Speech by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, at the 2020 One Public Service Observance Ceremony

16 October 2020

Fellow Public Officers,

1. Good morning.

2. COVID-19 has threatened our lives, livelihoods, lifelines and way of life.

3. I have been in the Public Service my entire working life and COVID-19 is by far the most challenging crisis of this generation – but it is not necessarily the most challenging in our history. Like our forefathers, we can also turn the crisis into the opportunity of a generation. Whether we grow and become even better, depends on how we respond to the circumstances – both as individuals and as a team.

4. Today’s Observance Ceremony is a testimony to our determination to continue charting our destiny and way of life, regardless of the circumstances. When circumstances threaten to disrupt our way of life, we find new ways to overcome and do even better – using new formats to reach even more people, just like today’s session and last Saturday’s PA Community Seminar. Whether in ways – big or small, frontline or at base camp, all of you have made a difference in these challenging times. I know many of you have gone above and beyond the call of duty, volunteering for tasks not in your usual job scope. These tasks are done not in isolation within the Public Service, but through a Whole-of-Nation effort partnering key stakeholders like our businesses and people sector organisations, as well as ordinary Singaporeans who came forward. I want to say a big thank you to everyone for your contributions and efforts. Kudos to you all.

5. But I want to pay special tribute to two specific groups of public officers. The first group are those who have fought, and continue to fight COVID: The healthcare professionals; the officers managing the foreign worker dorms; the engineers who develop new apps and scientists working furiously to develop COVID test kits; the officers in various Ministries who rolled out support schemes for citizens and businesses, the officers in charge of Singapore’s supply chain, who scour the world to secure our supplies of food and essential items.

6. The second group are those who kept our country going and growing away from the fight to overcome COVID:

a. Our officers in the security agencies who keep watch and ensure our safety and security amidst volatile geopolitics;
b. Our officers in the economic, foreign affairs and transport ministries who are working hard to find new economic opportunities for Singapore;
c. Our engineers who keep thinking and building our smart city of the future;
d. 
Our colleagues in the social sector who keep our people together amidst the growing diversity of our society;
e. Our teachers and officers in the education sector, who continue to inspire and educate our young in new ways;
f. And many more who work quietly but effectively away from the COVID spotlight.

7. Why do I highlight both groups of officers? The answer is simply this - Let all of us remember that even as we fight the current battles, we have never, and we must never, stop working on the longer-term survival and success of Singapore. This is, and this will always be, the Singapore Public Service Way.

Fight Current Battles and Anticipate Future Ones

8. In the next 12 months at least, we will have our hands full overcoming COVID.

9. Our priorities will be:

a. To help the displaced workers acquire new skills and find new jobs;
b. To help businesses to develop new products, services and capture new markets;
c. Reconnect with the world progressively, safely and sustainably;
d. Diversify our supply chains and markets to mitigate any recurrence of disruption to our supply chains and markets.

10. Even as we tackle the fallout of COVID, we must keep our eyes on the wider challenges and opportunities. The geopolitical tensions amongst the big powers will have serious and long-term consequences on Singapore’s position as a global node for business. However, there is also an opportunity for us to distinguish ourselves: as a trusted safe harbour for talent, ideas and investments, with coherent long-term policies; and as a united people, recognising our diverse history and aspirations. On the other hand, digitalisation and industry 4.0 will open up new ways for us to connect, compete and cooperate with the world. The competition, especially for our PMETs, will be more intense. Anyone from across the world can compete with us for jobs, even without being physically in Singapore. But opportunities for us will also no longer be constrained by our size or location. It can truly allow a city-state like us to leverage the world as our hinterland and market. Our domestic social make-up and aspirations will become more diverse. It is also an opportunity for us to strengthen the social fabric of our nation. So long as we remember that we always have more in common than differences.

11. Our Public Service must be keenly aware of these driving forces. How we organise ourselves, plan for the future and develop our people must take into account these forces.

Change – Organisation, Planning and People Development

12. The way we organise ourselves must continue to evolve with the times. We cannot strait-jacket new problems into old structures. The emerging challenges are complex and require us to flexibly organise ourselves into cross-competency teams to solve them. For example, the advent of drones will require us to relook at issues of flight safety, urban design, security, logistics and other aspects. No single existing agency will have all the competencies to manage these complex challenges. We need to be able to quickly reconfigure our existing organisations and systems to meet these new challenges.

13. How we plan for the future must also evolve. Our scenario planning processes have served us well and will continue to be useful. However, we must also plan for resilience against disruptions. This is not just an intellectual or philosophical exercise. COVID has thrown up so many new uncertainties. It will also not be the last crisis we face. We need to be prepared to respond to even more outliers. Many more “what ifs” will have to be considered in a constantly changing world. This will require our people to have much more diverse experiences beyond an agency or even the public sector. Beyond considering an issue from an agency-centric approach, we must also see it from the perspectives of those we serve. Instead of expecting people and businesses to navigate our processes and organisations, we must ask how we can serve them better in an integrated manner and how our solutions can be made more user-friendly. To do these require not just organisational or process changes, but more importantly, mindset changes. An example is the LifeSG app, which is a single Whole-of-Government digital platform that consolidates over 40 Government services across more than 10 agencies, into one place for citizens.

14. Finally, the most important part of the change is how we develop our people. It is not sufficient for good officers to be posted to different Ministries or agencies but still doing the same roles. It is even more important for them to be posted to different roles. I expect our senior officers to be exposed to policy, operations, communications and mobilisation work, and future senior officers to have stints outside the Public Service – be it the people sector, private sector, or overseas. The world is becoming more complex. We cannot expect to know everything, if we do not venture out. We cannot preach agility, when we do not practice it. We cannot develop policies and rules for tomorrow, when we do not know how society and the world operate beyond the Public Service. We must walk the ground, know our people, our stakeholders and our businesses even better.

15. The way we assess and develop our officers will also evolve. This year, the Public Service Division refreshed the Core Competencies for all officers, launched career coaching services for officers and expanded job rotations and attachment programmes to the private sector. PSD is also reviewing our HR policies. We will revamp the Currently Estimated Potential, or CEP system. It cannot be, as some of you jokingly call it, the “Career Ending Point” system, as if your fate is pre-determined and unchanging. Instead, we must have a system of continuous meritocracy. At every step of our career, potential must be demonstrated and realised to chart the next step. For most of our officers, your most immediate priority is to proactively discuss with your supervisors your career roadmap for the next 3 to 5 years, instead of the next 30 years. We expect your supervisors to have regular conversations with you on how we can strengthen your development, the required skillsets, the necessary exposure and what assignments you can expect in the next 5 years. Every officer should have a rolling 5-year career development roadmap that is shared with supervisors. We will also update how we assess “high potential”. To show leadership potential, you must not only be able to make sound policies, you must be able to implement well, innovate, work in teams, communicate effectively, and mobilise relevant stakeholders for collective action. It is not easy or realistic to find and develop all these attributes in a single individual. That is also why we will be paying greater attention to the formation of leadership teams in Ministries and agencies. Ultimately, it is the team that must do well for the Singapore and for our organisation, beyond having the individual doing well. We will progressively augment the CEP system with this new approach, from 2021.

What Must Not Change

16. While many things will need to change, our values must never change – Service – To put Country before Self Integrity – To always be true to ourselves and our people Excellence – To define success not by how well we do individually or for this generation; but by how well we enable the next generation to do even better than us. For that, we will have to build organisations and systems for tomorrow. We will place the development of our officers - front and centre - in all that we do. Because my belief is this - when we take care of our officers, they will take care of the mission for us and for our country.

17. Together, we will emerge stronger. I wish everyone a meaningful Public Service Week and onward journey in service of our country and people.