Speech by Mr Leo Yip, Head, Civil Service at the 2019 Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony

16 April 2019

16 APRIL 2019

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean,
Chairman and Members of the Public Service Commission,
Distinguished Guests,
Colleagues and Friends, 
Ladies and Gentlemen,

A very good evening to all of you.

2 Let me begin by thanking all my Administrative Service colleagues here this evening for your public service and contributions to Singapore. Thank you for the good work that you have been doing and that you will continue to do. 

3 The Administrative Service numbers 330. Congratulations to the 13 officers who have been appointed into the Service this year, and the officers who have been promoted. 

4 And I want to add my personal tribute to three former Permanent Secretary colleagues who have retired over the past year – Mr Lim Chuan Poh, Ms Yeoh Chee Yan and Mr Neo Kian Hong. Between the three of them, they have served a total of 106 years. As it so happens, they share a common background in MINDEF. But beyond that, they share the high distinction of having dedicated their lives to the service of Singapore. I am delighted that Kian Hong is able to join us this evening. To Chuan Poh, Chee Yan and Kian Hong – on behalf of my Permanent Secretary colleagues, the Administrative Service and the entire Public Service, our heartfelt thanks and very best wishes.

5 Last year, I spoke about two key priorities for the Public Service: One, refreshing our agenda of policies and programmes to support the priorities of the Government; and two, pushing forward with Public Sector Transformation. We must always be orientated towards the future. We must always be willing and able to make big, bold and difficult changes both within the Public Service, as well as in the policies and programmes we offer our fellow citizens. Singapore must always be able to exceed itself, from generation to generation; and to enable Singapore to do so, the Public Service must also always be able to exceed itself, from cohort to cohort.

6 This evening, I want to cover the deeper idea that underpins what we do across the Public Service. This is captured in what I refer to as our spirit of public service. This refers to the character, attitude and principles of service that should inspire, animate, and influence our thinking and actions. Underpinned by our public service values of integrity, service and excellence, this spirit is about why we serve, who we serve, and how we serve.

Why do we serve?

7 We each have our own stories about why we decided to join the Public Service – from the moment you first decided to do so, to the junctures in your career when you had to decide between “leave or remain”.

8 But what binds our stories is that in the Public Service, we are called to serve a purpose larger than ourselves or even our organisations – to strengthen this country and improve the lives of our fellow Singaporeans. 

9 The spirit of public service means that our motivations in service cannot be driven by I, me or mine. Love of country can begin as devotion to your field of action – a vocation in the military, police, education, or foreign service, and so on – but it must grow to encompass your people, your country, our past and our future. As leaders in the Administrative Service, it is even more important that you embody the spirit of public service and nurture it within your teams.

10 It is this sense of mission and, this spirit of service, that have brought you here. Treasure this sense; do not lose it; and let it always remain as your anchor in service and beyond.

Who do we serve?

Who do we serve?

11 This is clear. We serve Singapore and our fellow Singaporeans. A spirit of public service means putting citizens at the centre of what we do. Put in practical terms, this is about focusing our service on the citizen. It is creating the trust that this Public Service will find ways to help the citizen, rather than a Public Service that expects citizens to fit within or into its rules. That has to be part of our spirit of public service.

12 As part of Public Sector Transformation, we have made progress in better exemplifying this spirit of public service. Two examples.

13 One, we have taken steps to ensure our officers know the ground better. This is especially important for our Public Service leaders. As you rise up the ranks, working on policy and working with your fellow officers become a bigger part of your work than interacting with citizens. So we must lean against this tendency and not lose touch with the ground. 

14 Among others, we have started a programme called Engagement Immersion for Leaders. Directors and above will spend time on the ground, immersed in frontline interactions with citizens. Besides a better understanding of the ground, we expect leaders to identify opportunities where we can improve citizen engagement and the delivery of service. Together with other colleagues, I have taken part in this initiative, beginning at a Social Service Office (SSO). And next week, at a CPFB service counter. The further up you rise in the service, the greater your duty to care must be.

15 Two, we must raise the level of care and empathy in our service delivery to citizens. Without a doubt our officers do care for the citizens we serve. But sometimes our care and empathy can be inadvertently buried by rules and processes that were put in place to ensure efficiency and accountability. 

16 We can serve citizens better, and more consistently. To do this, we are rolling out a series of initiatives in several agencies, and intend to scale them up over time. For example, we are experimenting with improvements at our service centres. We are training our service officers to communicate in more personable and empathetic ways. We are also making changes to our processes to serve citizens better. For a start, we are working out new coordination processes between CPFB and the SSOs. By working together, the SSOs will be able to help citizens who cannot withdraw their CPF funds but face financial distress. In time, we will expand such coordination beyond these two agencies and look into other areas where we can and we must serve citizens better.

17 More importantly, what we are seeking to do with the training and process changes is to empower and develop a greater activism among our service officers, so that they can proactively assist citizens in need, and do so in a comprehensive, convenient and coordinated manner. The last thing we want to do is send our citizens from one agency to another. 

How do we serve?

18 Last year I mentioned three characteristics crucial for the success of the key priorities of the Public Service – Ambition, Alignment and Action. 

19 A spirit of public service means seeking the best for Singapore and Singaporeans. This is ambition. Not ambition for self, but for country and people.

20 We must set a high bar for what we want to achieve for Singapore, and take big, bold and difficult steps to realise this ambition. And once that bar is achieved, we strive for the next level. This spirit eschews risk aversion or timidity of purpose. Instead, it seeks the best for Singapore. And as long as it is the best for Singapore, it is worth doing. 

21 And we seek to meet this calling to be worthy of Singapore, both for today and for tomorrow. We must make continual improvements so that we do better each day, a point that Minister Chan Chun Sing made earlier. And at the same time, we must also transform the Public Service as a whole so that we can sustain excellence for tomorrow. It is easier to focus on the here and now when the fire is burning beneath your feet. But as leaders, it is incumbent on you to also ensure we, the Public Service, are prepared for the future.

22 A spirit of public service means working in alignment as one Public Service. 

23 We must steer by this star – that we are fundamentally members of the same Public Service, not just members of a single ministry or agency.

24 It follows that this spirit of being one Public Service must guide us to think and operate together as one, not just within but across ministries and agencies.

25 This spirit is exhibited in the collective leadership that your senior Public Service leaders are exemplifying. It fills me with confidence when I see my fellow Permanent Secretaries, and the Deputy Secretaries and CEOs, exercising leadership on cross-agency and whole-of-government roles and responsibilities. This is how they are leading our whole-of-government policy agenda whether it be about social inequality and mobility or rejuvenating our city, or service delivery, citizen engagement and digital government.

26 I last spoke about the Moments of Life project which Minister Chan referred to earlier as a good example of alignment in action. It has now evolved from one moment in our citizens’ lives – when a child is born – to being truly across moments of their lives. We now have over 10 projects under development to transform the service process at different moments of a citizen’s life – from when your child enters primary school, to enlisting for national service, to entering the workforce, to helping our seniors age actively, and even to the end of life. This change in paradigm seeks to build our services around the citizen and for the citizen, rather than having the citizen run around different processes managed by different ministries.

27 We are taking that alignment forward also into how we serve the public at our service counters. The first pilot project has been rolled out at Our Tampines Hub to integrate services across 6 different agencies at one service point.

28 We have to require that this alignment in our spirit of public service be exercised all the time, so that there will be no more tales of the unwanted fishball stick; or in today’s context, the unwanted digital fishball stick, or covered walkways that somehow have contrived not to join.

29 A spirit of public service means putting into action concrete ways to improve the lives of our people.

30 Only when we swing into action, and effectively implement policies and programmes, does the public benefit from the good intent of their government. We must do, not just talk or have good intentions.

31 As our challenges and problems become more complex, so too has the implementation of policy. Increasingly, it is not enough to just focus on developing the right policy. We also need stronger implementation skills to help different citizen segments in more intentional and personal ways because their needs may differ. We also need stronger communication skills to explain more clearly and simply to our citizens how a policy benefits them.

32 A key part of our spirit of public service must be a bias towards action. As Administrative Service Officers, you must exhibit this trait – get things done, follow through, make things happen. 

33 Beyond this, a spirit of public service also means we hold ourselves accountable for what we do. Public Service leaders carry a leadership responsibility for what happens in our organisations. What this means is that we must devote our leadership focus and effort to areas fundamental to the workings of our organisation and to the people in it. The people, systems, processes and outcomes in an organisation are a leader’s responsibility. If lapses happen as a direct result of our leadership slackness, negligence or incompetence, we will rightfully have to be personally accountable as the leader.

34 The demands on the Public Service, and on Public Service leadership, are growing in magnitude and complexity. We are operating in a more globalised, digital and fast changing environment. Our leaders need to be more globally aware, regionally attuned, grounded at home and future oriented. At the same time, we need stronger leadership ambition, alignment and action than before. We are therefore reviewing our approach to the selection, development and deployment of Public Service leaders. This is part of a larger HR review that we are doing for the Public Service, to ensure that our officers have the right competencies, the right training and development and are enabled by the right performance management system, to serve Singapore even better into the future. 

35 As Administrative Service officers and as leaders and future leaders of the Public Service, others in the Public Service look to you for example and inspiration. In my various postings across the Service, I have had the honour of working alongside men and women who personify this spirit of public service. Officers at different levels who are citizen-centric, who are broad-minded to solve problems across agencies beyond their own, and who make things happen. And we as Administrative Service officers should exemplify this even more in our thinking and actions – be driven by purpose and mission, and citizen centricity and not self. 


36 Let me conclude. We remain a Public Service with a strong ethos. Across the Service, our officers have that strong desire to serve our citizens and our nation. You and I, we are proud of the Public Service to which we belong. The sense of calling, the passion to serve, and the commitment to service – all these are strong.

37 It is a Service that means a lot to us. We may have been frustrated and disappointed at various points in our career, but like me I am sure most of you have never concluded it is not worthwhile.

38 I am proud of the work we do day in and day out, what we have contributed to Singapore and to Singaporeans. But there are areas that we can and must do better. There are areas where we need to step up and level up our capability. And areas where we need to be better prepared for the future in order to sustain excellence for our country and people.

39 This is why our spirit of public service is key. It underlies the conviction of why we serve, who we serve, and how we serve. It guides us in all that we do – to have ambition prevail over inertia, to have alignment over fragmentation, and to favour action over inaction.

40 As Administrative Service officers, I expect all of us to exemplify and strengthen this spirit of public service.

41 Thank you.