Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance at the Public Service Leadership Dinner 2018

21 November 2018


DPM Tharman,
Minister Chan Chun Sing,
Members of the Public Service Commission,
Head, Civil Service,
Permanent Secretaries,
Public Service Leaders,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very happy to join you this evening for this Public Service Leadership Dinner. It brings back fond memories to be able to join all of you here because, as many of you would know, I was a civil servant. 

I started work as a Senior Officer in MTI more than twenty years ago. Back then, when I started, HR rules were very different. Professional development was not done so systematically as it is now, and we certainly didn’t have anything like the Public Service Leadership Programme (PSLP). 

So it is very good to see how things have improved in the service. We are much more progressive and forward looking, and we now have multiple pathways and career tracks, enabling officers to contribute to the public service in different ways.

Tonight, we welcome several new appointees to the Public Service Leadership Programme. So let us start by giving a big round of applause to congratulate all our new appointees. It’s the first step in your journey of public service leadership, and I’m sure you will find this journey a very rewarding one. 

The State of the World  

When I started work in the 90s, it was a different world. The “American way” of free markets and global integration had just vanquished the Soviet empire. Leading thinkers declared “the end of history” because the great social problems that had so long been the centre of political drama had finally been resolved.

But all that of course, turned out to be wrong. History did not end; instead it is back with a vengeance. Escalating tensions between the United States of America and China have raised concerns of a new Cold War. Some even draw comparisons further back in history to the 1930s, where there was surge of economic nationalism and protectionist trade policies after the Great Depression. Indeed, around the world, nationalist, populist and xenophobic sentiments are on the rise. 

At the heart of all this is the deep sense of economic insecurity felt by people in many countries, especially in the developed world. The broad middle do not feel that their lives have improved, or that their children have a genuine chance of a better life. Their incomes are stagnating, while top incomes are zooming ahead.  The gaps and perceived gaps between the haves and have-nots are worsening.

All this has created a profound sense that the system is rigged against the ordinary person, and capitalism and globalisation have become the favourite scapegoats. Indeed, looking at opinion surveys, support for capitalism and globalisation are probably at their lowest levels worldwide in decades.

Singapore’s Approach

We are exposed to these same forces in Singapore, both outside and within our shores. The trends I just described are not going away anytime soon. So we have to be prepared for turbulence ahead in a more uncertain, volatile and dangerous world. 
Domestically, like countries everywhere, we too are facing challenges on many fronts – our economy is maturing, we have to take care of a rapidly ageing population, and we have to deal with issues of social mobility and inequality. So we must double down on our efforts to create sustained, inclusive growth, and build a fair and inclusive society here in Singapore.

Our starting point is that a well-functioning market is still the best way to organise our economy. This is still the best way to grow the pie in the long-term, and that is important because it translates to more jobs, better pay, and higher living standards for all Singaporeans. So, notwithstanding reservations and concerns about capitalism and the free markets, I think we must still uphold the functioning of a market here in Singapore.

But we cannot step back and let markets reign supreme. We need well-structured regulations to make sure that markets function well; to safeguard the interests of consumers and workers. And that is what we have done. For example, in putting in place measures to cool the property market, or setting progressive wages in specific industries, or controlling the inflow of foreign workers. These are measures that we have done, and we must continue to do to ensure that the market serves the interest and well-being of Singaporeans at large.

Getting regulations right is never easy. We need high-quality smart regulations, but we also have to be careful not to swing to the other extreme and over-regulate. Because regulations all start with good intentions, but they can have unintended consequences. 

Moreover, there are also some things where we don’t really want to rely on market forces. It is not always about dollars and cents, and there are some things that money cannot buy.  

For example, many serve in the community not because of monetary rewards, but a sense of duty and responsibility to our fellow citizens. Many serve for a passion for causes that are larger than themselves.

So there’s a lot to be said about our efforts to build that spirit of fellowship and mutual support for a better society. When should the government step in, and what policy measures should we adopt to achieve better outcomes? Remember the answers we have today are not cast in stone. So these are questions that we must keep asking ourselves, and always be prepared to review and change our positions.  

We should not simply follow time-honoured rules and administer existing systems. We also should not blindly copy what other countries have done, in the hope of finding quick-fix solutions. Because ultimately, there are no short-cuts to improving the way we do things in Singapore. 

We must continuously question old assumptions and review policies. We must study, learn, and master the issues in our respective fields. This means that we have to dive deep, look at the data and empirical evidence, find out what works and what doesn’t, and then think of better and more innovative solutions that can be applied in our own context. That is the work that all of you do, and you must all do this work better.

Seeking continuous improvements

We must get our broad directions and strategies right, and keep innovating in terms of our overall policies and programmes. But we also need to pay attention to details, and make innovation pervasive at all levels within our organisations.   

Sometimes we get caught up in going after the big ideas, the bold ideas. In this age of social media, it’s easy to focus only on the headlines that are viral and catch everyone’s attention. 

But big ideas do not exist in a vacuum. All of us have a part to play and we should never sweat the small stuff. Please do not misunderstand, I’m not asking you to be micro-managers, but details are important, and implementation is policy. How well we look at the details reflects our attitude, and mind sets, and the pride we have in doing our work.

Now let me relate to you a story regarding this particular point not in public policy, but in sports. For decades, British cycling was performing very badly – so underwhelming that one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the team. They tried all sorts of measures, but they could not improve their performance.

In 2003, they hired a new performance coach. Unlike previous coaches, he didn’t try to overhaul the system. Instead, he advocated a strategy of tiny improvements in everything – what he called the “aggregation of marginal gains”. The rationale is this – if you break down everything that goes into riding a bike, and then improve each component by 1%, you will get a significant overall increase when you add up the hundreds of small improvements that you do and all of this can deliver results.  

And indeed it worked. From 2004-2017, British riders won 66 Olympic and Paralympic gold medals and five Tour de France victories – it was the most successful run in cycling history. All this was not from a big idea, radical change or overhauling the system, but from small improvements, step-by-step, in a disciplined manner.

This is an overseas sports example, and it may be hard for some of us to relate. But it reminds me of what I had read in the newspapers recently about our Singapore football team. Our Singapore football team happened to be going through a period of poor performance, but Fandi Ahmad shared in a recent interview that the team is going back to the basics, to the fundamentals, and importantly he emphasised team work. Not the showing off of individual brilliance which can make the team suffer, but emphasising the importance of the basics, the fundamentals, and team work. 

These are sporting examples, but the lessons are relevant in organisations too. I remember one incident very vividly when I was a young officer working in MOF at that time. I was the staff suggestion scheme (SSS) coordinator. At that time, people felt that the scheme was too prescriptive and mechanical, and there was a bit of a pushback against it. So I went to my Permanent Secretary Mr Lim Siong Guan, and suggested just going for “quality suggestions”, which was what some of the staff had raised, instead of forcing everyone to give suggestions.

Mr Lim sat me down and gave me a long lecture – that the whole idea and intent behind PS21 and SSS was not about going for the big ideas, or the “quality ideas” necessarily, but to promote this very culture of small improvements, suggestions big or small, from anyone in the organisation.  

We no longer use the SSS – I think we now have a more open and informal working environment, and we now have suggestions coming from different levels of the organisation.  But all of you as public service leaders must continue to instil this culture of continuous improvements within your own organisations. 

Never underestimate the significance of small improvements; never dismiss ideas outright, no matter how small they may appear to you. Make every effort to groom and nurture every officer; engage their energies and bring out the best in them. That’s how I think we can build a high performance culture, and high performance organisations within the public sector.

Partnership with citizens and community

‚Ä®Finally, one of the areas where I think we must continue to improve is in the way we engage and partner stakeholders. I think all of you would recognise that the way we work as a Government is changing. It is not just developing policies for Singaporeans, but we are also finding opportunities to co-create solutions together with Singaporeans – and there are many different ways to partner citizens and open up new possibilities for them to shape our future together. 

We started this journey a few years ago. We had “Our Singapore Conversation” where we listened to the concerns and aspirations of Singaporeans. We started “SG Future” engagement sessions where we encouraged many Singaporeans to go a step further by taking action to realise their aspirations and ideas, and we supported this by Our Singapore Fund. Recently we launched the “SG Cares” movement to enable Singaporeans to step forward and care for the vulnerable and needy in our midst. 

So we are proceeding along this track, and we should build on this momentum to strengthen this sense of partnerships with all our stakeholders.

I see this in my own ministry’s work. All of you know that HDB does a lot of upgrading projects. Very typically, HDB will get an architect or a consultant to design the scheme for upgrading, and HDB would implement it. We have tried a different approach recently for playgrounds. We call it “Build-A-Playground”. We engage residents from the outset, we invite them to do workshops with us, so that residents get to design the playground from scratch, work with the consultants to get it properly designed, and even work with the manufacturer to assemble the playground on site. It takes a lot more time, but the results are phenomenal because that sense of pride and ownership when the residents see the playground coming up is incredible. Under the normal process, the playground is taken for granted. But now that the residents are involved, that sense of ownership is amazing.

So after this very good experience, I went back to my team and asked, “How many partners do we have in MND?” If you count all the work that MND does, we have nearly 50,000 partners. That includes our board members, our committee and advisory panel members – that’s about 2,000. But we have many volunteers, many stakeholders – our HDB heartlands, URA, NParks, Pulau Ubin, Rail Corridor, Community in Bloom, altogether make about 50,000. 

And so the challenge that I posed to my team is, “What more can we do to engage these stakeholders? How can we make them feel that they are truly partners with us in the work that we do, taking ownership of the problems we share, and developing solutions together?”

Doing this work well means building up new capabilities and skills in our officers. It is not just doing paperwork behind the desk, but going out to engage stakeholders and partners, learning how to negotiate differences and build consensus. It’s quite painstaking, it takes more time, and I think that is a challenge not just for MND, but for all ministries and agencies.

It will mean more effort and time in getting your work done for all of you, for our public officers, but I think this is crucial in enabling us to build stronger ties with Singaporeans, and in achieving better outcomes for all.


Let me conclude – I have sketched out some of the challenges we face, and some areas where I think you need to continuously strive for improvement. We do have many challenges, but I believe that we can approach them with a quiet sense of confidence.  Because we have a distinctive Singaporean DNA – one that is resilient, resourceful and with a “never-say-die” spirit. As Team Singapore, we are strong, united and we are certainly more than able to overcome any challenges together.  

In this joint endeavour, the work you do as public service leaders is critical. It’s not just about good public administration; it’s also about improving the lives of our fellow citizens and building our nation. This is a heavy responsibility but it is also an extraordinary opportunity. It’s an opportunity for all of us to join hands and partner with all Singaporeans, and work together on this never-ending quest for a better Singapore, even in a turbulent world.  

Thank you very much, please enjoy the dinner.