Speech by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, at the 2021 One Public Service Observance Ceremony

09 July 2021

Fellow Public Officers,

1. Good afternoon.

2. The last 18 months have been tough for all of you. 

3. The COVID-19 fight has been relentless.When COVID cases were low, we had to guard against complacency. When new clusters emerge, we had to hold up our morale and soldier on. There will still be many more surprises before we get beyond COVID.

4. So today, I want to say a big “Thank You” to all of you. Thank you for your hard work and resolve to outlast COVID. Thank you for your determination to let us emerge stronger together. Despite the tough circumstances, we all pulled together, collectively as One Public Service.  And that’s because fundamentally, all of us share a strong sense of duty to protect our people, and our Singapore. This is our Singapore Public Service at its finest. Thank you to all of you.

5. Now, what lies ahead for us? 

6. The post-COVID new normal will not be business as usual. We will not return to a pre-COVID world. The pandemic has shifted work to the digital space, shifted global supply chains and redefined economic comparative advantages. The pandemic has also increased geopolitical tensions.  The post-COVID world would be a brave new world, one that is a lot more uncertain but also full of new opportunities. 

7. In the post-COVID world, there is no guarantee that our previous assumptions will still hold true, or that our old formulas will continue to work well. We need to navigate our way forward and chart our own path as pioneers again, pulling together and maximising our collective wisdom. 

8. In this uncertain world, the speed of adaptation will be the most important competitive advantage. Whoever can adapt quicker and move faster, seizes the opportunities first. This applies to individuals, to companies and to countries. We need to move and evolve faster than others, to stay ahead of the competition. 

9. For the Public Service to evolve fast, we will need the three “C”s. We need to create Capacity, foster stronger Connections and build diverse Capabilities across teams.

Creating Capacity

10. Let me elaborate. First, we will need to create capacity, for the new work that truly matters by doing away with less important work. I know this is not easy. To achieve this, we will need to critically review the way we work, and question our assumptions. 

11. Leaders must take the lead, focus our teams on the most critical tasks and create the culture and systems to enable this to take place. 

12. Our officers can play a role too. Many of you can identify unproductive activities that should be done away with, and work that can be reprioritised. It takes courage, But I have confidence in all of you. I have seen the many good ideas from you. 

13. The Million Hours Challenge that was established in 2018 is one good example. Its purpose is to encourage ground up ideas on saving time for our fellow colleagues, or for citizens and businesses, by cutting down on bureaucracy and red tape. Collectively, we have completed about 900 projects that have the potential to save more than 10 million hours in the past 3 years alone.

14. The Traffic Police (TP) is good example for prioritising work. TP takes a differentiated approach to channel resources for more serious cases and deprioritise less serious ones. For instance, TP issues traffic fines to motorists who commit less serious traffic offences, to resolve such cases expeditiously. This frees up bandwidth for more serious cases, where there is public interest to charge the offender in Court.

15. So, lets push on with this movement. And I want to emphasise this. Not to “do more with less”, but for us to have the mindset, to “do less, and achieve more”. 

Fostering Stronger Connections beyond Public Service and to the World


16. Second, we need to be more acutely aware of what is happening beyond the public service. Being connected to the world remains critical for Singapore to stay relevant. As a small nation-state, many ideas and developments, be it those in business, science and technology, would occur beyond our shores. In a more fragmented and polarised world, our role as a hub that connects businesses and people, becomes even more important.

17. Our global connections come in handy in critical times. For instance, the EDB and ESG tapped on their private sector and international networks to ensure our supply chains remain resilient in the midst of COVID. Without which, we would not have our essential supplies from food to vaccines. Without those connections and deep understanding of our partners’ priorities, we would not have been able to pull apart from the competition during the pandemic to attract top MNCs like Exxon, Illumina, BioNTech, Sanofi, Thermo Fisher and GSK, which have all committed to invest and continue to grow their presence in Singapore to serve the world. While others play defensive and try to catch up, we keep breaking new grounds with new Free Trade Agreements, Digital Economy Agreements, new investments and new connectivity projects.  These are important additions in the ongoing fight against COVID and position ourselves to emerge stronger beyond COVID. 

18. We will have to stay up to date with the latest trends, see opportunities before others do, and connect ideas, people, and capital to create value. To do so, we must build stronger connections – with the private sector, with our people and with the world. 

19. One good way to do this is to work with the private and people sectors. We have more than 60 officers who have gone on work attachments to the people and private sectors since last year, and this was despite COVID. Many have found it a rewarding experience. They learn new skills, but also gained insights into what are the issues facing the people and private sectors. These insights make us better public officers and policy makers. 

20. This is even more critical for our future public service leaders. Every future senior public service leader must have the opportunity to gain experience working with the people and private sectors. They should make full use of these opportunities, prior to assumption of senior leadership posts.  

Having diverse capabilities in our officers and teams

21. Let me come to my third point. Resilience in a dynamic world requires our officers and teams to have even greater diversity in their capabilities and perspectives. The world will keep evolving. Every public officer must therefore have the mental agility to learn, unlearn and relearn to take on new and more diverse skillsets throughout their careers. We certainly cannot expect to be doing the same job, in the same way, in one single career in the 30 to 40 years we may be in the Public Service. For instance, with home-based learning, our teachers have significantly changed their roles in how they engage our young children and to teach them new things. 

22. To evolve and adapt to the crisis, we have to build up new capabilities within the public service in an agile manner throughout the past year. For example, MOM set up a new Assurance, Care and Engagement Group (ACE) to manage and prevent new public health threats to our migrant worker population. ACE comprises individuals from all walks of life, a good mix of public and private sector experience, and with different skillsets and perspectives. Officers in the Group are also seconded from different agencies, such as MOH, MOT and MSF. Everyone contributes in their own way to the success of the whole-of-government team to combat this pandemic. Well done to the ACE team. There will be many more occasions where we have to reconfigure ourselves at short notice to deal with emergencies, anticipate the future and avert crises. 

23. As a Public Service, we will also pay more attention to putting together leadership teams with diverse and complementary strengths. Because in an uncertain world, it would be the collective strength of a team that matters more. For instance, we cannot just be selecting individuals with the best skillsets. We must also carefully consider other dimensions in building this diverse team, so that each member can make the whole team even stronger than the individual parts. For those identified as potential future leaders, we must allow them to gain sufficient exposure across different domains – from policy to operations, mobilisation and communications, and exposure to work beyond the public service. This will make for more well-rounded leaders in the public service – not as an individual, but as a team. To achieve this, public service leaders must first develop the mindsets to appreciate the diversity of talents or skillsets, and meld them into effective leadership teams.  Leadership team development must be a key leadership responsibility for all public service leaders.

Conclusion

24. I have highlighted three areas for the public service to evolve faster in a more volatile world: creating capacity, fostering stronger connections and building diverse capabilities across teams.

25. I am personally confident in our officers. I’m confident that we will all succeed in the new and uncertain world. And that is because I have personally seen all of you at work. Many of you go the extra mile and come up with novel ideas to capture new opportunities even in the midst of the pandemic, and the stress and strain we have to go through.

26. I believe what doesn’t get us down will certainly make us stronger. We will see the light at the end of the tunnel, as we continue to make progress in our national vaccination programme. We will learn to live and flourish in a world with COVID. I have no doubt that we will emerge stronger as One Public Service, a Service truly deserving of Singapore. Happy Public Service Week. Thank you to everyone for all the hard work, safeguarding us not just through COVID but also establishing the foundation for a stronger Singapore.