Speech by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, at the 2019 Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony

16 April 2019

16 APRIL 2019

Good Evening

DPM Teo and Ministers
Chairman and Members of the Public Service Commission
HCS and Colleagues of our Public Service

2 First let me congratulate all who are appointed to and promoted in the Admin Service this evening. Promotion is not just a recognition of one’s contributions. Neither is it just an affirmation of one’s potential for further contributions. Most importantly, it must be a commitment to do even better for our country and people.

3 Every year, as we gather to celebrate our achievements together, it is also an occasion for us to come together to reflect on our challenges going forward.

4 Our Public Service has served Singapore and Singaporeans well all these years. That doesn’t mean we are perfect. In fact, far from it.

5 The greater our success, the greater our risks of complacency. I am always worried by the possibility that we will be contented with what we are, rather than strive for what we can be.

6 The more organised and structured we become, the greater our risk of ossification.

7 I ask myself everyday - how do we define success for our Public Service?

8 To this, I have three benchmarks: first, our ability to pre-empt tomorrow’s challenges; second, our ability to continuously improve today’s services; third, our values of service, integrity and excellence

Pre-empting Tomorrow’s Challenges

9 Pre-emption is always superior to firefighting.   

10 But pre-emption is very much tougher. We need to constantly scan the environment. Imagine what can and may happen. Imagine what opportunities there may be. Prioritise our resources ahead of time to pre-empt the issues or create the conditions for the opportunities to be seized. Pre-emption is a never ending task of anticipation and prioritisation. 

11 Successful pre-emption for the Public Service may never be known or appreciated by the public. The negative did not happen and went unnoticed. The positive emerged fortuitously.  This reminds me of our once well-known first statement in many SAF Day Messages – “Singapore has enjoyed another year of peace” One simple statement, seven words. Repeated ad nauseum, year after after, but much work must have gone into it to make it happen without any public fanfare or alarm.

12 That’s success. That’s the hallmark of a good public service. Pre-empting ahead of time. Knowing quietly behind the scenes, that we have done right by our country. Without the public necessarily even knowing or us having to seek affirmation.

13 In today’s fast changing world, it has become even more critical that we constantly ask ourselves if we are doing enough to pre-empt tomorrow’s challenges.

14 Take a current example: very soon, drones may soon ferry humans and become an on-call taxi service. Are we as a system able to come up with the regulatory framework to enable successful business opportunities, as well as manage the consequential risks? And are we able to do this ahead of time, faster or if not, at the same speed as the business cycle? 

15 When faced with an emerging issue like this, have we asked ourselves some of these questions: What’s our response and instincts? Is it to ask – whose job is this or which agency should be responsible? But what we can be quite sure is that for a new challenge, we will definitely not have any agency whose terms of reference neatly meet the new challenge. Or is it to wait for HCS to form an inter-agency task force? Or will some enterprising and gutsy Public Service officers put up their hands and say - We have a potential issue or opportunity here; let us form a team, come up with suggestions; and implement quickly; and if the original approach doesn’t work, try again? How we answer that question will define our character as the Public Service. 

16 Let’s consider another example – with digital enabling and driving many processes in our services now:  Do we know how to manage the risks? Do we know how to seize the opportunities? Do we even know how to work with partners and vendors, since we can’t be doing all the services in house?

17 As I discussed with some of you recently, I know many of you work hard, very hard.  But we must know where to shine the torchlight to look for the problems that may arise. That requires knowledge and skills. If we don’t yet have it, we need to build it up fast, especially in the cyber domain. Not just GovTech’s responsibility, but all of ours.

18 I am glad to know that HCS has initiated various work streams to organise the Public Service to better understand the forces driving change and develop plans to pre-empt the challenges and seize the opportunities. Some of these work streams include:
- How we reimagine the transport and logistics network for the city of tomorrow, combining urban planning with data analytics; 
- How we strengthen the resilience of our food supply chains, combining precision production technologies with supply chains management; 
- How we manage social inequalities and mobility to strengthen meritocracy;
- How we enable productive longevity and many other issues that stretch beyond the next two to three terms of government

19 We can be proud that we have a Civil Service that looks that far out into the future. 

20 We may not have all the answers yet, but we certainly must have all the right questions, and start working on them to pre-empt tomorrow’s challenges and seize new opportunities.  

21 We must always remind ourselves that a forward looking Public Service must spend at least 20 percent of our energies pre-empting tomorrow’s challenges; besides fixing today’s problems. As individuals, we too must spend 20 percent of our time learning new things, building new capabilities, beyond expanding capacities. And this is something that I’ve always remind my own team in MTI: there is a big difference between expanding our capacities and deepening our capabilities. 

Improving Today’s Tasks

22 Let me now talk about improving the ways we do today’s tasks. That should take up another 20 percent of our time, while using the remaining 60 percent to conscientiously deliver today’s services well.

23 Let me share the story of the genesis of our Social Service Offices, or SSOs for short. We used to have five CDC service centres to provide and disburse social assistance.

24 The then-MCYS officers asked themselves: How can we better help the less privileged amongst us, especially without having them travelling long distances and expending much time and resources to seek help? How can we mobilise the resources of the community to enable the needy, rather than to just help them?

25 The then-MCYS officers had a simple idea: Have an accessible service centre in every town to cut down the time and distance required to seek help; have a local team to map the community resources to enable the community to help themselves; give the local team the autonomy and responsibilities to organise the social network with the partners already within the community; reskill ourselves to not just give out financial help, but provide a comprehensive assistance package from employment to counselling and many other social services.

26 Sounds simple enough? But it certainly wasn’t so easy. Few wanted to change the existing “system that was working” Some didn’t want to disrupt the existing power relations. Others didn’t even want to retrain for the new roles. The idea was rejected a few times, even at various high level forums. There were also no fresh resources to “fund change”.

27 Thus, my kudos to the team that worked on this. They were driven by a single-minded goal – to deliver better for the people they serve. They cared about their mission and the people they served, more than the way the current tasks were done. They challenged themselves to deliver better and more with the same or less. They didn’t care that no one gave them fresh resources or manpower.

28 Today, we have a network of 24 Social Service Offices across our island delivering help in a more timely manner; engendering greater ownership in the community; and integrating our services better. But most importantly, providing ourselves a platform for other social services to be built upon.

29 But I am glad that the SSOs are not done yet. I am glad to see them constantly striving to do even better. A form of SSO3.0 or, more appropriately S3D (Strengthening Social Service Delivery), as Minister Desmond Lee and the MSF team would call it. They are still continuously prototyping. Sometimes things may not go according to plans, but they keep trying and trying.

30 Every organisation, as it becomes more structured in its ways, risks ossification. After some time, every bureaucracy tends to defend the status quo and end up spending most of its time “upholding existing system and rules”.  This is the SOP – Standard Operating Procedure – problem. I was taught many years ago that it is supposed to be Standing Operational Procedures – Standing because there is a context in which it is relevant. It is not Standard, or invariant, across all contexts. So regardless of whether you call it Standard or Standing, we must know that our rules need to evolve in context. 

31 Some have suggested that we set a target every year to review x% of our rules. That’s one possible way to do things. But somewhat artificial.

32 Instead, I think it is useful to constantly benchmark ourselves on the following parameters: How much time and hassle are we saving our people? How much resources are we using for the same outcomes? How much white space in terms of budget and time are we creating for our organisations to do new things? How able are we in enabling our businesses and societies to seize new opportunities?

33 If we think along these lines, there is neither a lower nor upper bound to what we should do when it comes to reviewing our rules. Instead, it is a constant process to see if our rules are still relevant. To do that, we must be able to see it from both the organisational and individual perspectives. To understand how our rules cumulatively affect the individuals and businesses, and the cost of compliance from their perspectives. Rules and regulations are not cost-free. All rules and regulations should have a cost-benefit analysis from multi-stakeholders’ viewpoints and not just the Government’s viewpoint. 

34 The Pro-Enterprise Panel work done by Hong Tat and team is one example. The Moments of Life projects that many of you are involved in are more examples of how we seek to improve the way we serve Singapore and Singaporeans every day.

35 What cheers me in all this is that the SSO story is not the only story we have. I am certain that every ministry and agency has and should work towards having more of such stories. Never complacent. Never tiring to improve to achieve better outcomes with less. Never thinking that we can do it all by ourselves without the community. Never thinking that our rules are invariant without context. Most importantly, never believing that we cannot do it unless we stop trying.


36 What has allowed us to come so far, and what will allow us to go further? It will always be our values – Integrity, Service, Excellence.

37 Tonight let us reflect on what these three words mean in context. Excellence is not just about delivering better for today, but more importantly, about pre-empting challenges ahead of time. Service is the belief that we put our country and people ahead of ourselves or our interests. Many of you have heard me say this, never love ourselves or our jobs, more than we love our country and people. Never fall in love with our ideas, but always be more concerned about our challenges.

38 Let me talk more about integrity today. Various recent events have called this into question. Some opportunists and others with good intentions have asked. Can we trust the Public Service to check ourselves? Know our own blindspots? Can we trust the Public Service to take responsibility for mistakes made? Penalise those culpable. Reward the meritorious. 

39 This goes to the heart of what we stand for as a Public Service. There are two parts to integrity. First, being true to ourselves on our strengths and weaknesses, and acknowledging our need to do better. Second, taking responsibility for what we do.

40 To check our own blindspots, we must never believe that we have all the best ideas. Two days ago when I shared at the China Leadership Forum, I said that the more successful we are, the greater the danger that we believe that we have all the right ideas. So to check our own blindspots, we must never fall into the trap to believe that we have all the necessary skills, or that we can execute our tasks all alone.

41 This is why we have to build diverse teams for resilience. A good Public Service needs teams who: can do policy well; have operational experience at the ground; can communicate well; and have international exposure and perspectives.

42 And this is why I urge our Public Service to review the way we select and develop our leaders. I am glad that HCS and PSC have initiated various streams of work to review the way we select and develop our officers. A good Public Service needs generalists like AOs, as much as deep specialists like PSLP officers. We must treat each other as equals, and with deep respect. We are all equal in service to our nation.

43 We have a very refined system of selection and progression now. The more refined our system, the greater the dangers that all of us are measured to the same yardstick. But if we are all of the same, it can make us brittle and fragile as a system. We need to build our resilience through diversity of strengths; and bond the individuals into a cohesive and coherent team.

44 This is why we will step up our efforts to send our officers to organisations beyond the Public Service for exposure and learning: to private companies, to non-public agencies; to overseas postings. To learn, observe and bring back new insights to strengthen our Public Service.

45 Let’s take a leaf from how large MNCs constitute their Boards and leadership teams. Few, if any, will choose a team of monolithic skills or background. Most, if not all, will complement each other in the areas of: operations; experience in multiple markets, including overseas; administration – HR and finance; technology and research; marketing and sales. We should similarly build teams with diverse skill sets for our Public Service. 

46 Let me talk about the second aspect of integrity – taking responsibility.  

47 I grew up in the Public Service. I have had the privilege to serve alongside and be mentored by many with the same sense of mission (some are here with us tonight). I have seen many Public Service officers with the right values. They have all taught me one thing – it is not about having someone else constantly peering over our shoulders to get things right. It is our values system that is constantly watching over us and guiding us to do it right.

48 I am also brought up to know that every level of command has our responsibilities. When things go wrong, we are all accountable for our responsibilities and for the men and women under our charge. When things go wrong, we don’t blame the whole world and ask who should we punish collectively or indiscriminately. But we all know that if we each do our work conscientiously, without fear or favour, we will never need to fear the consequences. Most importantly, as a Public Service that I’m always proud of, we will always work together to recover from our mistakes as one united Public Service.

49 A POH (who is also present tonight) taught me the following: as a POH, it is my job to stand in the gap. It is my duty to take the public pressure, so that the Public Service can do its job properly without undue public or short term pressures. So that the Public Service will have the confidence and latitude to try new ideas.

50 On the other hand, it is the responsibility of the Public Service to not second guess, but to always put up the strongest options for us to make the collective call. That put our country and people first – that we will always seek to do better for today, and for tomorrow.

51 It is my duty to stand in the gap. It is your duty to put together the strongest options for Singapore. Execute them conscientiously and confidently. That’s all our nation asks of us. 

52 Let me summarise what we shared this evening in 32 Chinese words for us to stay encouraged amidst the demands and challenges. 

53 In English, and how it applies to our Public Service:  
Do our utmost for our country and people, guided by our beliefs and values
Do not be too quick to seek affirmation or judgement. History will be the final arbiter of our work. 
When praised, do not be arrogant. 
When criticised, do not be disheartened. 
There is no such thing as us having arrived or we are at our best. These are just hubris.  
There is only one way forward – always striving to do even better.

54 Our nation expects much from us.  We expect no less from ourselves. 

55 Thank you.