Opening Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at the Public Service Conference 2017

02 October 2017


A New League of Extraordinary Public Officers

1 Good morning colleagues and friends.

2 Honestly, when the Public Service Division (PSD) asked me whether I would like to speak at this Public Service Conference, little did I know it would be the first time we are doing such a big event with 2,300 of you present.

The Race is On

3 I will start with a story you might be familiar with. It’s about a small country – with very few natural resources, a small population, living next to bigger neighbours. It was part of a federation, broke off from the federation; then it pursued economic reforms, did very well, established itself as a gateway between the East and the West, grew rapidly, and became known as a  “Tiger” economy in its region. Today, the country is touted for low corruption, high efficiency, and is one of the most digitised countries of the world.

4 All of you know which country this is, right? It is Estonia. You mean you were thinking of somewhere else?

5 I sat opposite the Estonian President, a lady, at the “St. Gallen Symposium” earlier this year. The first question I asked her was about their digital identity system because we, too, are setting up a digital identity system: “How did you do it? How did you get your whole population to accept it?” While they are a small country, they have big rural areas. She said, “It’s important when we roll out the systems that it’s not really about the technology, but about the implementation, about helping people see the benefit.” And so, in the rural villages, they set up help centres so that the elderly, the less educated, are brought on board the national ID system.

6 You just think about it. You replace “Estonian villages” with “HDB heartlands”, “help centres” with “Residential Committees”, and these sound exactly like something Singapore would do. The only difference is that they did it two decades ago.

7 It is not just the small, nimble countries that are moving quickly in this innovation game. India, a country of 1.2 billion now, is on the move. They have rolled out a national biometric identification system called “Aadhaar”. It is the world’s largest biometric ID system today, and one of the most sophisticated. It is not without controversy – there has been a challenge in court on its constitutionality. But notwithstanding this, a country of this size is on the move.

8 Look at China. It is moving at an even faster pace, a breakneck pace. Go to any Chinese city; look at the infrastructure that has gone up. E-payment, while we are still arguing about it in Singapore, is ubiquitous in China. Even beggars along the streets have QR codes, asking you for change. They are now testing facial recognition systems for financial services, including ATM withdrawals. Imagine – with just your face and no card, you can withdraw money. Every layer of the country’s bureaucracy is putting a concerted effort to translate “One Belt, One Road” into reality. And it’s not a pipe dream – you see it in terms of steel and concrete, connections and infrastructure.

9 Recently, China, Britain and France announced ahead of the “Frankfurt Motor Show” that in time, they will phase out vehicles powered by fossil fuels. The purpose? To differentiate themselves and their motor industries from the rest of the world.

10 Why are countries doing this? It is not very different from why companies are doing this. Apple used to produce and manufacture computers but has totally transformed and reinvented itself into a smartphone provider. Disney is no longer just about theme parks or Mickey Mouse - it is now an entertainment conglomerate with very impressive franchises such as Star Wars, Avengers, and Marvel comics. Amazon and Alibaba, they have moved from online to offline now. This is the competition in the real world and the commercial world, and the Darwinian nature of global competition.

11 But for countries, we run on a different logic. We cannot close down. We do not go bankrupt per se. We cannot retrench our citizens. But countries can be broken. Countries can be impoverished and it can bring severe hardship to people. So countries, too, need to constantly rethink, reinvent themselves, to stay relevant, to gain a foothold in the international division of labour. And in this era of technological disruption, this is the economic challenge of our time.

Rethinking Singapore

12 How can we meet this challenge? The Committee on the Future Economy recommended seven mutually reinforcing strategies. If we synthesise them, I think they boil down to three ideas. First, we need to innovate, build up our capabilities, our skills, internally in Singapore. Second, translate those capabilities and skills into products and services that people want. And third, take them overseas, to the rest of the world. So three key words: innovation, enterprise, internationalisation.

13 We have decades of success bringing in foreign direct investment (FDI) into Singapore from multi-national companies (MNCs) – that will continue to be important. But the new Singapore? We must combine innovation, enterprise, internationalisation into a new engine of growth to create jobs, generate income, and raise our welfare. It is something that we have to learn to do a lot better.

14 Recently, I was at a polytechnic and the principal showed me some of the projects that students have done over the years. One was a project done over ten years ago which the principal very proudly showed me. The idea was a good one: it was essentially a shared taxi service project done by the students of that polytechnic. The principal very proudly told me, “Look, the idea of Uber and shared taxis started in this polytechnic.”

15 So we are indeed capable of big ideas, disruptive ideas. But the difference is this: Uber was not born in Singapore or executed here. It was started in San Francisco by a couple of youngsters who were not happy that they could not get a taxi.

16 Why it did not happen here, I cannot really say. Maybe the students were looking towards other professional careers. Maybe they were not hungry enough. Maybe our environment was just not conducive for them to try their ideas out. But we must understand this: ideas in themselves are very good but they do not generate the jobs, the income, that we want. It is execution, getting it done, that creates value.

17 However, I think things are changing. We are creating home-grown champions. You saw some of them in the video earlier like Hope Technik and Carousell. I would count Razer and Ninja Van as well. PayPal has set up its international headquarters in Singapore, and is testing its state-of-the-art Fintech solutions here. Amazon has launched a two-hour grocery delivery service in Singapore. Singapore is such a small market that it does not make sense for them to set up such a big outfit here, but they are doing so because they are testing their AI-driven warehousing and logistics capabilities in Singapore.

18 The F1 show in Singapore is also now not just the only night city race in the F1 circuit, but also a test-bed for F1. F1 intends to test Virtual Reality technology in Singapore to better entertain the world and those who are watching the race.

19 Like us, many countries are trying to create an environment conducive for innovation and experimentation. They have the advantage.  First, they have bigger markets so naturally, enterprises want to set up there to tap on the bigger markets. Second, for many countries, they may not regulate everything so tightly. That means there is a lot more “white space” for ideas, sometimes even crazy ones, to flourish. In some ways, that was how AliPay and WeChat Pay flourished in China – through a trial-and-error process because e-payment was not really regulated in China.

20 Singapore cannot compete with these countries head-on because our position is diametrically opposite from them: They are big, with lots of “white space”; we are small, and very well and tightly regulated. Let me assure all of you who are senior public officers here today: no matter how you feel your agency is friendly to businesses and facilitative of innovation, it is just not the same as these bigger countries. We are not that kind of economy, and we do not pretend that we are that kind of economy.

21 So can we compete? It is to offer impeccable inter-agency and cross-agency co-ordination to make things happen. And yes, we need a “whole-of-government” approach. But this is a concept – and let’s be honest with ourselves – that can be misunderstood. Whole-of-Government means every agency chipping in to contribute towards a larger cause, to make something that is impossible possible. It is not every agency having its own vested interest, having a veto right, and making the possible impossible.

22 It is no different to how we have attracted FDI over the decades. That was central to the Economic Development Board’s (EDB) mission, but it has always been a “whole-of-government” effort in the true sense – where there was a central objective to bring in FDI to create jobs; with every agency contributing towards it, applying your minds and reviewing your rules and regulations with that key goal in mind. We can make ourselves attractive to innovation and enterprise too, by calling on the co-operative spirit of the entire Public Service towards a much larger national goal.  

Barriers to Change

23 In this pursuit of innovation, what is stopping us from being the best we can be? The main obstacle, I would say, is ourselves. We are all public officers here, in charge of regulations and policies. Ask ourselves honestly: how much time do we spend enforcing rules, coming up with new rules, or regulating something more tightly? As opposed to reviewing rules, reassessing the pros and cons, the risks and the returns, applying the rules differently, and exercising more judgement, so that more new and innovative activities can happen. Weigh the time you did the former versus the latter. How often do you say “no” to a new activity? As opposed to saying “maybe, yes, we can try it out” within a sandbox. I think, not much of the latter.

24 In my dialogues with public officers, often in the Civil Service College during your milestone courses, I asked this question as well and most would come back to me and say “not much”. Too much day-to-day running, too much day-to-day operating. Just enforcing and tightening rules as opposed to facilitating new activities. And I asked them, “Why is that so? Why aren’t you spending more time on innovation; reviewing rules, opening up the spaces?”  

25 And these are usually the reasons: first reason, “no time”. But innovation is like exercise. You make time. We never have time for exercise but when you make time and when you have done it, you realise that you have done something good and over time, it becomes a habit. And so, we must make innovation a core responsibility of every senior public officer. And over time, this core responsibility becomes a habit.

26 The second reason is “no budget; no manpower”. But innovation is not really about having a big budget, more manpower, or a lot of time. On the contrary, the best ideas have always sprouted because of some desperate need; because we are so short of resources, or because we are so short of budget. Estonia implemented e-government not because they have a lot of budget to spare, but because they had no budget and resources to run a big paper-based bureaucracy. So they had no choice but to go into national digital identity. In Singapore’s case, we have world-class water technology, but that was because we were so short of water before. Even now, we continue to face that challenge. So we broke out of that constraint.

27 The third reason that public officers often tell me is, “my boss doesn’t support me”. Maybe that is true but remember, we are public officers of a certain seniority here so we are all bosses here. And you can empower your staff and yourself to do something. It may be a staid logic, that when you “fail to plan, you plan to fail” but equally – when you “fail to start, you start to fail.” So do not wait for that grand plan. Do not wait for the boss to tell you that this is the vision and this is the grand plan in order to start doing something today.

28 So I say this: make a start, no matter how small.  Innovation is not about grand plans, KPIs, technology, big budget, and ample time and resources. The main obstacle is really ourselves – our organisation and all of our entrenched processes, bureaucracy, and a culture of being afraid. Afraid to fail because all these years we have succeeded. Afraid to hunger because we have been quite full.  

Think Big, Start Small, Act Fast

29 I spoke about the need to “Think Big, Start Small, and Act Fast” at the Administrative Service Dinner earlier this year. This approach is particularly useful, I feel, in reviewing rules and encouraging innovation.  

30 Since that speech, I made the time to maintain a series of ten rules to review, to make them more supportive of innovation and enterprise. When one review is completed, I would close the case and start another one. PSD, and the Pro-Enterprise Division at the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), have been most helpful in supporting me in this effort. I set a timeline of 30 days for each review. If, after 30 days, nothing is done or I feel there is an impasse, I will meet the senior officials in charge of those rules. We will then weigh the pros and cons and have a robust discussion. We will make a judgment at the end of the meeting to resolve it. Usually these meetings last no more than 30 minutes. Let me tell you some of the things that we have done in the past few months.

31 One of the issues that I looked at was procurement. Some of you may have had this experience before: you have a small office event and you know this very good caterer. You want to get the caterer for a good price. But somehow, your finance department says “cannot”. You have an event and you know this freelancer who can take very good photographs, and is very cheap. But your finance department again says “cannot”. All of us have gone through that. You are receiving a foreign guest and you heard from the Ministry of Education (MOE) that at one of our art schools, a student has created a very nice local art piece at a very reasonable price. You want to procure that instead of giving gold-plated orchids for once. But the finance department says “cannot”, because you must call for quotations, or because there is this long-term three-year contract you have signed with somebody so you must obtain his services. I was slightly disturbed by that, so I asked the Ministry of Finance (MOF) what the rule is.

32 As it turns out, MOF’s rules allow you to exercise flexibility for small value purchases so long as it is good value for money and is under $5,000. So I asked MOF to please disseminate this information more widely amongst our public officers. Today, when I go around asking senior public officers, there tends to be greater awareness that this flexibility is actually provided for. And I do see more offices, departments and ministries exercising it. So if you do not know about it, please go back and talk to your…well, you are the bosses too, right?

33 Set the rules, exercise some judgement, and exercise that flexibility.  It is very useful for start-ups, freelancers and entrepreneurs to be able to approach a government department to get a job. They then have a reference job and can go out to the market and say that they have done this job for a certain ministry. It will help them penetrate the larger market. So to support this effort further, MOF will raise this Small Value Purchase limit from $5,000 to $6,000, with effect from next month.

34 For larger projects, there are many procurement techniques involved which require quite sophisticated capabilities. And today, those sophisticated capabilities reside in certain agencies, such as the JTC Corporation, the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), and the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). But we need to build up these capabilities across the board. So DSTA will partner the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) to launch a certificate programme in procurement, and MOF will promote this programme to those of us who have to deal with procurement. It is a capability that is very worthwhile building up. Within DSTA alone, there are almost 30 procurement techniques. Every different project has a different way of procurement. They still encourage competition and ensure value for money, but the way you approach procurement is different across projects. It is a deep discipline and we are going to raise the capabilities of that discipline across the board.

35 Another project that I looked at recently was related to promotional banners along Orchard Road and the Civic District.  Today, if you are an event organiser and you want to put up banners and promote your event along Orchard Road and the Civic District, you have to work with five government agencies. Each one looks after a specific segment of the area. The thing is, for their own good reasons, each of these agencies has slightly different requirements on the dimensions and design of the banner. But to the organiser, it is not the most business-friendly. But when I raised this issue with the agencies, the PEP at MTI sprang into action – and I thank them very much for that. It got the agencies together quickly and within my 30-day limit, they have come to a conclusion. They have streamlined the process so that from first of January 2018, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will be the one-stop shop. LTA, thank you very much and good job. The thing is, when it comes to innovation, sometimes we must have an agency that is prepared to stick its neck out. And the good thing is this: all five agencies have standardised their design requirements. Wonderful.

36 This next project is slightly bigger. Earlier in April at the Administrative Service Dinner, I talked about a multi-agency effort to experiment with floating solar panels on fairly large scale at the Tengeh Reservoir. We need to develop our capacity to generate renewable energy because more MNCs are demanding it. Many MNCs are striving and aiming to be zero- or low-emission companies. And in Singapore, because we are going to have a carbon tax, many MNCs are actually motivated to do it faster. We have limited generation capacity for renewable energy. We cannot do wind – wind is not strong here. We do not have geothermal energy, and thank goodness for that because it would otherwise mean we would have volcanoes. So what is realistic for Singapore is solar energy. And yet, we do not have large tracts of land so putting solar panels on reservoirs is a fairly viable and attractive option.

37 There were concerns expressed by various agencies. But to their credit, in the past few months, in our discussions, we have untied most of these knots. The Public Utilities Board (PUB), since last week, has called for tenders for environmental and engineering studies for two reservoirs that they are interested in. MINDEF is helping to expedite similar feasibility studies for Sarimbun and two other reservoirs in the West, where they conduct military training. EDB is exploring the possibility of getting private, commercial participation in setting up solar panels, generating renewables and selling it to MNCs. So I hope that very soon, our reservoirs will be a source of supply for not just clean water, but also clean energy.

38 Another project that we looked at was the use of technology for hotel guests to do self-check-ins. It is quite a long-standing project. The technology is actually very mature. By the end of the year, the iPhone X will be released with facial recognition capabilities. Some of you may have seen how Changi Terminal 4 (T4), which is opening at the end of this month, will use facial recognition for checking in for airlines.

39 There are various reasons hotels have not adopted this technology for check-ins. But what we want to ensure is that it is not our own rules that trip it up. So the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) will be working with the hotel industry to come up with suitable prototypes. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is supporting the effort by creating a sandbox, a little “white space”, to enable hotels to test-bed such technologies.

40 You know, I have no magic wand to make innovation happen. The projects I mentioned above happened partly because I made time to drill into the details. But more importantly, every one of these projects made progress because there was a small group of senior officials – some of you seated here – who worked with me, weighed the pros and cons, and made those judgments, made those decisions, and implemented the change.

41 It requires hard work. It requires our persistence to change to trump the intransigence against change. It requires political leaders and public officers to work hand-in-hand. Innovation in the Public Service, I think, is not so much about a sudden burst of genius, or some flashes of divine inspiration. I think it is a systemic, long-term, hard slog across the board. I am doing my part, and I hope you will do your part too.


42 The enterprise of government goes beyond any commercial enterprise. When the Public Service innovates, we are neither looking at raising venture capital money nor seeking a listing of our agency. We innovate to improve lives, overcome our constraints, serve our citizens better, and shape our destiny as a country. This work we do together is the ultimate social and economic enterprise. That is why, beyond a good career, joining the Public Service is a matter of pride, of honour, and a calling. We bear a weighty duty together, and we cannot succeed without a new league of extraordinary public officers - all 2,300 of you gathered here today.

43 As Directors, there is so much you can do within your individual spheres of influence. If you do not feel you have one, ask your boss for one. Or create one for yourself – you are senior officers. With each of your individual efforts, you can make a difference to a project, to a company, even to a certain segment of an industry. Collectively, with all 2,300 of you today, you can change culture and mindsets; you can make a difference to the future of Singapore.

44 The race is on; the stakes are high. I do not think there is time for excuses. I do not think there is time to lose. Now, let us all get started.

45 Thank you very much.