Keynote Address by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, at the 2019 Public Service Commission Scholarships Award Ceremony

17 July 2019


1 A very good afternoon Chairman and members of the Public Service Commission, parents, teachers, principals, and recipients. First, let me thank the Public Service Commission for your hard work. They have been working hard, not just this year. A few of them actually interviewed me when I took the scholarship, and they are all volunteers. It is not easy to sift through 2,000 to 3,000 applicants to find the 90 plus of you.

2 On such occasions, the first thing that I always tell all the recipients is this - you are here, not because of your intelligence and your hard work alone. I am also not here because of my intelligence and hard work alone. We are all here, because this country has given us the opportunities to be here. When I was in Cambridge University, I was always reminded that there were many people who were more hardworking, more intelligent than me. But in life, they did not necessarily have the same opportunities that I have today. And their children, do not necessarily have the opportunities that our children have today. So today, we are here because of the opportunities given to us by society, the love and support given to us by our parents, and teachers and principals. Now as I was preparing this speech, I wondered what to say to you. Because from my experience, none of you will remember anything I say 12 months from now. I could have used my speech from last year, and not many people may have even noticed the difference. So I asked my staff to ask around, what would all of you like to hear from me?

3 Boils down to three questions - Why I joined, why I stayed, and what worries me about the Public Service of Singapore. I am going to just share with you three stories. Three real stories.

4 Why I joined. I did not join the Public Service because of some lofty ambition to change the world and bring Singapore to the next higher plane. I joined the Public Service because I needed a scholarship to continue my studies. Otherwise, like many in my generation, I would have to start working after my ‘A’ Levels. Even getting to my ‘O’ Levels and ‘A’ Levels had required many scholarships and bursaries for me to be there. I did not aim to be a Minister, I wanted to be a librarian – it was a very logical choice. 
5 I like to read books. The old library at Stamford Road, the red brick building, was one of the few places in Singapore that had air conditioning and allowed you to read books free of charge. And if I was a librarian, they would even pay me to do the job. I went to the PSC, got a scholarship application form and I indicated PSC (Open) so that I could be a librarian. But there were two blanks there. My teacher taught me that in any test or examination, never to leave a blank. I asked around about the other scholarships the PSC offered, someone shouted SAF, so I dutifully put SAF.

6 When I went for my interview, the PSC members asked me if I would be prepared to serve in the SAF. So I said I did not choose the SAF, I wanted to be a librarian. The PSC told me, no, second choice the SAF, second choice is still a choice. So I joined the SAF. I did not wear spectacles. I was supposed to go to the Air Force. My mother told me in Mandarin - “做人要脚踏实地” - keep your feet firmly planted on the ground. So I joined the Army. And to be even more specific, I joined the infantry.

7 I started learning to take care of my buddy, then my fellow section mates and another eight fellow soldiers. Then when I graduated, I became a platoon commander to take care of 28 men. Progressively, they trained me to take care of 100 men, a few hundred men, a few thousand men, a few ten thousand men, and eventually, a few hundred thousand men.

8 Why do I share this story with you? Moral of the story is that life has many twists and turns. Very often, we start off aiming very high to try to change the world, but it is often very useful to start doing things small and practically. And a good way to start to take care of the country is to learn to first take care of our fellow men who work with us. If we can take care of our buddy, then we can take care of our section mates, then we can take care of a few tens of people, a few hundred, we will get there. So do not worry as to why you decide to take up the Public Service Commission Scholarship. You may have loftier ideas than what I had, but I can assure you, you will go through the same path that I had. So long as your heart is at the right place, we will get from a few men to a few hundred thousand men, and these are fellow Singaporeans under our charge, looking forward to our service so that they all can have a better life than their forefathers.

9 Second story. Why did I stay? Now, more than 30 years in the Public Service. I will just tell you one story. During the course of my Public Service career, I had a chance to be posted overseas, to go on overseas missions, to go on overseas trips to talk to counterparts. And I will just share with you one very vivid example as to why I stayed.

10 I was in a foreign country. I was to call on one of the regional leaders away from the capital city. I submitted my request to meet that regional leader. I tried to get a breakfast meeting, it did not happen. I tried for a lunch meeting, it also did not happen. I tried for a dinner meeting, it still did not happen. Then I tried, why not the next day, I will wait for you, lunch, breakfast or dinner, any one will do. It still did not happen. On the second night, at about nine plus pm, a call came. “This particular personality has a slot at 10pm. Would you like to meet him for 15 minutes, maybe half an hour?”

11 I rushed over to meet him at 10pm after he had finished all his engagements. He looked at me and asked. 

“Where are you from?” 

“I am from Singapore.” 

“And why do you want to see me?” 

“I am from Singapore. I am here to establish friendship.” 

And he looked at me, “Yes?” 

12 And you could see the eyes politely trying not to ask the question “and of what value are you going to bring me or my region or my area?” And suddenly he turned around, “Where exactly is Singapore?”, asking his assistant. 

“Ah,” he said. "Now I remember, that place south of the Malay Peninsula.” 


13 We continued the rest of the conversation. But this left a deep impression on me. Sometimes in Singapore, we take for granted our very existence. Sometimes we forget that we are a small country trying to defy the odds of history by ensuring that we continue to remain relevant to people. Others who are bigger, stronger and mightier do not necessarily have to find reasons to engage us. We have to be the one to create the relevance for others to want to engage us and for us to be of value to others. Relevance.
14 What keeps me going. I have never taken for granted that Singapore will always be what it is. In my conversations with students and young people, I always ask them, “Do you think we will celebrate SG100 with greater pride and confidence?” Many of them say so and say yes, and I am very proud and very happy that they do so. I always start from the other assumption that we might never get there, unless we work hard, unless we continue to create relevance within the means that we have. I always start from the other assumption that we might not get there, unless we work hard as a team, muster the resources that we have, create value for other people, create relevance, and we will get there.

15 Finally, what worries me about the Public Service that I am so proud of? The more established and matured our system, the greater the dangers of ossification. The greater our success, the greater our dangers of complacency. The longer we defy the odds of history to not only survive but thrive, the greater the risk of hubris. And this comes to why we are here today. We are here today because we want to be eternally vigilant to guard against ossification, to guard against complacency, and to guard against hubris.

16 Like Tzu Yang, we are all proud of the Public Service not because the Public Service is perfect. We are proud of the Public Service because the Public Service constantly challenges ourselves to do better for our country and our people.

17 Many foreign commentators say that we have one of the best, if not the best, Public Service in the world. Some of them even give us a backhanded compliment and ask, "is your Public Service for hire?" No. It is not for hire nor for sale. But we are never complacent and this is why the Public Service Commission is constantly evolving and reviewing the way we select the next generation of Public Service scholars who hopefully will in time take over the leadership responsibility of this country. This is why we constantly challenge the Public Service Division to evolve and review the way we develop our officers, the way we deploy them, and the way we keep them agile.

18 Today's Public Service is different from the Public Service of the past. But that need for diversity has never changed; the need for teamwork has never changed.

19 And now, the last story that I promised you.

20 I grew up in the Singapore Armed Forces. I had the privilege to train with the militaries overseas, and I will just share with you one particular vignette of my training history. This was in the 1990s. I was in the US. I met a lady in my Command and Staff course. She was at that point in time 40 plus years old. She was five-foot plus, not exactly very tall by American standards, not exactly very fit from the look of it. And she was in the US Special Forces Reserves. And I looked at her, "Special Forces... No bulging biceps? No six-foot tall physique? Special Forces, really? Did you get it wrong?" No. In the US Special Forces, everybody has some minimum physical criteria, but that is just the entry level. One of the characteristics in all of US Special Forces selection was that everyone must bring a unique skill to the Special Forces.

21 The first Special Forces guy that I met in Fort Benning, my buddy. Besides being fit, he was an expert in astronomy. And what has astronomy to do with Special Forces? The lady whom I met – she was an expert in IT and computer system. That was in the 1990s. That was when the internet was just taking off. That was a time where the terms bugs, viruses, advanced persistent threats were not heard of. But for those learned people, these were already talked about; later, micro-robots that could fly in-between the gaps of a window, enter a room and spy on people – in the 1990s.

22 My laptop broke down. My very expensive, very heavy laptop broke down. At that point in time to get it fixed, I would have to send it to Texas. I passed it to her. She passed it back to me, back in original condition. That was almost 20 over years ago. Why do I tell you this story about the US Special Forces? Because I think it is a good value for us to have. Everyone brings something special to the team, and we need different teams to form the Special Forces. They have diverse capabilities that they can put together for a mission to surprise and outwit the enemy. The Singapore Public Service can take a leaf from this story. 

23 I hope all of you will be like my friend, the lady. That in your studies, you will bring back a special unique skillset to Singapore, to the team; that one day while each of you having possessed that special skill will come together and wield those special skills as a team to take Singapore forward. 

24 This is why in the Public Service, it is no longer sufficient just to have policy-making skills. You need policy-making skills. You need operations skills. You need communication skills. You need skills to mobilise the public to come along with us. And you need exposure beyond the Public Service. And we will systematically put everyone in the Public Service through the paces. Because the Public Service that we want is not a monolithic Public Service that can only answer the challenges of today. The Public Service that we aspire to be is one that will not only take care of fellow Singaporeans today, but to be able to anticipate the challenges and solve them ahead of time, even before fellow Singaporeans may become aware of it. 

25 I learned lessons from the Special Forces lady who was skilled in computers. I knew about bugs, viruses, advanced persistent threats 25 years ago. Because I knew a bit more, I could help my own organisation become a bit less unprepared. And that, perhaps is all that we need to make sure that we keep Singapore staying ahead. 

26 Finally, I would just like to end on this note.

27 Today, Singapore is no longer the same as the Singapore of 1965. The resources that we have are much more. The challenges that we have are also much more. The Pioneer Generation and the Merdeka Generation had much less, but they work hard individually and as a team to leave us with what we have today.

28 My generation has the duty to continue to build on this. By working as hard, as smart, if not harder and smarter to make sure that your generation will do even better than us. And I hope your generation will continue to maintain this sense of mission for Singapore to defy the odds of history, to not only survive and thrive as a small nation state without a hinterland. But instead, our hinterland is the world. 

29 We will get there. We will get there, so long as each and every one of us in this room remember that we never defined our success by how well we do for ourselves in this generation only. We will get there. We will distinguish ourselves as fellow Singaporeans because each and every one of us in this room is committed to making sure that the next generation will do even better than us. Our definition of success is not how well we do for this generation alone. It is how well we enable the next generation to do even better than us.

30 20 years, 30 years later, maybe one or more of you might be standing on this stage to give out the awards to the next generation of scholarship recipients. The room may change, the challenges may change, but may our values never change. Always put our country before ourselves and always strive to take Singapore to the next level and ensure that every Singaporean has a better life tomorrow.

31 Thank you very much for your commitment.