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03 Apr 2018

Striving for the Whole, a Connection, and a Virtuous Circle

Chairman PSC Mr Eddie Teo
Head, Civil Service Mr Leo Yip
Friends, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen

1.     It is a pleasure to join you tonight.

        a.   To those who are promoted or appointed tonight, congratulations.

Change and the Public Service

2.     DPM Teo is kind to suggest that I speak to you this year.

        a.   I will focus on how the Public Service can respond to the profound, accelerating changes we face.

        b.   I’ve been witness to some critical junctures in history, when the fate of a nation and its people could have taken very dramatic turns, depending on how we responded.

             i.   The Asian Financial Crisis, the onset of global terror, SARS, the Global Financial Crisis
             ii.   At the same time, we are seeing great advances in information and communications technology, science and medicine.

3.     We cannot predict the future, but we can see the shape of three major shifts in the years to come:

        a.   The rise of Asia, technological breakthroughs, and a shifting social landscape – each of these brings opportunities and challenges.

        b.   In Asia, China is transforming and has bold plans under its Belt and Road Initiative.Japan, South Korea and India are reforming their economies. Our ASEAN neighbours are also growing.
             i.   All Administrative Service Officers need to understand Asia and ASEAN better, so that Singapore can participate in and contribute to our region’s prosperity and stability.

        c.   Second, technology is changing the way we live, work and relate to one another.
             i.   We should review our policies and regulations in this light, and use technology proactively to increase productivity and the quality of life.

        d.  Third, ageing, changing aspirations and new or growing social divides pose implications that go beyond any single Ministry.
             i.   The Public Service must work as one integrated whole to build a society of fairness, trust, resilience and compassion.

A Whole, A Connection, A Circle

4.     The Public Service should study these major changes carefully. As leaders, you will have to rally your organisations to build a more future-ready Singapore.

        a.  Each of the organisations you run today is unique.Needs are ever-growing and -diversifying.

        b.  There are competing needs and divergent forces at work.We can respond with actions ranging from trade-offs to compromise to balance to synergy.

        c.  There is no model answer.It is up to us to understand and channel tensions and potential into functional, dynamic equilibriums where we can be effective in the present and ready for the future.

5.     I would like to share three ways we can harness these forces to help drive transformation in the Public Service and I would say Singapore, via: a Whole, a Connection, and a Circle:

        i.   The Whole (I mean an entirety, not a gap) is a Whole-of-Society Approach.

        ii.   The Connection is one between Strategic Vision and Sustained Innovation.

        iii.   The Circle is the Virtuous Circle of Good Politics and Good Policies.

A Whole of Society Approach

6.     Let me begin with the Whole.

7.     In 2012, the Public Service embarked on Public Sector Transformation with the vision to become “One Trusted Public Service with Citizens at the Centre”.

        a.   This has brought about tangible improvements, such as the Municipal Services Offices and the OneService app.

8.     Building on the progress in working as “Whole of Government” – we should take a “Whole of Society” approach, involving all parts of our society.

        a.   It unlocks new perspectives and draws in more good ideas.

        b.   It builds up citizens’ pride and sense of belonging to Singapore.

        c.   It engenders trust between the government and the people, and, just as important, between different segments of our society.

9.     In the 1980s, when I was in the Police, I was attached to the Japanese Police to learn more about their Koban system.

        a.   Then DPM Goh Keng Swee had done a review earlier and decided that we should pilot and scale this system in Singapore.

        b.   More progressive police forces in the west were studying the merits of community and problem-solving policing, moving away from the traditional ‘show of force’.

        c.   Police in the Koban system went out of their way to reach out and be helpful to the public.

             i.   Aiming to build a relationship of trust, getting the public to help prevent and solve crimes.

             ii.   This strong community-centred, involvement-based form of policing offered many useful lessons for our Neighbourhood Police Post, or NPP, system.

10.     A big part of my first job in the Police Force was to implement the NPPs.It was a paradigm shift.

        a.   We set up NPPs in several housing estates, to get police officers closer to the community, to get residents’ help to prevent and solve crimes. We had to reach out in creative ways.

        b.   It was such a sharp change that detectives then derided the NPP as ‘No Power Police’.But we persisted.

        c.   Just several years later, when I was Commander of Jurong Division, I had the pleasure of giving out appreciation plaques to members of the public for helping us, including many acts of bravery in physically arresting robbers and snatch thieves.

11.     When I reflected on this, I realised that community policing rests on one simple but profound insight.

        a.   The Police cannot be everywhere, every time, all the time.But our community, whom we are seeking to protect, can, almost!

       b.   Over 99% of people are law-abiding.

             i.   If this 99% are united against the 1% or fewer of potential criminals, we can achieve together what each of us alone cannot.

             ii.   To be united, we must build trust and consensus, both between the authority and citizens, and among citizens.

12.     This experience taught me the power of a Whole of Society approach.

        a.   It is not just about involving or collaborating with citizens.

             i.   It is about instilling a true sense of ownership and developing leadership at all levels, and building trust between all parts.

             ii.   In that process, the Whole of Society is a Whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

        b.   My colleagues and I keep working on taking this Whole of Society approach – in Our Singapore Conversation, the SG50 celebrations, SGfuture, and today with the Industry Transformation Maps or ITMs, the Community Networks for Seniors, and much else besides.

        c.   Though genuine ownership and leadership cannot be programmed, the Public Service should encourage and enable it, through a Whole of Society approach.

Connection between Vision and Innovation

13.     That is the Whole.I move on to the Connection – between Strategic Vision and Sustained Innovation. It is a connection where insight and action flow back and forth between the two, continually strengthening and refining both.

14.     At the Whole of Government level, we need to take a strategic long-term view, and adopt a long planning horizon.

        a.   Our ship of state is a small boat in a turbulent ocean. The more we read the waves, the better we can ride the waves and to prepare for the disruptions ahead.

        b.   For instance, we watch our population trends carefully, study similar phenomena elsewhere, and realise that we need to grow our health and social care systems for an ageing population.

             i.   To support this, we know we need the necessary resources, and hence, we are announcing ahead of time the need for tax increases.

             ii.   It is only with long-term strategic vision that we can scan the horizon ahead, study multiple scenarios, and draw our lessons from everywhere, well enough to prepare robustly now for the needs to come.

        c.   The Public Service must actively, continually cultivate this long-term strategic vision, and feed its implications into the public policy formulation process.

15.     At the same time, we should be humble and accept that, over a long horizon, there are many things we do not know, and many new developments that we cannot predict.

        a.   To develop responses for long term challenges, we need to pair a long-term strategic vision with a culture of innovation that is pervasive and disciplined, even as it is flexible and nimble.

        b.   I’ve spoken elsewhere on why Singapore businesses and institutions need to innovate.This applies to the public sector.

             i.   An innovative Public Service questions the status quo, considers what should be kept or changed, and experiments with new ways of doing its work.

16.     If I may add to Minister Ong Ye Kung’s innovation message to you last year, the public sector must develop its unique model of innovating, in fidelity to its responsibilities to the public.

        a.   Innovation will involve risk-taking, but we cannot simply adopt the start-up’s mantra of “Fail fast, learn fast”. 

             i.   If a start-up fails, it loses money and effort.

             ii.   If the public sector fails, it loses citizens’ trust, investor confidence, and more.There is a real effect on people’s lives.

        b.   This does not mean we do not take risks. Rather, the point is that there are demands on public sector innovation that we do not see on innovation in other contexts.

             i.   Citizens expect fair, consistent treatment to be able to pursue their aspirations and care for their families.

             ii.   Investors need long-term certainty and consistency to invest the long-term capital that creates jobs and growth.

        c.   Citizens, investors, and the long-term vitality of the nation require a public sector that is both strategic and innovative.

17.     This is the Connection between Vision and Innovation, unique and critical to the business of governance. It is an artery of exchange – of intuition, insight, action – between the disciplines of planning for the strategic long-term future, and building the capabilities to meet that future.

A strategic vision suggests where innovation should be concentrated, while maintaining a strict standard over the duty of Government to be reliable, fair and consistent.

Sustained innovation pilots and scales new ways of doing things in critical areas, and feeds its new ideas and lessons to continually refine the strategic vision.

18.     How do we activate such a connection? Let me suggest a few things:

        a.   One, develop a strong collective sense of the strategic issues that require deep focus, and identify major areas of interagency overlap that need special attention.

        b.   Two, develop the ability to scale quickly where pilots prove successful.

        c.   Three, harness the talent and innovative capacity in the Whole of Government and Whole of Society, and learn and adapt from around the world.

        d.   Four, follow through.I have seen good innovative pilots in many agencies, but to achieve impact, we need to drive wider adoption and scaling.

19.     In many ways, our Public Service is doing this already.

        a.   I spoke about the NPPs being a major breakthrough in our policing.

        b.   Our Police Commissioner updates me that, public-assisted arrests been sustained at over 30%, and Police have built on and sustained the innovation

             i.   Using social media to reach out to citizens,

            ii.   And with new concepts like Neighbourhood Police Centre NPCs, the Community Policing System COPS, and the SGSecure movement.

20.     As an example of this connection, the Ministry of Education is piloting and scaling new ways to facilitate students’ learning.

        a.   When I was in MOE, we visited Silicon Valley to study innovations in edutech.

             i.   Studying others’ innovations, and looking to the future of learning and jobs, we came away convinced that we could integrate new learning technology with our strengths in pedagogy and teacher quality, to take education in Singapore to a different level, preparing our young for a new strategic future.

             ii.   We piloted the Student Learning Space to enable ICT-enriched, student-centric learning, supported by quality MOE-designed curricula.

             iii.   It is an example of being strategic, taking the big picture, and being innovative.

        b.   Beyond technology, we also explored how to help students learn skills better, by enabling students to learn at work, through real life situations and projects.

        i.   I asked SMS Indranee to lead the ASPIRE review on ITE and Polytechnic education.She and her team did an outstanding job.

        ii.   What we piloted was so encouraging that the Government enlarged it to now SkillsFuture. 

Virtuous Circle of Good Politics and Good Policies

21.     Let me move on, from Whole of Society and the Connection between Vision and Innovation, to the Circle – the Virtuous Circle between Good Politics and Good Policies.

22.     Preparing for this speech, I thought about the old BBC sitcom Yes, Minister.

        a.   I have filled the roles at different times of each of the main characters – Jim Hacker the Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby his Permanent Secretary, and Bernard Woolley the Minister’s PPS.

        b.   Yes, Minister gets its humour from the dysfunctionality that arises when there is no trust between politicians and public servants,

             i.   With a Minister who is forever caught up in fighting short-term issues;

             ii.   A PS who is more occupied with maintaining turf than serving the public; and,

             iii.   A poor PPS caught in between,

             iv.   None of them quite focused on the larger national task.

        c.   We are very lucky that, in Singapore, we don’t have this situation.Our Public Service and political leadership share two critical things: Common cause and trust.

23.     Our common cause is service to the people, and nation-building.

        a.   Like me, many of you are in the Public Service because you believe in being of service.

        b.   Over the years, I have worked with many inspiring leaders – both politicians and civil servants – those I worked for, those I worked with, and those who worked for me – whose examples have won my respect and deepened my own commitment to this cause.

             i.   As a civil servant, I could focus on my work with absolute confidence that my duty was to do what is right and good, not for any one personality or group, but for Singapore and Singaporeans.
             ii.   What I did translated into better lives for Singaporeans when I was a civil servant.

        c.   I hope both the political leadership and our public sector leadership will continue to keep our common cause of public service and nation-building.

24.     Our trust is something grown out of years of joint, ceaseless effort in service of our common cause.

        a.   The political leadership trusts that the non-partisan civil service serves the Government of the day, by formulating and implementing sound policies that serve our citizens and strengthen our nation.

        b.    And the civil service trusts that the political leadership has your back, that the political leadership will put all its effort into winning and keeping the people’s trust so that public servants can continue to do your work with utmost integrity.

25.     Together, these allow a Virtuous Circle of Good Politics and Good Policies.

26.     When I was a PS, I joined my Minister George Yeo to call on his counterpart in another country.

        a.   George spoke passionately about the long-term trends coming, and sought to persuade his counterpart to participate in a regional initiative to address them.

        b.   After sharing his views on the idea, the Minister in the other country said, “Tell me George – how do you have the time to think about the future? I am spending all my time politicking. I even have to watch my back against members of my own party – some have no hesitation to stab me in the back and take my job!”

        c.   This exchange left a very deep impression on me.I make no judgments about circumstances elsewhere, but I deeply appreciate the unique conditions that we have, to enable us to do the right things.

27.     This calls to mind an exchange I had with Minister Mentor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.I was not in politics then.

        a.   I told him I really enjoyed being a civil servant, as our work could make a difference to people’s lives.

        b.   MM, in his usual to-the-point manner, said, “You are able to do the right things only because our politics is right.Don’t take that for granted.The political leadership must win and keep the people’s trust. I have been striving, over the years, to explain to Singaporeans the hard truths that we must face, and to persuade them on what we must do, to secure our place in the world. Without the trust and support of our people, your hard work would not amount to much.”

        c.   Mr Lee was not running me down as a civil servant. He was in a very reflective mood, seeking to pass on his wisdom.

28.     A few years before that exchange, I had an encounter that taught me much.

        a.   I was accompanying Mr Lee on his trip to the Davos Conference.As there was a free slot one evening, I attended an NGO gathering.

        b.   NGOs from around the world presented their work. I was most impressed by an urban planner who had led efforts to build a small community in her city, complete with infrastructure and social services.

        c.   I asked her, “Why don’t you scale this throughout the city, or even better, throughout the country?” She shook her head sadly, and said, “I cannot. The politics in my country is broken.”I left the meeting feeling very sad.   

        d.   That encounter, as well as my conversation with MM, left an indelible impression on me.

             i.   It affected me as a PPS, it stayed with me as a PS, and it guides my work now as a Minister.

29.     Singapore civil servants have the ability to do their work fairly, excellently, with integrity, without having to take partisan sides, because our politicians work on the good politics to create the space for this.

        a.   The political leadership wins its mandate from the people, on the promise that the Government will make and implement good policies in service to the people.

        b.   When the political leadership succeeds in guiding and working with the public sector to deliver good policies for the people, our mandate is strengthened.

        c.   With a stronger mandate, the political leadership can better ensure the good politics that create the space for public servants to formulate good policies.

        d.   This is the Virtuous Circle of Good Politics and Good Policies.It is a rare, precious, and fragile thing.Its value to our people and what it brings to our young nation is incalculable. Beyond appreciating it, we must each play our part in it, and our part to safeguard and strengthen it.


30.     To conclude, I’ve offered today some ideas of how to prepare for the major shifts ahead.

        a.   The Administrative Service has a responsibility to work with the elected Government to serve every citizen with excellence, consistency, fairness and empathy, and to ensure bright prospects for future generations of Singaporeans.

       b.   Public sector transformation can be guided by:

             i.   Taking a Whole of Society approach;

             ii.   Making a Connection between Strategic Vision and Sustained Innovation; and,

             iii.   Keeping up our Virtuous Circle of Good Politics and Good Policies.

31.     On a personal note, I would like to thank Peter, Shing Kwok and Tee How for their years of distinguished service.We have worked together for many years.The Public Service looks forward to your continued service and mentorship to younger officers.Instead of wishing you “Happy Retirement”, let me say, “Happy Second Phase!”

32.     It has been a pleasure sharing these thoughts with all of you.I hope to hear your views too.

        a.   Earlier, I shared what MM told me, as a civil servant then, that I must not take for granted the good politics that politicians worked on to give me space to work on good policies.I took his words to heart.

        b.   Today, as a politician, I can share with you that, equally, I do not take for granted the good policies produced by our capable and committed public officers.I am proud of our Public Service and the Administrative Service.I respect and appreciate your role in our Virtuous Circle, I am happy to hear and learn from your views, especially when you disagree with me and have a strong reason for it, and I sincerely look forward to continuing to work with you – in a relationship of mutual respect, responsibility and readiness to learn – in service to Singapore and Singaporeans.

33.     Thank you.