Speech by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, at the Public Sector Transformation Awards Reception 2018

04 July 2018



1 Today, I am not your Guest-of-Honour. All of you are the Guests-of-Honour, because we are here not to honour me, but all of you, especially those who are receiving awards. Thank you very much for your service to the nation, but most importantly, thank you for showing the way to achieve the breakthroughs for the Public Service, both big and small, in order for all Singaporeans to have a better life.

2 I am going to start the sharing this afternoon by asking you three questions, and I would like to see some audience participation. Name one city or country whose public service you think we can learn something from. How would you rate our Public Service? Lastly, how do you think Singaporeans rate our Public Service?

3 On the first question, the higher votes seem to be Japan, Switzerland, or None! This is interesting. Now, on to the second question. Two-thirds of us rate ourselves as “good”, one quarter “excellent”, and none voted “poor”. Let’s look at the answers to the third question. This looks a bit different. One-third of us think that we are “excellent”, but we think that only six per cent of the public think we are “excellent”. None of us think that we are “poor”, but we think that four per cent of the public would rate us “poor”. And everything has shifted to the “good” and “average” instead. Thank you for your answers. As I go along in my sharing, I will touch on why I asked you these three questions.

4 You would have heard the Head of Civil Service and many of the Permanent Secretaries talking about transformation. In fact, this word is used so often that some people outside the Public Service actually criticise us and say that we use “transformation” because we cannot express clearly what we want to do. So what is transformation and what do we want to get out of it? But before I go there, the more important question is “why?”. Why is the whole Public Service pushing so hard on this agenda? Many of us in the poll seem to think that we are doing quite well. In fact, one quarter of the audience here think that we are doing pretty well. Two-thirds of the people seem to think that we are doing above average. If this is the truth, then there is very little impetus for us to want to do even better. But the “why” of transformation goes down to the level of ambition we have for Singapore.

5 Today, it is easy for us to be satisfied with what we have achieved; easy to say that we are among the front runners; and easy for us to say that our job as the Public Service is to maintain the status quo. But I think all of us in this hall share a different belief. We believe that Singapore can do even better than what we have achieved in the past 50 years. We believe that Singaporeans deserve an even better quality of life in the next 50 years. We also believe that if we keep doing things the same way, we would do injustice to ourselves and our country. This is because circumstances are changing, the aspirations of our people are changing, and technology is changing. So we need to keep pace with all these new demands. Whether we do it incrementally, or boldly, is not important. What is most important is that we do it continuously – continuously looking at ways to defy the odds of history, so that this country can continue to be a shining example of what we can achieve despite all our constraints, geography, our size, and what people say.

6 It has never been easy for a small country and city state to survive. Many of you who know me will know that I keep asking ourselves this very simple question: we have done well for the last 53 years, but will we continue to do well for the next 50 years? I have never taken it for granted that we will naturally do so. Because if we take it that it will naturally be so, we will become complacent. In fact, every day, my working assumption is that if we are not kept on our toes, if we don’t continuously reinvent ourselves and create relevance for ourselves, then very soon we might be obsolete. That’s my working assumption. But do we all share the same working assumption?

7 Let me tell you a story from MTI. Today many people say that we have reached a certain level of growth; that going forward we will have two to three per cent growth on average. Now, that sounds rather depressing. What does it mean for the economy and what does it mean for opportunities for our people? The truth of it is that even if the average is two to three per cent, it does not mean that every sector and industry grows at two to three per cent. Some sectors will grow more quickly, while others will not. Our job is to make sure that we keep creating the conditions for higher growth. Our job is to make sure that sectors with slower growth continue to be helped to adjust and increase their growth. That’s our job as the Public Service. If each of us can continue to aspire in our respective sectors for higher growth, then actually there is no reason to believe that we will always be at two to three per cent. And I say this with a heavy heart because we should not get into a mode of thinking that being average is sufficient.

8 Whether it is Singapore or elsewhere, “ordinary city” is almost an oxymoron, especially if it is a city state. Some cities in bigger countries can be average, but to be a city state, it is not easy, and it is impossible for us to be average. We are not competing with other countries, but with other cities. You look at a big country like Japan. It may have one per cent growth, but Tokyo does not. And our job going forward is to remain competitive with leading cities. So the question is how we break through this natural constraint as both a city and a state. This is the challenge for the economic agencies. But if we understand that there are always opportunities for us to excel, then we must stay encouraged and keep striving for those sectors where we can excel, to bring up the average.

9 It is the same with our public service. We have reached a high level and are respected throughout the world for many of the things we do, but we are never satisfied just because of where we are. We know that many other cities are trying to copy what we do, and perhaps even overtake us. And this is why we can never be complacent about being the best. So when I asked you the first question, it is because I hope that everyone in this room will stay encouraged and spur ourselves on, that there is always something we can learn from others, and be humble. Look at other people’s ideas, and see whether it can be applied to our context. If it cannot, then how else can we innovate and change. Many of the projects exhibited today have exemplified that spirit – not being satisfied with the status quo, but always trying to break through and achieve something better for our country and our people. This is the spirit of what we want to see in the public service.

10 But I’m very encouraged because I look at some of the recent projects that we’ve been doing – the Moments of Life (Families), the Pro-Enterprise Panel, and the Social Service Office (SSO). I’m very encouraged for one simple reason – that we are challenging ourselves to constantly be in the shoes of the people we serve and ask how we can do better. We are building new capabilities and are not satisfied with what we have.

11 Take the Moments of Life project as an example. I’ve always been very inspired by this project because it represents a fundamental shift in our thinking. We are not organising our services according to ministry lines or our own organisations. It is about organising Government services and delivery from the perspectives of the people whom we serve. We break down the silos, get our act together, and serve the people from their perspectives. The Pro-Enterprise Panel shares the same philosophy – if you do not understand the fears, concerns and aspirations of our businesses, we will not come up with measures and policies to try and improve things for them.

12 Some years back when I was in MSF, we embarked on the SSO project. We did not start on the basis of how we should organise ourselves better, to serve our own goals as MSF or the Comcare system. It started on the basis of understanding the pain points that people are going through. We asked ourselves – why is it that someone who needs Comcare has to travel so far to get help? How do we energise the people who are serving the Comcare beneficiaries – to engender local ownership in each and every town so that they can mobilise the resources to help each other? All these projects show a gradual but definite shift in the Public Service – that today, increasingly so, as we organise ourselves, our mindset is not how we serve our organisational needs, but how we serve the people. The people are at the centre of all that we do. This is the mindset that encourages me a lot when I see the Public Service in action because it tells us that we have the correct people with the correct values.

New Skillsets

13 Beyond a new mindset, we also need new skillsets. The Public Service is not static, and there are at least four skillsets which we need for the Public Service to be ready to serve the people of tomorrow.

14 The first has to do with digital skills. Today, everybody is talking about digitalisation. PSD and CSC are rolling out courses and modules to help our people understand the potential of digital, acquire the new skillsets, and apply them to many areas of Public Service. We will be announcing various programmes to help upgrade the digital literacy of our people.

15 The second skillset that we will increasingly emphasise is design thinking  design thinking from the perspectives of the people we serve. How can we learn from some of the best practices in the world? Today, our Apple or Samsung phones are designed with a simple rule – no more than three, four clicks to get what you need. How can we design from the experience of the users so all Singaporeans can benefit? The Municipal Services Office (MSO) is a good example. We designed the MSO system to cut across boundaries and stovepipes, to provide a one-stop service for all people we serve.

16 The third skillset is system thinking. Increasingly, the types of problems we face will be inter-disciplinary and inter-agency. Let me give you an example. Today, when HDB designs towns, it is not just designing flats and precincts for housing needs. HDB also looks at it from a social perspective – how do we design our towns to enable and enhance interaction and mixing? How do we design our estates such that today’s need for privacy do not lead to social isolation when people grow old? Another example is the integration of our healthcare and social services, which we now increasingly see as a continuum. The better MSF and PA are able to manage issues upstream, the less we spend on healthcare downstream. From the many examples I’ve seen in the exhibition today, I think we’re on the right track.

17 Last but not least, the fourth skillset that is very important for the Public Service as we move forward is collaboration. Collaboration starts from the basic premise that we have the humility to admit and accept that we can’t do it alone, and we do not always have the best ideas within our agencies. We need to collaborate at three levels – within our agencies, across agencies as a Whole-of-Government, and most importantly now, across the entire nation. We need to be able to source ideas from across the entire nation, and mobilise the entire nation to understand what we need to do and share the responsibilities in that journey. These are the new skillsets in the Public Service that we need to be increasingly conscious of.

18 It may sound daunting that we have all these new things to do, but we do not need to be afraid. If we can do these things progressively, module by module, and expose our officers to these new skills, I’m quite confident that we will continue to remain at the forefront.

19 So what does success look like, and how we would describe ourselves in ten years’ time, after all our transformation efforts? Because as leaders in the Public Service, we all have to paint this picture and convince our people to come along. I have four suggestions of what success looks like.

20 First, we will recommend our loved ones to join the Singapore Public Service for the right reasons. I always challenge ourselves with this – if we do well, and are proud of what we are doing, then surely we will recommend our loved ones to join us. So in every organisation I go to, I always ask and challenge them – would you recommend your son or daughter to join you? If the answer is no, then we need to do better, and make sure we keep working at it until the answer is yes. In MINDEF, people once said that not many people wanted to be specialists. Then we had to work at it, until the job of a specialist was respectable, inspiring – so we could attract the right people.

21 The second mark of success is that our fellow Singaporeans believe their lives have improved, and have the confidence that it will keep improving, that we as a Public Service inspire confidence in all our people, generation after generation, they can look forward to a better life, because the Public Service will put in place systems to enable them for success. And I use the word “enable” – not just “deliver”. In the past we have focussed on delivery, but in the future we must focus on both delivering and enabling. In fact, I would argue that it will be more important for us to enable others.

22 The third is that Singapore will continue to defy the odds of history to be that shining red dot. That people want to come here, to partner us, to do business with us, and that our people are respected and sought after elsewhere.

23 Lastly, a picture of success for us is that people around the world want to come and partner us. We are relevant, and have something that people want to share with us. This morning, I was asking EMA how robust our electricity distribution system is. I am always very worried about how we know that we are robust, and have the capability to be so? How would we really know that we are there? First, the system doesn’t fail. But when the system doesn’t fail, sometimes it’s just because we’re lucky. But we know we are there when we deliver results, and when others look at our system, and say there is something in it for them to learn. Just as how we – in areas where we do not do well – look at the best systems around the world to learn from. So if we are amongst the top tier in all the services we deliver, people will find us a partner of choice.

24 I share this to encourage all of us to never be complacent. Never ever think that the next 50 years will come easily and that we will always be here. Every day, the reason why all of you work so hard is because you fundamentally do not take this for granted. If we can keep this spirit going – never being complacent, always asking ourselves if we have done our best for our people and our country, asking if there’s something even better that we can do – then I am very confident that we will be here for another 50 years. If we dare as a Public Service to set ourselves a high ambition for the country, and continuously challenge our own mindset, build new skillsets, and mobilise everyone in the country to collaborate and work together, there is nothing to say that Singapore cannot be even better than what we have achieved over the last 50 years. And perhaps that’s the most important thing that we as a Public Service want to leave behind for our country and fellow Singaporeans. That we are always a pillar for our country’s success because we epitomise the correct values, and people see that, trust us, and walk the journey with us.

25 So let me thank you all once again for all your efforts. I know sometimes it may be discouraging, and it might feel like not many people appreciate what you have to go through. But I can tell you that many, if not most, Singaporeans are very proud of the Public Service that we have. And our job is to keep the flag flying and to make sure that generation after generation of Singaporeans continue to have the same confidence and pride. Every small thing that we do adds up. Never ever feel that because you do not get affirmation, nobody appreciates what you do. From my interactions with Singaporeans from all walks of life, I know they do. And perhaps, that’s enough for us to quietly know that we in our own little ways are contributing to a better SG100.

26 Thank you very much for your service to the nation!