Speech by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, at the Public Sector Transformation Awards Reception 2019

19 July 2019


1 Very good afternoon to all of you. First, before I start, just a correction for the organisers. Today, I am not your Guest-of-Honour. We are here to honour you. You are our Guests-of-Honour. So please give yourselves a round of applause. We are here to honour you, because you have done great work for the Public Service. And in turn, your work is to honour fellow Singaporeans.

2 Today, all of you are the shining lights of the Public Service. You are invited here, because you have done well for your respective agencies. And in turn, you have contributed a part to making the Public Service a better, stronger, and more efficient one. And because we have been able to do that, we ensure that Singapore maintains our relevance, and that Singapore can continue to be a shining red dot. Many people have asked me - how do we keep the Singapore Public Service to be one of the best, if not the best, in the world? What must we have inside our DNA in order for us to do what we want?

Heart for the People’s Fears, Concerns and Aspirations

3 Now, I will just boil it down to three simple things. For us to continue to excel as a Public Service worthy of Singapore, we must remember three things. First, always have our hearts at the right place. To understand the fears, concerns and aspirations of our people. The Public Service exists to serve Singapore and Singaporeans. We do not exist for ourselves. And for us to do our job well, we must never, never lose touch with the fears, concerns and aspirations of our people. And this is why, over the course of the last few years and going forward, you will hear myself, Head of Civil Service and your various Permanent Secretaries, urging you, encouraging you and leading you by example, to walk the ground, to listen to the fears, concerns and aspirations of our people, and act on them. That we no longer, or can ever, be accused that we are living in ivory towers, making policies in a vacuum. That is not the nature of the Singapore Public Service. 

4 Foreign guests, when they come to Singapore, have always been amazed when they meet me. They are amazed that a Minister has to drive his own car, and they ask why. The reason that I have always given them is very simple. If the Ministers and the senior civil servants do not experience the life of the average Singaporean, then we will be divorced from reality, and we will not be motivated to solve the many challenges that fellow Singaporeans are facing. Yesterday, I watched a video by fellow public servants about how a team of them went about designing things in the community. They got into the role of a hawker centre cleaner in order to understand the challenges that they face. This is literally walking the ground to experience what our people experience, in order for us to formulate better policies. So, the first thing we must always remember is - always be close to the ground; always understand and seek to better understand the fears, concerns and aspirations of our people. Because that is the starting and the ending point of everything we do.

Constantly Strive to Do Better 

5 The second thing that we should have in our DNA is to strive to constantly do better. Many of you have heard this, and I can attest to it, from my own experience having spent the last 30 over years in the Public Service. That constant quest to do better for the Public Service is evident. But there is a slight tweak, a slight twist, that I would like us to focus on. It is no longer about doing more, it is no longer about doing more with less. It is also not just about doing it more effectively, with less. There is something that we need to be aware of in the next leg of our journey for the provision of Public Service. It is about doing better, with our people. It is definitely not a slogan to say that we want to do better. To do better with our people, and not just doing better for our people, requires a different skillset. 

6 Let me share with you this story. Why is it that the Basic Military Training (BMT) Parade always get rave reviews from the participants, although they never had a rehearsal at the Floating Platform? On the other hand, despite having many rehearsals, the National Day Parade always has its fair share of critics and commentators. The key difference is, everybody at the BMT Parade feels that they are a part of it. My child is participating, he is my family, so never mind if one soldier is out of step and marching with his left hand and left leg. It is okay, he is one of us. This sense of ownership, this sense of participation, is what we need to bring out from fellow Singaporeans. The power of the Singapore Public Service is not just with the finite number of public servants we have. Instead, the power of the Singapore Public Service is that, this is a Public Service that can go forth and mobilise the entire nation to come along with us. And that is definitely a much more powerful Public Service than just what we can do individually. The next level of journey is not just about doing more, not just about doing better, not just about doing more with less. It is about doing better with our people in this journey.

Constantly Thinking How to Preempt Tomorrow’s Challenges 

7 Last but not least, the thing that must never change in our DNA, is that we are never just happy with doing better for today. In fact, we pride ourselves that we are a good Public Service because we spend much time and effort pre-empting tomorrow's challenges. This is not something that every Public Service elsewhere can have the luxury to do. Many Public Services across the world are caught up in the here and now. They are firefighters, there to put out fires after the fires have started. Whereas, in Singapore, we want to make sure that we are there to prevent the fire from starting.

8 I must thank the organisers today for selecting today’s venue for the Public Sector Transformation Awards. I have always had a personal liking for this venue. And I will explain to you why. If you could just look out of the window, this is the story of Singapore. This is the story of what we, as a people, we as a competent Public Service, have achieved. The ground that we stand on today did not exist in 1965. The beautiful bay outside, where people are having their recreational activities, did not exist in 1965. Until recently, it was still seawater. But with hard work, dedication, vision, leadership, we have what it is today. 

9 Today, this place is not just a nice garden. It is more than a nice garden. This place is a testimony to a few things. First, it is a testimony to our ability to dream big. That 50 years ago, someone stood, perhaps along Beach Road, and imagined what Singapore could be. A brand new downtown, a brand new place that fellow Singaporeans could enjoy and relax. 

10 It is a testimony to the kind of environment we want to leave behind for our children. When people reclaim land, it becomes expensive. And most people will use it for commercial activities to get the highest yield. But when we reclaimed this piece of land, we made a commitment to the future generations, that the first thing that we plant here is this place. A green park in this new area where future generations can enjoy, and remind future generations of our responsibility to yet more future generations to come. 

11 This reservoir in front of us is a testimony to how we tried to overcome the odds that were stacked against us. When I was in primary school, we were taught that there were only three reservoirs in Singapore: MacRitchie, Seletar and Peirce. Today, Marina Bay is one of the 17 reservoirs in Singapore providing a much higher proportion of water for own domestic consumption. Every major river that can provide us fresh water in Singapore has been landmarked to form a reservoir for our water needs. Now, this is what our forefathers have left us, with leadership, vision and hard work from the last 50 years. I hope that our generation of Singaporeans and public servants, will now stand on this and look further ahead, to imagine what more we can leave behind for our children in the next 50 years. That is our opportunity, that is also our responsibility. I am sure after this event, when you have time to explore the Gardens, some of you might walk along the shore all the way down to the Marina Barrage. And maybe when we stand at the Marina Barrage, we will get the next inspiration of what Singapore may be, for the next 50 years, when we celebrate SG100. 

12 The previous generation had much less and they have left us so much. It is our responsibility and our opportunity to build on it to make sure that we leave something even better than what we have now, for our children and their children. And the Public Service of Singapore will remain central to all this. Earlier, when I asked you about the biggest challenge for the country in the next ten years, you said that the biggest challenge will be leadership and relevance. Leadership, not just of the people in the Public Service, but leadership at every level of society. And it is our job as a one united Public Service to activate not just the talent within our Service, but to use this to catalyse the entire nation to come along this journey with ours. Because if we can do that, Singapore will continue to remain as a shining red dot. And so long as we remain relevant, we fear not the challenges. We fear not the pressures for us to take sides in a more fragmented world. We will create the relevance for others to want to engage us as valued and worthy partners. That is our job for the next level. 

13 And if we can always remember that, then we have the answer to the future challenge you earlier identified for the Public Service, the need to constantly transform. We have to constantly change according to needs and circumstances. If we can do that, your concern over our future manpower challenge will become secondary. Because we will go forth and solve that manpower challenge. We will challenge ourselves that it is not just about getting more people to do more. We are having an entirely different frame of mind to say that we will do better with fellow Singaporeans. The power of the Singapore Public Service is not just with the 145, 000 public servants. The power of the Singapore Public Service is with the 145, 000 public servants capitalising the energies of the 3.5 million Singaporeans living on this island. And if we can do that, I am sure we will move towards SG100 with greater pride and confidence.

14 On that note, let me thank you. Thank you for your service to the Public Service. Thank you for your service to the nation, because your shining example is but the tip of the iceberg of what our Public Service can achieve. And if you continue to exercise that leadership, I am very confident that year after year, we will be celebrating this particular occasion with even greater confidence and pride. 

15 Thank you very much for your service to our nation!