DPM Lawrence Wong at the 2022 Annual Public Service Leadership Ceremony

PM Lawrence Wong | 1 November 2022

Transcript of speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the 2022 Annual Public Service Leadership Ceremony on 1 November 2022.


My Cabinet Colleague Mr Chan Chun Sing,

Chairman and Members of the Public Service Commission,

Head of Civil Service,

Permanent Secretaries and colleagues in the civil service

Ladies and Gentlemen,


I am very happy to join you today at the Annual Public Service Leadership Ceremony. 


It has been more than two years since the Public Service leadership community has gathered in-person like this.


During that time, the Public Service, all of you played a pivotal role in our nation’s fight against Covid-19. Many Singaporeans would have seen our officers on the frontline, working tirelessly around the clock to keep Singaporeans safe. From keeping our borders, checkpoints, hospitals, and vaccination centres running smoothly rain or shine. To implementing and enforcing Safe Management Measures across Singapore, even in the most difficult of circumstances. As well as reaching out to households and businesses to ensure they could get help in a variety of ways.


These were the most visible aspects of the Public Service during the pandemic. 


But behind the scenes, there was a lot happening as well. Many agencies had to come up with unprecedented measures, amidst tight deadlines, incomplete information, rapidly changing conditions and as all of you know, limited manpower. It reminds me of the saying: in a battle, plans are useless, but planning is essential. Indeed, when we encountered the pandemic, we had to adapt, improvise, and be very nimble amidst very fluid and changing circumstances. For example, when it became clear that the virus could be quickly spread by asymptomatic patients, the Public Service had to design a large-scale quarantine system and a whole new way to do much faster contact tracing. The Public Service also had to figure out ways to secure alternative sources of essential medical supplies and food when these became scarce, and even decide which vaccines to buy before it was clear which would be effective.


And the Public Service had to do all this, while dealing with mounting workload, stress and burnout amongst its officers. Despite these challenges, we saw the Public Service as at its best. You innovated, you came up with ingenious solutions, and you got the job done. 


All this was only possible because the Public Service rallied together as one. And as leaders in the Public Service, all of you played a key role in making this happen. You rallied your teams during the most difficult of moments and encouraging them on despite their exhaustion and fatigue. Many of you also led the way in getting your teams to work proactively across ministry and agency lines, bringing together the necessary expertise and resources to ensure the Government put its best foot forward to help Singaporeans. Because of your collective efforts, together with the cooperation of Singaporeans, we have been able to keep our Covid-19 death rates at one of the lowest in the world, even while enabling employment and incomes in Singapore to recover quickly to pre-Covid levels.  


So today I want to say a very big thank you to all of you and your teams for your tremendous contributions, hard work and sacrifices. Thank you very much to everyone! Without your courage and tenacity, I have no doubt that our fight against Covid would have turned out very differently today. 


I would also like to acknowledge the contributions of our 18 Public Service leaders who are stepping down or have retired this year. They include our Permanent Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries in ministries as well as senior leaders in stat boards. Thank you for your long and invaluable service. Thank you very much. In particular, let me acknowledge our retiring Permanent Secretaries whom I have had the privilege to work closely with.  Two of them, Ms Yong Ying-I and Mr Chee Wee Kiong, had retired earlier this year. Prime Minister Lee had commended them at the Administrative Service Ceremony in April so I would not elaborate further but I too would like to convey my appreciation to both of them. And I’d like to acknowledge and thank Mr Chew Hock Yong who retires from the Public Service today, after 31 years of distinguished service. I was colleagues with Hock Yong. He may not remember; maybe he does. He was director of budget in MOF, I was deputy director to him, and I learnt a lot from him. Of course, since then he has held a wide range of key appointments across the government over the last 31 years and more recently in MSF. So thank you to all our retiring Permanent Secretaries, Ying-I, Wee Kiong and Hock Yong for serving with great dedication all these years. 


Let me also congratulate the officers who will be appointed today to Public Service Leadership roles, and the Public Service Leadership Programme. All of you will continue to serve Singapore, I hope with the same courage, determination, commitment and tenacity that the Public Service has displayed over the past two and a half years. So a big round of applause to all our new appointees. Congratulations as well.


On the whole, Singapore is in a much better position now with regards to the pandemic.  We hope we have put the worst of Covid-19 behind us.  But now, we find ourselves confronting multiple new challenges. Disease, war, as well as disruptions to supply chains and the economy – so many things have happened in quick succession that we have perhaps become inured to the list of shocks. We have become accustomed to them. But when you take a step back to consider where we are today, and the risks that lie ahead, the reality is that we are entering a very different world.  As the former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers said recently, “This is the most complex, disparate, and cross-cutting set of challenges that I can remember in the 40 years that I have been paying attention to such things”. Meanwhile amidst these challenging external circumstances, we will have to grapple with domestic issues. Our economy is maturing. Our population is ageing rapidly. And our needs are continuing to grow. MOF feels this pressure most acutely because almost everyone comes to us every year during budget time and says we need more funding and we need more manpower.     


And I can appreciate and fully understand your needs. I think many of them are meritorious. I want to support you with more. But my difficulty and MOF challenge is where does the money come from? We do not have magic money trees. How do we find the resources we need to do more? And even if we can find more resources, how do we solve the manpower issues? Because manpower will continue to be limited, and the more we take, it also means that less the private sector has. All of you know that businesses today are struggling to find more workers. So these are the challenges we face. I'm sure everyone understands and recognises this. 


But there are also many opportunities ahead of us. Our reputation as a reliable and trusted hub has been enhanced through the pandemic. The Singapore brand continues to be admired greatly around the world. So we continue to see a healthy flow of investments and talent into Singapore. And even in an uncertain world we can continue to make a good living. But for Singapore to continue to thrive in such an environment, we must persist with an effective government, one that can quickly adapt and respond to new challenges as they arise, even as it plans, builds and invests for the long term.


The Government has always worked hard to achieve this. And the key to sustaining good results is a close working relationship between the political leadership and the Public Service.


Ours is a partnership that is grounded on mutual trust and respect. It is based on a shared understanding that we are all here not just to do a job, but to serve a higher calling and purpose – and that is to build a better Singapore together. We all recognise that policies do not take place in a vacuum.  Political contestation in Singapore is here to stay and will likely become more intense over time.  The political leadership will have to manage the politics.  We do not assume the right to leadership. Just because the PAP has governed Singapore since independence does not mean it will always do so. Instead, we will have to work hard, even harder, to win the confidence and trust of citizens – to secure the mandate to govern, and to prove that we can govern well. So whenever we consider policies, we will have to make a judgement as political leaders of how far to go, what changes to make, taking into account these broader considerations. But I assure you that decisions by the political leadership will always be driven by a full commitment to do what is right for Singapore and Singaporeans. We will never compromise on our key principles and values. We will not allow populist politics, race politics, or money politics to take root in Singapore. And that means we will continue to be upfront with Singaporeans about issues which may not be so popular but need to be discussed and dealt with. We will continue to tackle problems head-on instead of taking the expedient way, kicking them down the road, or allowing them to fester and grow. In doing so, we value greatly the professional inputs and objectivity of our officers in the Public Service.  So do not try to second guess (anticipate) the Minister or propose what you think we will find politically convenient. Instead continue to be candid and forthright in sharing your assessments and views, based on your best professional judgment.  The final decision taken may not always accord with your recommendations. But know that your professional inputs matter greatly and are a vital part of our decision-making process.


And as a co-lead of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce, I saw first-hand how essential this close partnership was. Because throughout our fight against COVID-19, there were many seemingly intractable challenges. We often operated with incomplete information as I mentioned just now, and we had to react to a highly fluid and constantly changing situation. But through it all, the MTF knew we could rely on the Public Service, represented by the Homefront Crisis Executive Group (or HCEG), led very well by Permanent Secretary Mr Pang Kin Keong and the entire team in the HCEG provided their best professional assessment of the evolving situation and the possible responses. The team presented their assessments and views objectively, without fear or favour. Without trying to second guess (anticipate) what we wanted.  And this in turn, gave the MTF the confidence to weigh the various options, to figure out what measures were politically wearable, and to make a final judgment on the best way forward. So as we navigate the highly volatile and uncertain world ahead, this close partnership between the Political Leadership and Public Service will become all the more important.  And I look very much forward to strengthening this partnership with all of you and working closely together to chart our new way forward in this uncertain world. 


I too have experienced first-hand the commitment and dedication of the Public Service to continually improve – as a civil servant for 15 years, and as an office-holder in the last 10 years.  And I have no doubt that the Public Service will continue to refresh its capabilities to do better for Singaporeans amidst changes in global and local circumstances. 


I am sure the Service itself is already thinking hard about the priority areas for change and transformation.  So today, let me suggest three areas to consider, as you go about this work. 


First, Public Service leaders will have to sharpen your geopolitical instincts.  This has traditionally been the domain of officers working in areas like foreign policy and defence. But in a world of greater geo-political contestation, we must all sensitise ourselves to the new realities of the changing world order. Already, we are starting to see a recalibration of international rules and norms in areas previously thought unthinkable. We have seen the unprecedented financial sanctions imposed on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, and the recent moves by the US to decouple itself from China, especially in the  critical areas of technology. So looking ahead, we have to be prepared for the emergence of a new Cold War.  And unlike the first Cold War, which pitted the US against the Soviet Union, this time, the US and China are much more economically interdependent.  And paradoxically, this interdependence can make the new Cold War more dangerous than the first one.  There are many flashpoints in the region where accidents and miscalculations can happen – not just the Taiwan Strait, but also the South China Sea, the East China Sea between China and Japan, and the Korean peninsula. And in a more contested geopolitical environment, we must also expect external parties to conduct influence operations here – to try all ways and means to spread their views and shape Singapore public opinion, so that public opinion can in turn nudge or influence the Government to adopt certain positions. 


When that happens, the Government will be forced to act not in the interest of Singapore, but in the interests of these other countries. So what’s at stake here is our sovereignty itself – the ability of the Government to act in the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans.  And all this will have profound implications on our security, our economy, our access to technology or even food and energy supplies. 


As a small, open economy, and an international hub for trade and finance, we cannot wish away these geopolitical pressures. We cannot avoid them entirely. But we have to find ways to mitigate and guard against them, and ensure we can remain a stable, independent, and trusted global centre for businesses. To do this, Public Service Leaders must be sensitive to these sorts of geopolitical considerations, regardless of where you work in. You must a have clear view of how the external environment impacts your work, and what are the opportunities and risks for Singapore. And you must be able to work closely with stakeholders in both industry and civil society, to sensitise them to these risks, and help them manage the risk well.


Second, the Public Service have to continue broadening the range of competencies amongst its leaders. This will enable the Public Service to be more resilient, and more prepared for the uncertainties ahead. Our system has always placed a premium on nurturing leaders with strong policy skills, and this no doubt remains relevant and important. But policy alone is not enough. Certainly to mount the response we did to the Covid-19 crisis we had to rely on much more than policy skills. We also need leaders with other skillsets – capabilities and experience in implementation because as we all know, implementation is policy. Experience in running operations and mobilising volunteers in doing crisis communications, a deep understanding of science and technology especially digital solutions, and how all these can be incorporated into policy work. These are the wider range of capabilities and skillsets that are vital too, and so what the pandemic has shown is that in order to adequately prepare ourselves for the future, the Public Service must build diverse leadership teams with a wider range of competencies. This will ensure that the service will always have fresh perspectives, and a wider range of capabilities to help it respond to any challenge.


And indeed, the PSD has been working in this direction for some time. We already have a system that develops both generalists like Administrative Officers as well as sectoral leaders like those on the Public Service Leadership Programme. And to help leaders at all levels better manage diverse teams with competing interests, PSD has also provided clarity on effective leadership behaviours through its competency frameworks. PSD has also been broadening posting opportunities both within and outside the service, to develop leaders with a wide range of critical job experiences and expertise, including in operations as well as science and technology.


So I hope the Public Service Division will press on in this effort. I also encourage everyone to seize these opportunities and develop yourselves as more well-rounded leaders – leaders with the ability to better manage yourselves and others in an increasingly complex world.


Finally, the Public Service will have to continue deepening its engagement with the public. As our society matures, Singaporeans as all of us know, have become more diverse in their aspirations and views. Many also want to have a greater say in how policies which affect them are formulated. So to stay cohesive and strong as a country, we must do more to draw strength from our diversity. To help every individual realise their full potential and to be able to find common ground amidst diversity on the best way forward for Singapore. 


The political leadership will play a key role in this by trying our best to understand the needs and concerns of Singaporeans and helping build consensus especially on difficult issues. The Public Service too will have to play its part by incorporating more engagement processes as part of your work. We can do more to create opportunities for Singaporeans to engage one another, to listen each other’s views, and to understand the diverse perspectives that are often at play in issues that we deal with. We must also enable our people to better understand the trade-offs on the increasingly complex issues we face and learn how to seek mutual accommodation and compromise. Compromise in Singapore must never become a bad word. Because if we do not learn how to compromise, if every group insists on maximum entitlements for themselves, then our society can only become more and more divided. So we must strive to build stronger partnerships with community organisations, businesses, and unions, so that we can pull together to help address our social and economic challenges as one people.


And this is one of the reasons why I decided to launch the Forward Singapore exercise soon after my appointment as DPM, to see how we can refresh and strengthen our social compact and set out a roadmap for our phase of our development over the next decade and beyond. Through ForwardSG, we want to deepen our engagement efforts and partner with Singaporeans across all walks of life to forge that common purpose in Singapore’s next bound of nation building. But the engagement efforts should not just be a one-off exercise. It cannot just be Forward Singapore alone – it cannot end with this exercise. It must continue as an integral part of the public service work. As our issues become more complex. The Public Service will have to find ways to tackle them not by yourselves, but often in partnership with other stakeholders. So collaboration, engagement, and partnership - these ideas and concepts will become increasingly much more important in the work that you do.


To conclude, I have shared with you today three areas where I think the Public Service can continue to refresh and reinvent itself, to meet the challenges and uncertainties of our time. 


But amidst this period of great change, what has not changed is the importance for having an effective Government in Singapore. And buttressing this effective Government is the close partnership between the Political Leadership and the Public Service. Ours is a political leadership that works for the broad interests of Singaporeans, closely supported by a first-class Public Service that shares in this collective mission of building a better Singapore together.


So let us continue with this shared mission. Let us take Singapore forward to its next bound of success. Together, I am confident that we can ensure Singapore will endure and prosper for many more decades to come. Thank you very much.