27 October 2015 Speeches

Speech by Mr Peter Ong, Head, Civil Service, at the Public Service Leadership Dinner






Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Chairman and Members of the Public Service Commission

Friends and Colleagues

Ladies and Gentlemen


Good evening. Allow me to add my words of welcome to you to our second Public Service Leadership Dinner.


2. I would like to begin by congratulating the 120 officers who have been appointed to the Public Service Leadership Programme or PSLP this year. Since I spoke at last year’s inaugural dinner, the PSLP has grown in strength. Today, we have 695 officers in both the General and Sectoral Phases, many of whom are in-service nominees. There are also many more statutory board officers in the programme, coming from a total of 33 statutory boards. The expansion of the PSLP has allowed a wider range of leaders to benefit from more systematic leadership development, and we look forward to bringing even more officers onto the programme.


A Critical Time for Government


3. Today, we are at a critical time in history for the Government. This is for three reasons. First, we celebrated SG50 this year. This gave us a chance to reflect on our history and the reasons that made Singapore strong. It also helped us to renew our sense of mission and commitment to Singapore’s future, as one people and as one Public Service. Second, our people have given the Government a strong mandate at the recent General Elections for the next five-year term. Third, we have a new Cabinet, and PM has shared four priority areas, with leadership renewal as a key objective.


4.  What does this mean for us in the Public Service? How can we best sustain the momentum of SG50 to work with Singaporeans in building a brighter future? Over the past few years, we have invested time and effort to explore new ways of connecting with and engaging citizens to understand their needs. We have implemented policies in a targeted and integrated fashion, including improving service delivery. In the years ahead, we must continue these investments. We must never cease to find new ways to harness the energies and ideas of our citizenry, while meeting the needs of our diverse population in a rapidly changing environment.


A Changing Environment


5. In the broader landscape, we see the dramatic pace of strategic ruptures taking place all around the world. The sudden tsunami of refugees into Europe, the collapse of commodity prices in a short period, the spread of the ISIS, the Russian seizure of Crimea, the unprecedented cyber-attack on Sony, to name a few. Closer to home, our immediate neighbours also face global headwinds which pose risks to their economic outlook. Indonesia has not managed to inoculate itself from weaker growth and growing unemployment. The haze blanketing the region is caused by fires in peatlands that seem not to be easily tamed.  Malaysia has been affected by commodity prices and rising cost of living. We must not forget that our small, open economy is closely intertwined with theirs. How will they respond, and how will that in turn affect us?


6. These changes, and those that just over the horizon, will likely present us with unique dilemmas, given our context, as DPM has earlier described.


Role of Public Service Leaders


7.  To adapt successfully to meet these challenges, we must appreciate the importance of building our future together - firstly, the citizenry with one another, secondly, the Government with the people. What does this mean for you in the PSLP who are aspiring to become Public Service leaders? What capabilities must you have to perform effectively? As Public Service leaders, we will need to be able to manage in diversity, collaborate as a team, and build for the future.


Managing in Diversity


8.  We must be cognisant of the tremendous changes that create diversity in our population.  Diversity can be a source of strength but it is also difficult to manage in diversity. It takes more time, requires a more nuanced take on policies and requires us as public officers to hold competing interests and tensions at the same time. Solutions may sometimes not be clear cut, and the pursuit of common cause for all parties can be an evolving process with no firm destination.  We will need both the courage to make tough decisions, and the empathy to understand when it might not be prudent to impose a one-size-fits-all solution. The need for constant communications will be ever present, and fostering partnership with the people will be a key skill.


9. We must also stay anchored on sound values which will serve as a compass in such ambiguous times, and lay the foundation of trust with all we interact with. Last year, I described our evergreen core values of Integrity, Service and Excellence, which must continue to be at the centre of our work.




10.  At the swearing-in of the new Cabinet, PM spoke about the more complex and cross-cutting challenges that will confront us in the new phase of nation building.  As the challenges we face become more complex, single agency solutions will become less adequate.


11. We have made efforts to optimise and improve coordination.  For example, the PMO Strategy Group was set up in July this year, to help join the dots across government and partner Ministries in strengthening whole-of-government coordination on priority areas. But in order for the Public Service to function as one, we need to truly collaborate.


12. Because of the way we are organised, different agencies can often use different vocabulary and perceive the world rather differently. Our communications within our organisations tend to be far richer than those that straddle our organisational boundaries.  In a world where information flow is so rapid, we should learn to treat our partners in another organisation no differently when it comes to sharing of perspectives and information.  Collaboration occurs at a higher level than coordination or cooperation. Coordination helps manage overlaps and cooperation enables support for each other’s objectives when they are aligned.  But collaboration occurs when agencies come together to jointly develop solutions to support shared whole-of-government objectives. This may involve trade-offs for some agencies, but as a whole we will be better off. As part of the PSLP, you will be able to participate in Sectoral Inter-Agency Projects which help you understand the trade-offs that need to be made across different agencies, and how to work better across them. You should take every chance to participate in them, and create value beyond your agency and across your sector.


Building Together for the Future


13. There is a Chinese saying that we enjoy the shade of trees planted and cared for by those before us. As we enjoy the fruits of the labour of the early generation of Public Service leaders, do not forget to sow the seeds for future generations. In this year of SG50, we have seen a resurgence of sentiments and reflections about our collective future. The passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew also gave us pause to not only look back to our founding years, but also to our collective future.  In the spirit of building our future together, we must learn to frame our challenge as a collective one that both Government and people will have to confront and surmount together. And we must draw on the collective resources and ingenuity of everyone in our society to seize the many opportunities too. We must make it possible for all to add their contributions as we write the future chapters of our nation’s development together.  


Developing sectoral leaders


14.  To support you in this leadership journey, the Public Service Leadership Programme can play a big part in strengthening the infrastructure to help you develop as sectoral leaders.


Sectoral competency frameworks


15.   Last year I spoke about how we had started to articulate the experiences and training you needed to develop as a leader in your sector.


16.   Over the past year, our colleagues at PSD have worked with sector leaders and agencies to develop and pilot the sectoral competency framework. With this framework, you will be better able to identify the knowledge and skills needed at each stage of your career to support your sector in achieving its goals. It will help you understand your strengths and areas for improvement, chart your careers, and take ownership of your own development. I have heard that some officers were involved in intense three to four hour interviews, and many took part in focus groups to refine the framework. It is indeed a community effort and I applaud the leaders and HR officers who have dedicated time to this.


17.  We will do more to support your career development. Through career conversations with you, we will help you identify the possible roles you can aspire to and advise on the experiences and training you need to get there. Your HR will help source for challenging posting opportunities that provide you with the exposure you need to grow into future leadership roles. All General Phase officers already receive postings to another agency, and close to 10% of Sectoral Phase officers were posted to another agency in the last year. We will also review courses at Civil Service College and other training institutes, so you can develop the required capabilities. The Permanent Secretaries overseeing your sector have started discussing the career plans of PSLP officers to manage talent at the sector level.


18. The feedback from the pilot with a small group of agencies (e.g. MND, MHA, MTI, MSF and PSD) has been encouraging. You can expect to learn more about the framework in the next few months. In 2016, we hope to kick start the career conversations with you.


Sectoral milestone programmes


19.  Last year, I also spoke about the launch of sectoral milestone programmes for the Central Administration, Infrastructure & Environment, and Security sectors.  The feedback has been very positive. For example, participants from the Infrastructure & Environment sector said they now better appreciate the value of working across agencies and with the public we serve. They also better understand the challenges different ministries and agencies face. Over time, we can learn to appreciate each other’s possible contributions and also how we can help each other achieve our objectives given our resource constraints.


20.  This year, we launched milestone programmes for the remaining two sectors, Social and Economy Building. These too have been successful. For instance, social sector participants acquired a stronger understanding of how one agency’s work could impact other agencies. They also learnt that many agencies faced very similar challenges. I am sure these themes are common across all your sectors. They serve to highlight the potential to act as One Public Service.


21. We hope that the programmes will continue to deliver both the knowledge and relevant skills to help you become strong sector leaders. They will also help you build networks and community so you find it easier to collaborate. As we all know, it is always easier to get work done when you know the person on the other side of the phone or email.


Concluding Remarks


22. These initiatives will develop you as sector leaders across the span of your careers and allow you to better understand emerging issues quickly and develop solutions for them. It is my hope that you will be better equipped to carve out workable strategies that take us into the future. Your deep roots in specialist communities will allow you to pull together people, knowledge and resources to work collaboratively across government for the best outcomes. This is an important but challenging role to play – moving across worlds, and bringing people together for the greater good.


23. As we celebrate SG50, let us not forget to continue building upon the legacy of our pioneers. The task ahead will not be easy, but — like our pioneers — we cannot be daunted. We will work together and build a better tomorrow. A tomorrow that Singaporeans 50 years from now will look upon and be proud of.


24. Thank you.