Speech by Mr Leo Yip, Head, Civil Service at the ASEAN Plus Three Forum on Good Governance

24 October 2018


Heads of Delegation,
Delegates and Colleagues,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

1 A very good morning to all of you and a very warm welcome to Singapore. Singapore is honoured to chair this year’s 19th ASEAN Cooperation on Civil Service Matters (ACCSM), and to host the ASEAN Plus Three Forum on Good Governance. 

2 I would also like to welcome our guest speakers this morning, some of whom have flown in from around the world to be with us – Professor Ora-Orn Poocharoen from Thailand, Professor Ken Smith from Australia, colleagues from the OECD and the Asian Development Bank, and Professor Kenneth Paul Tan from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy here in Singapore. Welcome. 

Driving Forces of Change

3 The theme of today’s forum, “Public Service Reform and Transformation”, is a pertinent issue for all of us. Even though we all serve different governments in different countries, we have something in common – similarities in the trends and driving forces that affect our societies, and in the challenges and opportunities that we face and must respond to. I thought to share some of these driving forces with you, and have used the alphabets “A” to “D” to depict four of them.

4 “A” is for the growth of Asia and in particular ASEAN. Most of us in this room are part of an Asia and Southeast Asia that holds strong economic growth potential. A report by McKinsey released recently identified that 11 out of 18 of the world’s best-performing emerging economies are in Southeast and East Asia1. We are well positioned to play a larger role in global trade and investment flows as the world’s economic centre of gravity shifts towards Asia. The ASEAN and the Plus Three countries are home to a rising middle class whose demand for consumer goods, cars, education, travel, technology, and other services, will fuel further growth. In fact, ASEAN’s middle class is expected to more than double over two decades from 20102

5 “B” is for beyond borders, that in an increasingly inter-connected world, there is even greater impetus for us to work together beyond borders. There is much we can achieve by strengthening international cooperation and promoting mutually reinforcing policies between countries. National policies to support innovation, investment, and financial stability are most effective when they are undertaken internationally. By collaborating even more closely with one another, the ASEAN Plus Three countries can ride this wave of growth together and bring more benefits to our people. At the civil service level, this gathering of all of us here today is one example of how we can share our experiences on governance. We can deepen this collaboration further through the ASEAN Network of Public Service Training Institutes (PSTIs), which will be established at this year’s ACCSM. Over time, this ASEAN Network will help our public officers gain a better appreciation of developments in each other’s countries, share best practices, and work better together as an integrated ASEAN.

6 “C” is a governance challenge that all of us face in the form of competing sources of information, particularly online. Social media has changed the way our citizens consume and share news, sometimes in a way that divides and entrenches opinions. There are now many online sources who claim to present the truth even pertaining to governance issues, not just from the government alone. This is further exacerbated by the phenomenon of “fake news”, which 10 years ago, was hardly in the lingua franca of many societies, but today poses a significant challenge. Technology has increased the speed and scale at which information, sometimes false, spreads amongst our populations. All of these developments can create confusion, undermine confidence in government, maybe even sow seeds of discord in societies. We need to do more to help our populations better comprehend and discern the multitude of information that they receive every day. And a broader point is how we in the business of governance, can better maintain and build trust and credibility in the institution of government, amidst the competing sources of information.

7 “D” is for disruptive technology. Technology is transforming societies, and we are likely seeing only the early phases of the far reaching effects of digitalisation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. It is changing business models and bringing greater convenience to citizen’s daily lives. Technology is creating new jobs that we need to train our people for, including in the public sector. At the same time, it requires us to redesign existing jobs. Technology also affects how we govern. It enables us to reach out to citizens at a scale, speed and specificity never possible before. It therefore presents us with an opportunity to transform the way we conduct the business of government, but we must also be mindful to ensure that technology does not create the next big divide in society. Governments thus have a role to ensure access to technology for all segments of our populations – rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural.

Public Service Reform

8 I gave you a snapshot of four driving forces that we face today. The key is how we respond to these trends, that will determine whether we ride the winds of change and turn them into opportunities for our people, or come under pressure because of them. In order to transform our economies alongside Asia’s growth, and harness technology to improve government communications and service delivery, our Public Services need to develop new capabilities to execute and deliver well in this fast changing environment. As leaders of our respective Public Services, transformation has to be on the agenda. Transformation is not a choice; it is an action we have to take. We need to transform the way our Public Services work, the way we are organised, the way services are delivered to our citizens and how we engage with them, to ensure we can continue to deliver today and in the future. 

9 All of us are keenly aware of the “burning platform” for public service reform, and we each have to shape our own reform efforts, and tailor it to our unique contexts. For example, Myanmar launched its “Civil Service Reform Strategic Action Plan 2020” last year and Brunei has “Wawasan 2035”. Platforms like today’s Forum are useful for us to exchange ideas and share best practices. 

10 This morning, I will share briefly about the new phase of Public Sector Transformation (PST) that the Singapore Public Service has embarked on since January this year. As context, Singapore has over the years undergone a number of public sector wide change movements, in recognition of the changing environment within which the Singapore Public Service operates. In 1995, we launched the “Public Service for the 21st Century”, or the PS21 movement in short. The focus then was on achieving greater efficiency, and empowering every officer to be a change-agent, to make improvements in their own work areas. The challenge we had was to reach every public officer, reshaping his or her mind-set and skillset to be innovators to improve their workplace environment and processes. In 2012, we took public sector reform to a different trajectory. We launched Public Sector Transformation, focusing on operating as “One Public Service with Citizens at the Centre”. The focus of that phase was to improve the quality of front line service delivery, and public communications and engagement, in order to increase public trust in the government. 

Our Priorities in this New Phase of Transformation

11 In the light of the driving forces that I explained earlier, the Singapore Public Service has refreshed our transformation strategy to address these winds of change and harness the waves of opportunity to take us to another level of effectiveness in service to the public. And I will frame our response to the challenges and opportunities “A” to “D” earlier, in the form of four more alphabets, “D” to “G”. 

12 “D” is improving the delivery of government services by increasingly taking a citizen lens rather than just an agency lens in how we design and deliver services. The natural tendency of a Public Service is to organise the design and delivery of public services along ministry or agency lines, because that is where the work is done. But citizens view the entire government as a singular shop-front. When they receive a service, they perceive it as coming from one government regardless of ministry or agency. One way the Singapore Public Service is improving the way we deliver services is to more systematically apply tools like design thinking and customer journey mapping to reshape and redesign the service process from the viewpoint of our citizens. 

13 To mention one example, the birth of a child is a time of great joy, but it can also be a challenging period for parents who may need to navigate government bureaucracy to receive various services. In Singapore, parents need to register their child’s birth at the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority or at the hospitals, keep track of their children’s medical appointments and immunisation and so on. We turned the problem around and asked ourselves how we can make this an easier experience for new parents. 15 agencies came together to re-engineer government processes back-end, and in June this year, we launched an integrated suite of services and information for families with young children, via what we now call the Moments of Life (Families) mobile app. All these government services are now available to parents of a newborn child, at one stop, in one step, in a mobile app. Moving forward, we intend to extend the same approach across other moments of life, such as starting work, retirement, and end-of-life. 

14 “E” is to deepen our engagement with citizens in both policy making and policy implementation. Citizens across many of our countries increasingly want to be more engaged and to contribute to matters affecting their lives. In Singapore, we are developing new outreach channels that allow broader and more meaningful citizen participation online and offline. For example, the People’s Association launched an initiative called Ask Kopi Kakis. The programme seeks to explain government positions and policies in simple ways. Our officers go to where our residents reside, sometimes using mobile kiosks, and even engage them in our vernacular languages where necessary. We also set up an Office for Citizen Engagement so that within the Public Service, we can systematically build up new capabilities in our officers for stronger citizen engagement, move from working for citizens to working with citizens, and better coordinate our engagement efforts. 

15 “F” stands for future ready workforces in the Public Service. The biggest challenge in an environment of rapid change is ensuring our leaders and officers are equipped with the right skills as the governance context changes and becomes more challenging. Skills like citizen engagement are becoming more critical. Another big area is raising the digital competency of our officers. We have committed to train and equip all public officers with basic digital literacy skills by 2023. To support this effort, the Singapore Civil Service College has launched digital learning in a big way, including through offering online courses which can be accessed anytime, anywhere. Another part of developing future ready workforces that we are working on is identifying jobs at risk from technological change. The changing way we deliver services, such as in the Moments of Life example I gave, which involves collapsing different services into one touchpoint, necessarily disrupts existing jobs and work processes. We need to redesign jobs and put processes in place to train and transition officers to new roles. 

16 Finally, “G” is for going digital. One aspect of going digital is leveraging technology to significantly improve the way we deliver services to citizens. For example, last year, we launched an app called Parking.Sg. For context, in the past, for roadside parking, our motorists had to tear paper coupons – one for each half hour or one hour parked. Now, they can use a mobile app, which identifies where the motorist is by GPS, and they pay based on the exact duration they have parked to the minute. If they need to park for a longer period, they can extend their session remotely, instead of walking back to their vehicle to add another coupon. This innovative and new approach could only happen with a change in mind-set to how we approached the issue. We also launched the Digital Government Blueprint in June this year, which outlines many other ambitious goals for transforming service delivery through digitalisation. For example, by 2023, we aim to have all government forms pre-filled with data we already have on hand about the citizen, making it much more convenient for citizens to transact with government. Another aspect of going digital is an internal effort within the Public Service to make our workplaces digital and equip public officers with digital tools to work more productively. For example, we are piloting a scheduling assistant powered by artificial intelligence to help officers schedule meetings more efficiently.

17 In short, these are the four key elements of our Public Sector Transformation efforts in this phase, to better prepare the Singapore Public Service for the disruptions ahead – “D” for citizen-centric service delivery, “E” for strengthening citizen engagement, “F” for upskilling a future ready workforce, and “G” for going digital. 

A Whole of Government Effort

18 Given the scale of transformation we need to undertake, we have to get every public officer on-board. Public Sector Transformation will succeed only if it involves the whole system – it needs to be driven by our leaders, but it has to be embraced by all our agencies and involve all our public officers. And it will be sustained only if it is fuelled by a collective sense of ownership from all our leaders, and by equipping all public officers with the skills and tools to effect continued change.

19 To do this, we are pushing ahead with our transformation effort at three levels. At the Whole of Government level, all ministries and agencies must experience changes in mind-sets, skillsets and ways of working. At the ministry and agency level, each ministry and agency must drive its own transformation effort according to their unique work contexts. At the individual officer level, we are involving every public officer in improving processes around them, whether internal to government or citizen-facing. 

20 As we transform, it is important that our public officers continue to uphold the enduring ethos of incorruptibility, impartiality, and integrity from our Code of Conduct in their work. As we encourage our agencies to find new and innovative ways to use and share data to transform policy and delivery, we must strengthen safeguards to prevent misuse. We passed the Public Sector Governance Bill earlier this year. Among other things, it clarifies the circumstances when it is appropriate to share data. It also introduces criminal penalties for public officers who make unauthorised disclosures of public sector information, or misuse public sector information for their own gain. This ensures that as we innovate and transform, we do so holding fast to our core values and principles. 


21 Let me conclude. Even though we operate in different contexts, good governance is a common goal for all of us. Public sector reform is at the end of the day, an exercise to ensure that the Public Service is best prepared to deliver well on our purpose: building a better society for our people. Transformation is a complex movement, and one that will only work if it is championed by all our leaders, embraced by all ministries, and translated to action by all officers. As leaders we must have the conviction that is the right thing to do for our Public Services, and we must muster the will and resilience to see this through. 

22 I am grateful for the opportunity to share Singapore’s experience. I look forward to continue learning from the experiences of your various countries, and to find opportunities for us to collaborate even more closely as we journey forward. On this note, I wish you all a fruitful morning ahead in today’s forum. 

23 Thank you very much.

[1] Outperformers: High-Growth Emerging Economies and the Companies that Propel Them. (McKinsey Global Institute, 2018) 

[2] ASEAN FOCUS, Quarterly Global Outlook 4Q2015. (UOB Global Economics & Market Research, 2015)