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Speech By Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance At The 2014 Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony

26 Mar 2014


DPM Teo Chee Hean and my other Cabinet colleagues
Chairman and Members of the Public Service Commission
Head of Civil Service
Ladies and Gentlemen


1. I would first like to congratulate the officers who have been promoted, and those who have been appointed into the Administrative Service.

2. This is also a fitting occasion to pay tribute to two permanent secretaries who have recently retired from the Administrative Service.

3. Mr Chiang Chie Foo retired from the Administrative Service after 32 years of outstanding public service. He served in key positions, including as Director, ISD where he strengthened ISD’s capabilities and operational effectiveness; as PS (Education) where he oversaw the review and implementation of key policies affecting all levels of education; as PS (PMO) where he looked after population issues and challenges and oversaw the setting up of the National Population and Talent Division; and as PS (Defence) where he oversaw 3G SAF and greater recognition for NSmen amongst other key developments. We look forward to Chie Foo’s continuing contributions, now as Chairman of the CPF Board.

4. Mr Bilahari Kausikan retired from the Administrative Service after a distinguished 31 year career at MFA. Bilahari represented Singapore overseas as our Ambassador to Russia, the United Nations, Canada and Mexico. He defended Singapore’s interests at the UN, laying the groundwork for our historic election as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. Bilahari also served 13 years as PS (Foreign Affairs) where he was instrumental in the successful negotiations with Malaysia on the Points of Agreement, as well as fostering closer ties with the US and our ASEAN neighbours. We look forward to Bilahari’s continued contributions as Ambassador-at-large and Policy Advisor at MFA.


5. We concluded the Budget and Committee of Supply Debate two weeks ago. We have embarked on new directions in our economic and social strategies, focused on achieving quality growth, that helps uplift all Singaporeans, and on ensuring that ours is an inclusive society. We are restructuring our economy to enable sustained improvement of incomes; opening up new opportunities for the young; we are honouring our Pioneer Generation; and we are giving more assurance to the seniors of tomorrow. Beyond these long term policy commitments, we are also working hard in Government to address immediate challenges, in housing supply and the capacity of our public transport system.  
6. These are each major policy priorities aimed at improving the well-being of Singaporeans. They will occupy us for years to come, and we must put full effort into implementing them well.

7. However, underlying this policy agenda is a broader challenge, of retaining public trust in Government in a new and more challenging social and economic environment.

8. It is a challenge all around the world. Trust in governments has fallen in many countries in recent years, possibly because of declining economic well-being, a growing sense of polarisation in society, and the lack of effective government responses.

9. The Edelman Barometer of Trust has been tracking public trust in governments for more than a decade in a range of countries from Sweden to Singapore - they survey 1,000 people in each country each year[1]. Public trust in most governments, and in government leaders, has fallen. In more than half of the countries surveyed last year, the majority of their populations no longer trust governments to do what is right .

10. Fortunately, trust in government as an institution, as well as trust in government leaders, has remained significantly higher in Singapore in recent years than for the global average in this survey. This is consistent with the findings from the large-scale OSC survey that we did in 2012 - where a large majority of Singaporeans were of the view that the Government was managing Singapore well and addressing the longer-term challenges facing the country. However, a smaller majority felt that the Government understood the concerns of the people or explained policies well, indicating room for improvement in these areas.

11. We cannot read too much into perception surveys, or take too much comfort from them. But the broad conclusions are clear enough. We operate today from a position of broad public confidence in the Government, and equally, we have to work hard to keep this trust in Government that has been built up over the years. Nothing is permanent, and the ease with which trust has slipped in many countries is a warning.

12. No government can function effectively without the trust of the public. But it also matters more for us in Singapore, compared to larger and older countries. If we fail to manage public trust, and if we end up with the deep scepticism about government seen in many other countries, it will reduce our space for manoeuvre, both in making difficult domestic policy decisions in Singaporeans’ long term interests and in managing our external relations. The civil service, working with political leaders, must therefore do all we can to preserve and build on public trust in Government.

Governing in a new environment: more contest of ideas and higher expectations

13. We have to do this in a more complex environment. There are more diverse and competing interests in the population. Ideas are more robustly contested, and views are often expressed stridently and with little circumspection. These are new and very likely permanent facts. It is a new environment. We have to respond with confidence, and consider alternative thinking or cogent critiques with an open mind. We must at the same time keep a sense of balance and direction: every alternative is worth considering, but not everything goes.

14. Expectations too are shifting. People’s expectations of what they want to achieve in life have risen dramatically in Singapore, and continue to rise. There is nothing surprising in this. Most international evidence shows that as people experience improved conditions, they become accustomed to them and then aspire for something better. In Singapore, a younger generation has grown up very differently in almost every regard - the education they receive, the housing and neighbourhoods they grow up in, and the job and career opportunities they have in front of them. Their expectations are vastly different from previous generations, and quite understandably. 

15. It is not a bad thing that Singaporean’s expectations have gone up, even if it makes governing more challenging. If everyone was happy with what we have in Singapore, nothing improves. So, while no government can ensure that every personal aspiration is achieved, or that every expectation of public services can be met, we are better off with rising expectations than in countries where people have to simply count their blessings. We have to respond to rising expectations, strive to improve public services and innovate wherever possible to meet them, and at the same time explain clearly why some expectations cannot realistically be met by government - or why they can only be met at significantly higher cost or downsides to the public.

16. To retain public trus t and govern well in this new environment, we must pay special attention to three areas of governance: first, implementing policies well and making sure they work as intended on the ground; second, including the public more in working out solutions; and third, investing in community life and the intangibles that matter to people’s sense of well-being. I will talk briefly about each of these.


17. First, implementing policies effectively must be the bread and butter - and the jam - of the Public Service. Policy is implementation. People will believe what they see and experience, not what is announced as policy intent. 

18. DPM Teo spoke about this two years ago at this Administrative Service Dinner. PM emphasised the same at last year’s Dinner. Head of Civil Service has just made the same point.

19. It is absolutely critical:

- that we consult widely when formulating policy;
- put ourselves in the shoes of the ordinary citizen and anticipate concerns before we finalise policy design;
- pay attention to every detail of implementation;
- remedy mistakes quickly when they happen, and make improvements whenever we see gaps;
- and explain our policies in ways that help Singaporeans understand them and benefit from them.

20. The Pioneer Generation package is a live case in point. We spent months listening to views before finalising the package - views on who should be included in the Pioneer Generation, whether we should differentiate benefits according to how well-off a member is, and what benefits would matter most to the members of the Pioneer Generation. Not everyone had the same view. Some for example felt that benefits should be differentiated according to a person’s means, consistent with our broader approach to government transfers, but others felt that members of the Pioneer Generation should not be treated in our usual way. We eventually had to decide, and the Government felt that it was right to honour the Pioneers equally, given their special contributions to building the nation.

21. Implementing the PG package will be a major and complex exercise, involving everything from a major effort to reach out to 450,000 Singaporeans, many of whom do not read the newspapers or watch the TV news; to training healthcare workers, those in the social services and volunteers who will come into contact with them; and to designing and integrating IT systems to ensure a smooth experience when a member of the Pioneer Generation comes in for consultation or treatment at one of the many touchpoints in the healthcare system. It is a major exercise.

22. The Government has therefore set up a taskforce co-led by SMS Josephine Teo and SMS Amy Khor to coordinate this major effort. They will among other things look into programmes to train volunteers for face-to-face outreach to our Pioneers. New approaches will be tried out, and some have begun. For example, several Advisors have organised sessions where dialects have been used in addition to our main languages to explain how they can benefit from the PG package.

23. More than for almost any other policy, it is important that we communicate the PG package effectively. We must ensure that our Pioneers, and their families, understand the benefits and are assured of the Government’s special support for them, so that they never fear going for treatment. It is a unique challenge, and we must do this well in the months to come.


24. There is considerable scope yet to include the public in solving problems that matter to them. This is an increasingly important aspect of governance, because the problems and challenges are becoming increasingly complex and many of our citizens can and want to contribute to helping to tackle both municipal and national issues.

25.  Let me highlight three ways in which we are including citizens more - in designing policy solutions and implementing them.

26. First, we can do more to involve people in providing feedback on municipal and local problems and issues. Mobile phone technology will be a game-changer. LTA is one of several agencies which now have phone apps allowing the public to provide real-time feedback. MyTransport.SG gets roughly 10 feedbacks a day, and I am sure the number will grow. MOM has received feedback on Snap @ MOM of more than 2,000 instances since it launched the app in 2012, of what people mostly felt were unsafe or problematic work practices. These new channels for people to contribute give the Government the reach that it cannot on its own achieve, and to respond quickly to rectify problems when they occur.

27. Second, we can do more to co-create with citizens: harnessing the expertise and experience of the people and private sectors in finding solutions or developing new programmes to benefit Singaporeans. 

28. The library @ chinatown, the first NLB library to be run by volunteers, is a small but good example of such collaboration. As part of SG50, a Celebration Fund has been set up to support Singaporeans who wish to initiate or play a direct role in programmes, such as in understanding our past and reliving our heritage, recognising the Singaporeans whom they feel have contributed to the country, or bringing people together for a future cause.

29. We are also using crowd-sourcing to throw up new solutions. NEA, for example, held two hackathons last year on clean and green issues. HDB’s annual “Cool Ideas for Better HDB Living” event brings the public together to solve daily challenges faced by residents and improve the living environment. This year’s initiative will start this Saturday, so I urge members of the public to take part and contribute. We will also make it easier for people to join such platforms. MOF and IDA will be launching a one-stop portal that will bring the crowd-sourcing competitions of various agencies together. We will also proactively share data to support the independent development of apps by the community and businesses.

30. Another area of collaboration with the private sector is in the evaluation of business proposals in search of Government support, such as grants. Smaller entrepreneurs sometimes feel they “reach a wall” following the rejections of their grant applications. Our public officers are business-friendly, but are not in the business themselves, and the entrepreneur may feel that the merits of his or her proposal have not been fully appreciated. Some young entrepreneurs recently suggested an appeals process where senior and trusted businesspersons can be brought in to assess their proposals and make recommendations to the government agencies. We have in fact been seeking the views of business persons for applications for start-up financing grants. SPRING will take this approach further. It will pilot an appeals panel involving business persons for several of its assistance schemes for businesses. Naturally, decisions on actual award of grants can only be made by the government agencies. If this SPRING pilot works, we can extend it to some other government agencies.

31. A third area is the new way in which we are involving the people sector in delivery of social services. We are decentralising social service delivery, bringing soc ial care for disadvantaged families and aged and disability care closer to the ground. We will have 20 Social Service Offices (SSOs) around the island by 2016, to coordinate social assistance to lower income families. We are also expanding our network of Senior Care Centres (SCCs), which provide the elderly with day care and day rehabilitation services, and the Senior Activity Centres (SACs) which provide recreational and referral services to our lower-income elderly in rental flats - altogether a doubling of capacity for such services on the ground over the next six years. It amounts to a quiet transformation in social services - how they are delivered, and how they are felt by people on the ground. Not least among the benefits will be better networking on the ground amongst volunteers, VWOs, healthcare providers and government agencies, and a way to develop not just ‘many helping hands’ but ‘stronger helping hands’ in the process.


32. A third area of governance that we must pay attention to is the support and investment in community life, shared spaces and the intangibles that matter to people’s well-being. Here too, there is much potential for new partnerships between government and community.

33.  Having good and purposeful jobs, and achieving better incomes over time remain fundamental to people’s interests in Singapore as it is all around the world. We can never lose sight of that, as the problems in even the most advanced countries show.

34. But there are many other things that matter to people’s sense of well-being, even if they do so in a less measurable way. Having green and blue spaces in or near the neighbourhood which everyone can enjoy; the continuity of place and identity that gives people a natural sense of home; the feeling of being in a close-knit community, where no one goes lonely; and the everyday security that comes from our high standards of law and order.

35. And perhaps above all, giving everyone the opportunity to achieve their own promise in life, with bridges and ladders all along the way to help them develop themselves, sometimes well after they leave school, or to pursue a new interest. Not only because it can improve employability, which it usually does, but because it gives people a sense of fulfilment. 

36. These are things that do not have market prices, but we know they matter to the quality of life. We have to pay attention to these less tangible dimensions of individual and collective well-being, and not assume that they matter less because their impact cannot be measured. 


37. We are better placed than most as a Public Service. We have an efficient and well-run system, and an economy that gives us the resources to improve lives. Our job, as political leaders and civil servants, is to build on our strengths, keep our humility as we serve, and include people more as we go about governing. Then we can meet the needs and aspirations of Singaporeans, help them achieve the most in life, and build a Singapore that endures and thrives.



[1] Trust in government fell below 50% in 17 of the 27 countries reported in the 2014 Edelman Barometer of Trust. Singapore was among the 10 countries where a majority still trusted government.