Speech by Mr Peter Ong at Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean
Members of the Public Service Commission
Ladies and Gentlemen
Good evening and welcome to the 27th Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony.
2. Today, we are very honoured and privileged to have Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean as our Guest-of-Honour.
3. I would also like to extend my warmest welcome to our former colleagues who are here with us tonight.
4. To the 73 Admin Officers (AOs) who are being promoted, congratulations.
Reflecting on our history
5. It takes place in our Jubilee year, and comes soon after the passing of our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It is therefore timely for us to reflect on our history, recall our roots in the Service and look forward to our future together.
6. Tonight, we have our former Heads of Civil Service and former Permanent Secretaries with us. They provide the link to our past, and many of us have fond memories working with them in our careers. We recall how they have been good mentors, helping us hone our policy instincts, and imbibed in us the core values of the Service. Their presence also reminds us of the many challenging situations we faced in the past, and how together, we managed to overcome them.
7. We have inherited a good system. Our pioneers took pains to build a strong foundation. Our heritage as a Service is distinguished in a few key areas. First, in the way we think and build long-term. Guided by the vision of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team of founding leaders, our pioneers were able to see past the limitations of their present circumstances to the Singapore of the future. They worked hard at building not just for the present, but for ten, twenty years. Second, in knowing the ground well. Our colleagues in the past had to be acutely sensitive to the realities on the ground and consistently kept their ears to the ground. Third, in building strong_institutions_. Our colleagues before us established institutions and imbued them with a sense of purpose and a strong ethos. They built up a strong Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to protect a vulnerable Singapore, affordable public housing to give families a stake in the nation, an efficient legal system to uphold the rule of law, a high-quality education system to provide equal access to opportunities. The list goes on.
Preparing for the Challenges Ahead
8. However, the issues that we will confront are becoming more complex, more conflated and conjoined. Beyond the sensitivities of race, language and religion, new divides like class, values and political leanings may reduce our policy manoeuvring space. The road ahead for governance and public administration will be challenging, not just for us, but for governments globally.
9. To meet the challenges of the future, I believe that we must continue the transformation of our Public Service, to make sure we operate as One Trusted Public Service, with Citizens at the Centre. As we mark our 50th year of independence, it is timely for us as a Public Service, to ask what it will take for us to gear up our capacity and capabilities, so that we can rise up to the challenges.
10. This evening, I will speak on three key thrusts that are critical for us to undertake – (1) Strengthening our Institutional Capabilities (2) Enhancing the Capabilities of our People and (3) Keeping Leadership Paramount.
I. Strengthening our Institutional Capabilities
11. First, strengthening institutional capabilities. We must continue to build on the institutions that we have inherited from our pioneers. By this, I am both referring to the organisations we have, and also the set of norms and principles that influence societal behaviour, such as the rule of law and meritocracy. Institutions sustain good governance beyond personalities and policies. Nurturing our institutions is part of how we steward the Public Service for future generations.
12. DPM has mentioned how we are organising ourselves better to function more effectively as One Government, with the new strategic policy unit in the Prime Minister’s Office. This is an extension of our ongoing review of our organisational structures over the past few years to ensure they are fit for purpose and can empower our people to meet the emergent challenges in a co-ordinated manner.
13. The formation of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth reflected our desire to engage more with the citizenry. The revamp of the Ministry of Social and Family Development sought to address societal and family issues in a more dedicated manner. To better integrate our work on early childhood, we set up the Early Childhood Development Agency, and to help the elderly better access the continuum of care, we merged the aged care functions of the Centre for Enabled Living with those of the Agency for Integrated Care. The new Cyber Security Agency, which will provide dedicated and centralised oversight of the emerging issue of cyber security, started work today on 1 April.
14. Beyond making such structural changes, another source of institutional strength lies in a more organic response to emergent issues, through ground-up communities of like-minded officers coming together to deal with issues. This is especially helpful at the middle management level.
15. I have been particularly impressed with the Quality Service Manager (QSM) community, which has been proactive in dealing with cross-cutting issues. The QSMs have adopted a “do-it-first” attitude towards handling citizen feedback on grey issues on local infrastructure requests. Several QSMs worked together to deal with municipal infrastructure requests that could not be resolved because of differing agency mandates and priorities. This effort to work across agency lines has delivered real improvements in the living environment of our residents. It is not always easy for officers to operate in this way – it sometimes involves having to sub-optimise their agencies’ outcomes, and letting another agency benefit from their work. This is possible only because of the trust, and the close relationships, that QSMs have built within their community. Other vibrant groups that have sprung up include the HR and procurement communities, and I encourage our middle managers to actively look for such opportunities where they can lead others to work more effectively as One Public Service.
16. As we look to the future, we will need to ensure that we stay anchored to norms and principles that have served us well, while ensuring our organisations can remain relevant and adapt to the changing needs. While we cannot anticipate fully all future needs, we must maintain the adaptive capacity to surmount new challenges. A key capacity will be the ability to work with the citizenry to co-create our collective future. To do so, a strong spirit of trust between our officers and the citizens will need to be sustained and nurtured.
17. And we have recently done so at the national level with Our Singapore Conversation, which many of you were involved in. These conversations help us to establish points of consensus on the key hopes and priorities of Singaporeans. Since then, we have also seen extensive citizen engagement efforts over policies such as MediShield Life and CPF. In the digital space, we aim to share more Government data, so that citizens, businesses and other communities can co-create new solutions and achieve better outcomes for Singaporeans. Our ability to engage and co-create with citizens will be key towards sustaining trust and maintaining the good standing of our institutions.
II. Enhancing the Capabilities of our People
18. The second key area that we need to focus on is enhancing the capabilities of our public officers. In the face of an ageing workforce and slowing resident workforce growth, we need to step up in investing in our people.
To imbue ground feel and empathy
19. In a more complex environment, where the context is harder to read and ‘knowing the ground well’ is far from straightforward, ground feel and empathy should be the traits we build in more officers.
20. Last year, I spoke about having all AOs getting at least one operational posting in the course of their careers, to sharpen their operational instincts. I am happy to note that, as of March this year, more than half our AOs have experienced operational roles in agencies. We are therefore on our way to fulfilling our objective.
21. Allow me to share an example of such postings. Jingheng from SPRING Singapore works with logistics companies to support them at the enterprise- and industry-level. He meets business owners regularly to tell them about government schemes and works with them to help them achieve their business plans. He is also working with trade associations to roll-out sector wide initiatives to benefit multiple companies, such as the Singapore Transport Association’s Mobileye project. Such frontline postings imbue ground feel in our officers, and ultimately help to strengthen policy-making.
Better skills needed to implement and communicate policies effectively
22. We also need to push for our officers to build up a wider range of skills. Skills needed for policy formulation are important, but skills in implementing and communicating them well are also critical.
23. This wider range of implementation flair can come from exposing our officers to more diverse training. We are hence sending AOs to institutions and programmes beyond the traditional courses and schools at the post-graduate level. For example, Agnes Kwek did an attachment at IDEO in San Francisco to learn about design thinking, and she has applied it to her work subsequently in Land Transport Authority to improve commuter experience in our trains. In fact, some of you may have seen some of her work – capitalising on the 2014 World Cup, LTA piloted a football-themed train cabin with turf grass in the middle to encourage commuters to move away from the train doors, and designed reserved seats to resemble the football jerseys of the “reserve” players. LTA discovered that the themed cabin made 80% of surveyed commuters smile – not a bad achievement in a crowded train.
24. A well-designed policy needs to be accompanied by comprehensive communication and engagement plans if it is to achieve its desired impact. To ensure that our pioneers can access the benefits that are meant for them, we formed the dedicated Pioneer Generation Office (PGO) to reach out and explain the policies, and they are training volunteers as Pioneer Generation Ambassadors to reach out with a more personal touch through home visits. To date, PGO has trained a pool of around 1,800 Ambassadors and reached out to more than 30,000 Pioneers. Videos on the Pioneer Generation Package were also created in different dialects with different cultural nuances. This was something the elderly appreciated.
25. As the communications landscape continues to evolve rapidly, our officers will need new instincts and skills. What was only a few years ago called “new” media platforms are now standard communication channels for agencies. Agencies are also embracing the use of new media, such as videos and infographics to convey their messages. In the “always on”, hyper-connected age that we are in, agencies that excel at this will be those that empower their officers to make decisions without going through layers of clearance. A light-hearted example was in the response of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). When the Internet was abuzz with whether a certain dress was blue and black or white and gold, SCDF was quick to join in with a witty reminder on both its Facebook and Twitter platforms that “whatever colour you see, please remember to recognise the red and white of the ambulances on the road and give way to them”.
III. Keeping Leadership Paramount
26. Let me now touch on the third key area. To be prepared for future challenges, leadership remains key. This is one of the core convictions we have inherited from Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It is critical we work as a collective leadership to tackle the issues and take the Public Service into the future.
27. Over the years, the Administrative Service has produced honest, capable and committed officers who have made significant contributions to Singapore. The Administrative Service, which prepares officers for senior leadership positions, continues to have an important role to play. We need leaders with strong leadership skills, to rally and motivate staff, and to develop other leaders for the future.
28. The values on which Mr Lee built the Singapore Public Service – incorruptibility, integrity, a commitment to service and a drive for the very highest standards of excellence – have not changed. We need our leaders to be anchored on values and to serve as role models of these values for their officers.
29. We are placing more emphasis on our public service values of integrity, service and excellence. Apart from infusing them in our HR systems, such as our selection and appraisal processes, we will make these elements more explicit in all our leadership and milestone programmes, by bringing home the point that possessing such values is not an option but a core requirement. This message will also be emphasised to officers at key junctures of their careers when they are put onto the Administrative Service or the Public Sector Leadership Programme, or when they are appointed to leadership positions. We are also articulating a leadership philosophy which will help us to align expectations on leadership values with behaviours.
30. Ultimately, leaders have to walk the talk in the workplace, as we all know that values are “caught”, and not so much “taught”. Behaviours are lived out in our daily lives, and they reflect the values that we hold.
31. As leaders in our respective organisations, we must invest our time and effort in getting to know more people, at a deeper level, and build closer working relationships. As leaders operating at the whole-of-government level, we need to be able to bring people together and forge common perspectives. As leaders in the Singapore Public Service, we must inspire our officers and colleagues to imbibe the right values, to bring the Singapore Public Service from strength to strength, one that is worthy of Singapore.
Conclusion: Continuing the Legacy
32. In the past week, our public officers have had the opportunity to reflect on Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. His life is an inspiration to all of us, to keep the passion and do what it takes for the interests of Singapore. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in a 1964 speech, “the acid test is in performance, not promises”.
33. As we look to the future and as the nation writes the next chapter of the Singapore story, the task falls on us to keep the Public Service as an exceptional institution to serve the nation, upgrade our people and maintain superior leadership to give us the edge. This is our sacred duty, and has no passing.
Thank you very much.
 Speech by then Prime-Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Socialist International Congress in Brussels, 5 September 1964.