite a bit of time talking to people in the queue who waited for long hours to pay their respects to Mr Lee. It was a deep emotional experience. It felt the same at the Padang, Parliament House, the tribute centres. I was at the Padang, day and night, talking to the people who already waited 3, 4, 5 hours, knowing they have 3, 4, 5 hours more to wait. Patient, understanding, less than comfortable. There were many volunteers who came forth to help them, make them as comfortable as possible. They provided food, water. I saw two groups of volunteers at the Padang who wanted to sing for them. One group of a dozen, the other group half a dozen. Song sheets distributed there, at 2 o’clock in the morning, after having waited for several hours. People started to sing songs familiar to us. It was emotional, some people were crying. It was a remarkable experience. Somebody suggested, “why don’t we stand up and say the pledge?” It was 2 o’clock in the morning. People had waited several hours. They stood up and said the pledge:
“We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.”
35. It was the most emotional experience I have ever had. The words of the pledge really came out for everyone. It spoke of what Mr Lee worked all his life, for us. I ask them, “Why do you come? So many hours.” They said, “Mr Lee has done so much for us all his life. This is the least we can do to show our appreciation. 3 hours, 4 hours, 5 hours, 8 hours – what is that compared to what he has done?” It is all very moving and touching. So I ask myself, “Why do people feel this way?” And I think it is because we know that Mr Lee has spent his life serving Singaporeans. He did it for you, for us, for our country. He did not do it for personal gains, he did it for us. This should motivate every public officer, to do our work for Singapore and Singaporeans.
36. So, as we look ahead to the next 50 years, let us build on Mr Lee’s legacy and re-dedicate ourselves to the mission of public service – to improve the lives of Singaporeans, and build a better Singapore. Let us fly the flag high, and do Mr Lee and Singapore proud.
Thank you very much.
 Speech by then-PM Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the 1st Leadership Training & Orientation Course, 25 April 1960.
Address by then-PM Mr Lee Kuan Yew to Ministers, Ministers of State and senior Civil Service officers on good writing, 27 Feb 1979.
 Han Fook Kwang et al, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (1998), p. 231