Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Annual Administrative Service Dinner and Appointment & Promotion Ceremony on 28 March 2023.
Chairman and Members of the Public Service Commission,
Head of Civil Service and Permanent Secretaries,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for having me at this year’s Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony.
I am sure everyone is super happy to be able to gather like this as a community, because I understand it is the first time since 2019 that you have been able to have a sit-down dinner together.
Over the last three years, all of you and your colleagues in the Public Service played crucial roles in our nation’s fight against Covid.
It was truly the crisis of a generation, it was a crisis unlike any other, threatening our lives and livelihoods.
The Admin Service and the broader Public Service rallied together as one to confront the crisis – you came up with innovative solutions, you implemented unprecedented measures amidst tight deadlines and limited resources, and you partnered effectively with the people and private sectors throughout these last three years.
Tonight, I’d like to acknowledge your contributions, hard work and sacrifices. Without your courage and tenacity, our fight against Covid would have turned out very differently and we would not be here tonight. So thank you to all of you!
The virus is of course, still amongst us, and no one can tell how it will evolve. But we have now fully transitioned to living with Covid-19 as an endemic disease. That’s why we decided to publish the White Paper on the lessons from our experiences so far, and to have a full debate in Parliament recently. We must now follow-up on the lessons, and improve our strategies and crisis management systems, so that we can be better prepared for the next wave, or the next pandemic which will surely come in a matter of time.
Tonight, I’d also like to acknowledge the contributions of Mr Chew Hock Yong, who has retired after 31 years of distinguished service.
Hock Yong and I were colleagues at MOF many years ago, when he was then Director of Budget -- to be technically correct, he was my direct Reporting Officer and, luckily for me, he was an excellent boss. Since then, he has assumed a wide range of leadership appointments, and made major contributions to the Public Service.
At the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, Hock Yong played a key role in Singapore’s successful hosting of the inaugural Youth Olympics Games in 2010. Subsequently, as the Chief Executive of LTA, he helped to improve the reliability and service quality of our public transport infrastructure. He later went over to the Ministry of National Development where he established the Municipal Services Office.
More recently, he has been at MHA and MSF, where he oversaw the establishment of the Home Team Science and Technology Agency, set up ComLink, and implemented emergency social support measures to help Singaporeans through Covid.
On behalf of the government, I would like to thank Hock Yong for his contributions and for serving with unwavering dedication all these years.
Let me also congratulate the 17 officers appointed to the Admin Service and 83 colleagues who have been promoted today. As you take on greater responsibilities, I hope that all of you will continue to serve with the same commitment and drive for excellence that your predecessors have demonstrated. Let’s give a big round of applause as well.
Moving Forward in a Changing World
I’d like to focus the rest of my remarks tonight on what we must do to chart our new way forward in our next phase of nation building. My message is one of change and continuity, there are some things we will have to do differently from the past as we navigate a new environment. But there are also many fundamentals that we have to uphold and this includes a strong and cohesive Public Service, and also a close partnership between the Public Service and political leadership.
We are entering an increasingly troubled and dangerous world, everyone can see that.
The war in Ukraine is not likely to end soon, and how it unfolds will have continued implications for the sovereignty and security of countries everywhere.
Great power rivalry between America and China continues to gather force. And in fact, it has taken a more confrontational turn since the start of the year.
And here in Asia, there are flashpoints like Taiwan, where near misses are happening more frequently, and where accidents and miscalculations can easily escalate into conflict.
And amidst this backdrop, the world’s major powers are more focused on advancing their own interests, rather than promoting mutual interdependence or strengthening the multilateral system. Countries are increasingly turning inwards, prioritising security concerns over economic logic. Left unchecked, and if these trends continue, we will see a more dangerous dynamic of economic nationalism and protectionism around the world.
As a small, open economy reliant on trade, these developments will impact us greatly. If Singapore is to continue to thrive, we will need an effective Government – one that can continue to think ahead, plan and invest for the long term, while remaining agile and nimble, and being able to adapt to new challenges as they arise.
Leadership Renewal and Development
A key pillar in effective government is our Public Service. To maintain a high-quality Service, we will in turn need to ensure a steady pace of leadership renewal, and develop a healthy pipeline of future leaders
Indeed, over the past few years, several senior Permanent Secretaries have retired. One-fifth of our Senior Public Service Leaders are already in their mid-to-late 50s. So we will see more retirements over the coming years.
At the same time, we are starting to see the next batch of leaders take on bigger responsibilities. For example, over the past 5 years, we have appointed 33 new Senior Public Service Leaders.
It can be unsettling and difficult to see experienced officers who have proven their reliability and worth leave the organisation. But leadership renewal is necessary for any organisation to remain healthy and sustainable. This applies to the Public Service, and especially the Admin Service, where we continue to recruit vigorously and bring in young talents to serve our nation, including through scholarships and green harvesting programmes. So as we bring in these young officers, we also have to ensure that the promising ones are able to progress in their careers, and take on larger responsibilities over time.
This is why the Admin Service has a deliberate process of renewal for senior leadership appointments.
In the past, senior leaders would typically retire in their mid-to-late 50s.
Nowadays with rising life expectancy, people stay at work for longer. And so in recent years the Service has started extending the tenure of senior leaders to age 60.
It also continues to find other meaningful ways for retired senior leaders to contribute, so that the Government can still benefit from their valuable expertise and experience.
This is how the Admin Service, and the Public Service more generally, have struck a balance between giving its officers meaningful careers, and renewing itself and its leadership. If the turnover in leadership is done too quickly, we will lose good people unnecessarily. But if it is done too slowly, the organisation will become too settled, and young capable officers will not have space to grow and take on key leadership positions, as they mature in their careers.
I encourage the Admin Service to continue with your efforts in leadership renewal. You have been preparing for this transition for many years. The newly appointed leaders have been working alongside senior PSes and Chief Executives for some time – learning the ropes from them as well as receiving guidance. Let us press on with these efforts, while balancing the competing demands I spoke about just now. In time, I am confident the next generation of leaders will mature and come into their own.
At the same time, the Admin Service must continue to expand the range of development and training opportunities for your officers, to better equip and prepare them for future leadership roles.
We do need to give some focus and pay deliberate attention to doing so. That means being able to periodically pull back from the daily work, from the constant fighting of fires we do everyday, to reflect, learn and develop our people.
We should also recognise that as organisations develop and mature over time, there will be a tendency for job roles to become more specialised.
When I was in MOF years ago, the then-PS Lim Siong Guan would share with younger officers his experiences and views. He was the PS at MINDEF in his thirties, and took on a wide range of responsibilities. We were amazed at what he was doing at such a young age. Of course, this reflected our society at that time – we were a newly independent country with a much younger population, and institutions were not yet well established.
Over the decades, in tandem with Singapore’s development, our needs have grown, and the Public Service has also evolved and strengthened its capabilities considerably. As a result, we have more robust processes and protocols, which is a good thing, and also more specialised job roles.
Take budget preparation at MOF for example. In the past, one officer was responsible for helping prepare the Finance Minister’s Budget speech. He had to do everything from speech writing to sourcing for key data and examples, on top of his regular work responsibilities.
Today, the Budget Speech at MOF is still largely staffed by one officer but there are a few other officers from different domains supporting him. It has become a Budget Team. Other teams are also assigned to work on an expanding list of duties, reflecting the greater intensity, depth and diversity of functions that need to be taken care of, from developing the accompanying visuals and the collaterals to engaging different groups, and even to source for the right examples to convey the key messages.
It is just a very small illustration. But I think it reflects a broader trend across the Public Service. From an organisational perspective, this is completely understandable. Greater depth of expertise and specialisation enables us to better deal with complexity. It allows officers to achieve higher quality and efficiency in every task, and gives them the space to hone their depth and expertise. But as organisations move in this direction, they also create more reporting structures and layers. All this results in younger officers getting less exposure in terms of the scope of responsibilities and breadth of work.
This trade-off is something that the Service needs to be conscious of and manage carefully. Even as we fine-tune our job roles and processes to make Government administration more effective, we must also ensure promising officers retain sufficient opportunities to be exposed to a broad range of issues and tasks. Only then can we nurture and sustain effective leadership development.
Drawing Out the Best from Our People
Developing our people and drawing out the best in them is something we must all do as leaders in the Admin Service and the broader Public Service.
AOs sometimes start out in your careers focussing on policy knowledge and skills, it is completely understandable, we all went through that. But you must also pay attention to people management skills, which are equally, if not more important. For many of the more senior officers, I am sure your first encounter with this was when you first led an organisation, when you first became CEO for example. That was the case for me, when I first became CEO of the Energy Market Authority and realised it is more than just policy work, so much HR, so much people management is involved. And this is critical, for the ability to bring out the best in your people and team is a crucial success factor in any organisation.
In particular, we must embrace the wide diversity of officers and talents across the entire Public Service. How we develop and nurture them over the course of their careers can have a big impact on the overall strength and effectiveness of the Public Service.
In the past, the Public Service was more siloed and tiered. There was a traditional reliance on the Admin Service to lead public sector organisations. There were good reasons for this – AOs are trained to see strategic, whole-of-government perspectives and to work across domains. This has served us well. And in the face of the more cross-cutting and multi-faceted challenges, your skillsets will remain important and valuable.
But the Public Service has also evolved its approach over the years. Through the Public Service Leadership Programme (or PSLP), we now have multiple job structures and career pathways which cater to a wider variety of officers with different talents. These allow officers with deeper domain expertise to also advance in professional or functional roles, reach apex positions in their own fields, and take on significant leadership responsibilities.
I fully support these changes because they allow the Public Service to benefit from a wider range of perspectives, experiences, and competencies. And they establish a larger public sector leadership collective, where officers from different pathways can work together and complement each other’s strengths.
As many of you know, I started out as a Senior Officer, this was the old Management Executive scheme, and then became an Economist before joining the Admin Service.
Coincidentally, my PS in MOF now, Ching Yee, also started out as a specialist – she was a Statistician turned Research Economist.
So we have a similar background, and we both joined the Admin Service later compared to our peers. In the past, some would see this as a disadvantage. But I think that’s no longer the case. In fact, I believe I can speak for Ching Yee in saying that we both appreciate and value the solid grounding provided during our early years in the public service.
There are many other examples too of Permanent Secretaries with specialist backgrounds, or who came from different parts of the Public Service. For instance, Ravi Menon, Lee Chuan Teck and Luke Goh started at the MAS; Lim Wan Yong, Beh Swan Gin and Png Cheong Boon started at the MTI agencies – IE Singapore and EDB; Leo Yip and Aubeck Kam were in the police force. We have a few from the foreign service, like Albert Chua and Stanley Loh. We also have Ng Chee Khern, Joseph Leong and Lai Chung Han who came from the SAF, and bring with them valuable leadership experiences in running large organisations and systems.
I’m not sure if this was by design but you can see over the years, the diversity of PSes has increased and you are getting leaders from different fields and different domains. The broader lesson is that we must continue to nurture every officer across the entire Public Service, and help them excel and realise their full potential.
To do this well, we should avoid pigeon-holing officers too early into certain roles or pathways. As managers, we sometimes run the risk of doing this, as we seek to make quick assessments of the people around us. But we must also must remember to give our officers the space to develop their interests, discover their aptitudes and take some risk with their postings, especially early on in their careers.
At the same time, we must ensure flexibility and porosity between the different pathways. PSLP officers who demonstrate the aptitude to work across different domains, and adopt whole-of-government perspectives, should be brought into the Admin Service. Similarly, Admin Officers who show interest to develop deeper expertise should be encouraged to join the PSLP. Not only will this help us make better use of all our talents, it will also reinforce a stronger sense of shared responsibility and teamwork across the entire Public Service.
Partnership between Political Leadership and Public Service
Our system of governance in Singapore works well not just because of the quality of our public service, which is very high, but also because of this close working relationship between the political leadership and the public service. It is a relationship founded on a deep sense of trust and mutual respect. It is anchored on a common understanding that we are here not just to do a job, but to serve a higher calling and purpose, and that is to build a better Singapore together.
Where the political leadership is concerned, including the 4G team and I, we are fully committed to doing what’s right for Singapore and Singaporeans. To us, governing Singapore cannot be about scoring political points, or just doing what is politically convenient or expedient. We must always do what’s right for Singapore and Singaporeans, that is our firm conviction.
We all know that Singapore’s journey to this point has been nothing less than exceptional. The question is what lies ahead for us. We’ve seen what has happened in many other developed countries –income stagnates, inequality rises, and their societies become more divided and polarised. We worry about this, and ask ourselves how we can avoid sliding into similar malaise. There are no easy answers and no established playbook to guide us in our next bound. But what I do know is this: to sustain our exceptional Singapore Story, we cannot operate on auto-pilot. We need all hands on deck, and conviction of purpose, to chart our new way forward, and to ensure that our children and future generations will have the best chances to be the best they can be.
At the same time, political leaders will have to deal with the politics – to win the confidence and trust of citizens, seek their support for our policies and secure the mandate to govern. So whenever tough calls have to be made, we will have to consider how far to go, and how we can explain the position and persuade Singaporeans why such painful decisions are necessary, and will ultimately, benefit everyone.
That’s what I had to do when I implemented the GST increase last year. Believe me, it’s not something I would have liked to introduce in my first Budget as Finance Minister. But we have designed a unique system in Singapore that combines the GST with offsets, and that ensures the GST increase does not hurt the poor. With that assurance, I decided to proceed, recognising also how vital this move was to balance our budget, and to ensure sound and sustainable public finances over the coming years.
The Public Service is not directly involved in the weighing of these political considerations. But you have to understand the priorities, considerations and agenda of the elected government. You have to appreciate the growing diversity of our society, and the increasingly complex and contested environment we are operating in. You have to work closely with the political leadership to engage stakeholders and partners, and involve them in our agenda and in nation building.
In short, you have to be politically sensitive to do your work effectively. But you should never become politicised. You must always remain impartial and do your work with professional objectivity, while recognising the political context in which we operate. So, as I’ve said before, please do not try to second guess what you think I or your Ministers will find politically convenient. Instead, give us your best professional judgment, and be candid in sharing your assessments and views because we value your contributions in this manner.
Sometimes, the decisions we take may not always accord fully with your professional recommendations. Or sometimes, you may surface ideas which are not taken up by us. If that were to happen, please do not feel disheartened. There will always be broader considerations to take into account in decision making. But I assure you that your professional inputs and insights matter greatly to me and my team, and are a vital part of our decision-making process.
I have been on both sides of this process before – as a civil servant for 15 years, and as a political office-holder over the last 10+ years.
I remember serving as secretariat, as a member of the secretariat, to the Economic Review Committee back in 2001. A minister on the committee sent me a note suggesting some policy changes. I replied to the minister with an email that essentially said, respectfully, I did not think it was a good idea, and went on to explain why. A colleague saw my email to the minister and said I was very brave to have sent such an email. I didn’t think so but somehow he did. To me it was better to be direct and upfront than to be wishy-washy. The minister may or may not agree with me, and that’s his prerogative. But it’s better that I provide him the full benefit of my professional assessment.
I’ve also been on the other side as a minister, receiving the assessments and recommendations from civil servants. There have been occasions when I’ve had to say no to a recommendation. Sometimes, the proposal itself is something worth doing, but it may not be the right time to implement, or it may raise implications in other areas, which then complicate matters. So not all recommendations are taken up. But it’s always good for them to get a full airing, so we can discuss the issues thoroughly, and take a decision based on our best collective judgment.
Certainly, in our experience fighting Covid the last 3 years, I have benefited greatly from the intense debates and discussions we had with the civil servants in the HCEG. From time to time, there were differences in views – sometimes differences between HCEG and the MTF, and sometimes within the MTF itself. But the HCEG, under the leadership of Kin Keong, was always objective, always professional in its assessments and recommendations. We had intense and open debates on how best to proceed, and benefited from everyone’s inputs. This enabled us to challenge our own assumptions, and ensured that we made rigorous decisions in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans.
Crucially, once a decision is made, we must close ranks and move forward as one. Everyone must come together to implement the decision with conviction, regardless of your initial perspectives on the issue. After a decision is implemented, we should also review the outcomes, and consider if it is necessary to make any adjustments or course corrections along the way. So undertaking such reviews are not an exercise of recrimination or blame allocation, they are about candid assessments of how we can do better the next time, like what we had done with the White Paper on our COVID experience.
In the end, this is my firm belief – that there’s always scope for us to learn and improve, as individuals and organisations. We will never achieve perfection in our lifetimes. But that continual striving for tomorrow to be better than today, even if it’s 1% better, that’s something meaningful and worth pursuing, worth pursuing to the end of our days.
This is the working relationship I hope to have with the Public Service, especially our Admin Service Officers, and Senior Public Service Leaders – one where we are always striving to do better and to scale new heights for our country and our people. To me, you are not just implementors of policies. You are close partners with the elected Government, and with me and my team, working hand in hand to serve our citizens, and to build a better Singapore together.
To conclude, we are undergoing a period of change – in Singapore’s environment, in our transition of political leadership, and also in the Public Service leadership. Change can be uncomfortable, and unsettling.
But what has not changed are our basic realities: Singapore is still an improbable nation. There is no other city of this size in the world that is also a country and that has achieved what we have today. Some say that Singapore is a miracle. Perhaps so. And one should never under-estimate the role of luck, fate and circumstance. But if we are a miracle, we are also a miracle built on the grit, courage and tenacity of our forefathers. We are a miracle built by our people, and underpinned by the partnership between the political leadership and the Public Service.
So let us continue with this shared mission, each and every one of us, to ensure that Singapore not only survives, but continues to thrive and prosper. Let’s strengthen our partnership and work together, to sustain the miracle that is Singapore, and to keep our Singapore Story going for many more decades to come. Thank you very much and enjoy the rest of the evening.
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