Speech by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Trade and Industry and Minister-in-charge of the Public Service at Committee of Supply 2019

28 February 2019


“Our Public Service – The Pride of Singapore and Singaporeans”

Mr Chairman Sir, 

The Public Service as a Pillar of Singapore’s Success

1 Let me first thank all members who have spoken up in support of the importance of maintaining an able and committed Public Service.

2 I agree with all of you. My Public Service colleagues and I are determined to build a Public Service that is the pride of Singapore and Singaporeans.

3 Our Public Service has been a pillar of strength for Singapore’s survival and success. It has been so, and it will continue to be so.

4 Our operating environment is changing rapidly. Internally, new generations of Singaporeans are growing up in different circumstances, with different aspirations and expectations. 

5 Singaporeans expect services to be organised around them and delivered in an integrated and timely manner.  They expect systems and organisations to fit their needs and not the other way round. Singaporeans also expect services and information at their fingertips and have much less patience to navigate complex bureaucracies. Externally, our geo-political situation has become more uncertain and challenging. New security challenges, including the cyber space, have emerged, and which threaten our national security. The contest of big powers and the domestic politics of regional players combined, can potentially squeeze us and shrink our economic and foreign policy options.

6 But all is not gloom and doom. Connectivity and technology allow us the opportunities to overcome our geographical and labour constraints. If used well, they can bring us to greater heights. Our workforce is also more educated and more skilled. We can better compete on quality rather than quantity.  

7 To continue to build a vibrant and successful Singapore for the future, our Public Service must constantly challenge ourselves to come up with new ideas, adopt fresh approaches to working, organise ourselves differently and develop new skills.

Fresh Approach to Working with Public and Private

8 Our Public Service generally delivers services efficiently, but this is not enough. Beyond working the Whole-of-Government, our Public Service must now achieve Whole-of-Nation outcomes.

9 Partnering Singaporeans and the private sector to deliver results must become second nature to our Public Service and not as an afterthought.  It is not just about delivering good service for the public, but also delivering better services with the public. However, the Public Service, public and private sector must play our respective parts well in this new partnership to take Singapore to greater heights.  Both must be mature to know the complexities of taking into account many sources of feedback, competing interests and differing aspirations. And if our individual suggestion is not accepted after working the process together, it does not mean that the ideas and inputs are not considered. Instead it has formed part of the process to arrive at the final solution.

10 I agree with Dr Teo Ho Pin on a design-thinking approach to the delivery of public services. The Public Service will progressively approach the design of many of our services around people and issues, rather than just expect people to adjust to our existing structures and ways of working.

11 The Moments of Life app for families, launched last June, is a small example of how the Public Service can come up with new ways of serving citizens better, by working with citizens and the private sector, as partners. The team wanted to make life easier for parents of newborn babies. They want to reduce the administrative hassle so that mums and dads can focus on welcoming baby and caring for baby. So they started by interviewing many parents to understand what needs to be done at the point of baby’s birth, what frustrates them and to get good ideas from parents how the Public Service can deliver better and faster services for them. The outcome was an app that allows parents to register their child’s birth, apply for Baby Bonus and child library membership, all at one go. They do not need to approach multiple agencies and produce the same physical documents for verification again and again. This app has been downloaded over 20,000 times in less than a year. I am happy to say that beyond public hospitals, we have begun offering this service at private hospitals, starting with Thomson Medical Centre earlier this year. Other private hospitals will progressively come onboard over the coming months.

12 The Public Service will expand this effort. It has since started more projects to redesign services around more key moments - including pregnancy, parenting a school-going child, National Service, and entering one's silver years. We will also design services with different segments of citizens in mind, especially those who may not find it easy to access our services through the usual channels. For instance, at IRAS, a priority registration queue is created for the elderly and those with mobility constraints during the tax filing season. They will be ushered to a sitting area and attended to quickly. HDB also sets up a priority queue during sales launches to assist the elderly, persons with disabilities, and expectant mothers. At CPF Board’s service centres, there are retired citizens who serve as roving CPF Ambassadors to help post-55 CPF members.

13 The Public Service is working closely with various people and private sector organisations in this expanded effort to redesign services around citizens. We will share more about these developments in the coming months.

New Way of Organising

14 Within the Public Service, we also need to organise work differently across Ministries and agencies. Our current structures were optimised to solve previous problems. When problems evolved and goals changed, we must similarly be bold to evolve our structures and organisations to serve the objectives of tomorrow, as member Mr Cedric Foo suggested. Climate change, cyber threats, unmanned systems are but some new challenges that require us to evolve new organisational structures to manage them.

15 Mr Cedric Foo also asked how we can continue to ensure that our services are citizen-centric. Indeed, the Public Service must re-organise itself to be citizen-centric and not agency-centric, in the way we work. 

16 The Public Service Centre at Our Tampines Hub is one example. It started by co-locating different agencies together to serve citizens in one physical location. This year, the six agencies are coming together to cross train counter staff, and each staff will be able to provide a range of some 70 services across the six government agencies. Citizens will be able to approach any counter for help, instead of having to wait for the "right" counter to become available. 

17 The Social Service Office is yet another example of how we are bringing different services together to help citizens in need. For instance, the SSOs at Taman Jurong, Kreta Ayer, Yishun, Choa Chu Kang and Jalan Besar are piloting an effort for the same SSO officer who provides financial assistance to unemployed residents to also help them find jobs. The Silver Generation Office is also co-located with the SSOs in Taman Jurong and Geylang Serai, and the officers work closely to address the social and health needs of seniors in a more integrated way.


18 As many have suggested, it is not easy for the Public Service to organise itself differently and operate differently to serve citizens better without new skills. Ms Anthea Ong, Dr Teo Ho Pin and Mr Ang Hin Kee are right that we have to help public officers approach their work with new mindsets and give them new skills. 

19 First, we need our public officers to think differently. They must be able to see beyond the current task they are doing, and work with their colleagues in other Ministries or agencies to serve citizens better. This does not come from classroom training alone. The Public Service Division will expand the system of job postings to apply to a wider group of officers, so that our officers will gain wider perspectives, and grow a stronger instinct to work across agencies and with the private and people sectors. 

20 Second, our public officers cannot just develop good policies but must be able to execute them well. To do this, public officers must be able to understand the needs of citizens and businesses better, know what are the constraints and challenges on the ground in implementing policies, and be able to see through the implementation details. 

21 The Public Service Division and MCCY launched a new Engagement Immersion for Leaders programme last year. Leaders at Director-level and above were attached to different frontline work environments to serve citizens so that they can gain new insights on how policies and programmes can be implemented better on the ground. This year, we will implement Public Service Cares. This is a new initiative to encourage all officers to volunteer and serve the community, and in the process, learn how to better communicate with citizens. It seeks to develop a stronger service ethos and a culture among public officers to walk and know the ground needs even better. Officers, senior ones including, are regularly rotated to join the PA, SSOs and REACH outreach efforts on the ground for them to get a first-hand feel of serving Singaporeans.

22 Third, we need our public officers to have good inter-personal linkages with the people and private sectors. In particular, the Public Service will work towards achieving greater porosity and two-way flow of talents between the public and the people and private sectors. One way is through sending officers to work attachments in the private sector. For example, we sent 10 officers for attachments to various companies such as DBS, Singtel and Grab, through the inaugural Service Delivery Talent Attachment Programme last year. They are bringing back new knowledge and insights to improve the delivery of public services. We will expand such opportunities to strengthen our Public Service and our links beyond the Public Service.

23 Fourth, public officers need to understand our region much better, and develop stronger ties with their peers in the region. To continue to expand the economic and international space for Singapore, our officers must be able to be plugged into various international networks, and understand the economic, political and social systems of countries in the region and in our key markets. Our Public Service leadership must be able to pick up a phone, call their peers to discuss new issues or to engage in new collaboration. Therefore, we will continue to encourage both PSC scholars as well as mid-career officers, to be trained in different countries. We will also create many more opportunities for officials across different countries to come together in joint courses, forums and discussions, to share best practices and network together. Just as in the private sector, we should expect future Public Service leaders to have experiences working beyond the domestic context. 

24 Finally, our public officers at all levels – leaders to officers – must be savvy in using technology, so that we can use technology to make public services better and to make the Public Service more productive. The Public Service is aiming for 100% digital literacy. Every public officer — from leaders to counter staff — must know how to operate in a digital world and to thrive in it. The Civil Service College has launched LEARN, a mobile platform to enable officers to learn anytime, anywhere. In the last three months since the launch, over 34,000 accounts have been activated and almost 10,000 courses have been completed on this platform. SNDGO will elaborate more on other Smart Nation initiatives subsequently.

25 I agree with several members who spoke on the need to create a more diverse Public Service leadership. We need a Public Service leadership team that has different talents and is able to surface different perspectives. Going forward, when our Public Service selects future leadership teams, we will increasingly look for a combination of operations, communications, mobilisation and international exposure; beyond pure policy-making skills. A more diverse Public Service is a more resilient Public Service for the uncertainties ahead.  

26 We must systematically select, recruit and develop officers to achieve this diversity. Educational qualifications remain a valid proxy for the skills and capabilities of candidates we recruit into the Public Service, and we will not disregard that. But the level of educational qualification alone is necessary but not sufficient. The Public Service will also have to look out for other skills, competencies and traits when we recruit new officers. Beyond intellect, we also want officers who have initiative and creative ideas, and those who have strong inter-personal skills and work well with others. In the areas of ICT, the Public Service will be selecting recruits based on the technical skills they possess, beyond educational qualifications.   

27 Mr Louis Ng asked about single structures for ITE graduates, diploma and degree holders. Since 2015, the Public Service has been merging salary schemes, such that ITE graduates, diploma and degree holders are recruited and progressed on the same structure. Where schemes require particular qualifications – for example, doctors, accountants and engineers – we will specify these. Today, almost all public agencies have single-structure schemes.

Staying True to Values, Mission and Sense of Responsibility

28 I have spoken at length about how the Public Service needs to change. But just as important are the things that will not change: our values, our aspirations for Singapore and the high standards we set for ourselves. 

29 Our values of excellence mean that we will not rest on our laurels. Our Public Service continues to work towards high aspirations for Singapore. This means always thinking ahead and acting to expand opportunities for Singapore or pre-empting problems in future. For instance, for Singapore to remain competitive, we must be a hub for innovation. So MOE, ESG and EDB came together to develop the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA) initiative, to connect Singapore to major innovation ecosystems around the world. The GIA expands on existing overseas internship programmes offered by our local institutes of higher education that place students on overseas internships in start-ups or enterprising and innovative companies. The Public Service is leveraging these internships for scholarship holders and in-service officers as well, for them to broaden their training and exposure. The GIA will create more opportunities for students, entrepreneurs and business owners to gain experience, connect and collaborate with their overseas counterparts.

30 Similarly, we have proactively pushed for more Free Trade Agreements to help our businesses expand overseas and lower prices of imported goods and services for domestic consumers. Such FTAs have to be planned way ahead, as they entail long negotiations with foreign counterparts. The recently concluded EU-Singapore FTA was planned almost a decade ago and was achieved through close coordination among many agencies including MTI, AGC, MinLaw, IPOS, MOM and MEWR. They worked together and sustained the momentum of the negotiations through time across different teams of officers. We are now planning ahead for our FTAs to embrace digital trade in the new economy. 

31 We also think long term when it comes to developing our city. Almost ten years ago, the Economic Strategies Committee mooted the idea of consolidating our container port activities at Tuas in the long term. This will allow our port to achieve greater economies of scale while freeing up the prime Southern Waterfront for redevelopment into a new waterfront city that will be even more exciting than Marina Bay today. Today, the proposed new Tuas Terminal is already taking shape, and will be progressively completed by the 2040s. The Tuas Terminal, which will be twice the size of Ang Mo Kio town, is expected to be the largest container terminal in the world. Our Tuas Terminal will help Singapore strengthen our position in the maritime sector. 

32 This is not the only long term multi-decade project we have planned for. We are pursuing other ambitious projects that span many years, in fact decades, whether it is developing Singapore's deepest cable tunnel system for electricity transmission or planning for Changi East which includes the new Terminal 5, or planning for the Jurong Innovation District or Punggol Digital District. These projects help to create an even more vibrant Singapore and a better home for future generations of Singaporeans. Our Public Service cannot just try to play defensive to uphold the existing systems. We expect more from our Public Service – constantly thinking of breaking new ground to take our country forward amidst the stiff competition.

33 Even though we plan ahead, sometimes things will not go as planned. When things go wrong, the Public Service will work hard to fix the mistakes and seek to do better. Head, Civil Service recently reminded all senior public leaders to use the recent incidents and lapses as an important learning moment to see how we can do better. I support his call and appreciate that the Public Service is taking its mission very seriously. However, integrity means that we need to take responsibility and be accountable at every level for what went wrong. If we do not address the mistake head on at the respective levels, but instead choose to indiscriminately sack staff or leaders every time something goes wrong, then we will have a weaker system over time. This will also discourage the Public Service from trying new things, because the surest way to not make a mistake, is not to do anything novel. But that will be the biggest mistake and disservice to our nation.

34 The values of integrity and excellence apply equally to the appointment processes. Ms Sylvia Lim asked for clarification on the selection process and criteria used by the Prime Minister in identifying persons to fill key Constitutional Appointments. The process to appoint individuals to any Constitutional Appointments is set out in the Constitution. The Constitution also sets out the requirements of candidates for certain roles, as well as the office holders who should advise or be consulted on the appointment. In general, the key considerations when identifying candidates include their ability to do the job well, their qualifications and experience and track record, integrity and sense of Public Service. 

35 Our Public Service cares for our people. Mr Louis Ng asked about staff engagement. PSD currently works with public sector agencies to administer a common staff engagement survey across public agencies. The survey enables agency leaders to better understand the areas that the agency is doing well in and what it can do better to help officers. Leaders are expected to respond to the feedback and take appropriate action.

36 Mr Png Eng Huat asked about MediShield Life for pensioners. Like all Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents, Government pensioners have been covered under MediShield Life from 1 Nov 2015.  MediShield Life provides additional help on top of the retirement medical benefits that they enjoy as Government pensioners. This is very useful especially if someone is unfortunate enough to get a severe illness with a huge medical bill. For example, one pensioner on the Comprehensive Co-payment Scheme (CCS) had pneumonia with a bill size of $29,000.  She had 85% of the bill covered by her post-retirement medical benefits. MediShield Life helped to pay for the remaining 15%. She did not have to pay anything out of pocket. Another pensioner on the Comprehensive Co-payment Scheme had lymphoma with a bill size of about $14,000. He only had to pay out-of-pocket expenses of $300, after taking into account his post-retirement medical benefits and MediShield Life. 

Conclusion: Pioneers Always

37 So Mr Chairman Sir, our public officers joined our Public Service because of a calling. And that is to build a better home, a better nation and a better future for all Singaporeans. Our future is in the hands of this generation of leaders - from the public, private and people sectors. Like it was almost 54 years ago, we must all be pioneers once more and always. If we put our hearts, minds and hands together as one Singapore team, I am confident that we can prevail against the challenges and Singapore will remain vibrant and successful. Our Public Service will lead and support fellow Singaporeans in achieving this.