SM Teo Chee Hean at the Administrative Service Dinner 2024

SM Teo Chee Hean | 26 March 2024

Transcript of Keynote Address by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean at the Administrative Service Dinner on 26 March 2024.


Principles for Strong Political-Public Service Partnership: Connectedness, Creativity, Cohesion, Courage, and Continuity

Good evening everyone.
Cabinet colleagues,
Chairman and Members of the Public Service Commission,
Head, Civil Service and Permanent Secretaries,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Tribute to Retiring Permanent Secretaries

I am pleased to join you to recognise the achievements of our officers, both those newly appointed and promoted, and those who have recently retired. Among them are three Permanent Secretaries who have each made lasting contributions to Singapore.

First, I would like to recognise the extensive contributions of Mr Loh Khum Yean, who retired after 33 years of dedicated service across Ministry of Manpower, Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), Ministry of Law (MinLaw), and the Public Service Division (PSD). Khum Yean was instrumental in the roll-out of Industry Transformation Maps and strengthened Singapore’s network of international trade agreements. His leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic enabled PSD to respond nimbly in its redeployment of public officers and the creation of public sector employment opportunities, to help Singapore weather the crisis. Khum Yean’s dedication to Public Sector Transformation, including new growth and development initiatives for public officers, has raised the capabilities of our government agencies. I am glad that Khum Yean will continue to share his expertise as the Chairman of NParks.

Next, I would like to thank Ms Chan Lai Fung for her dedication to the Public Service for the past 36 years. Lai Fung’s Public Service journey is marked by her transformative work across various ministries. As Permanent Secretary of MinLaw, she oversaw significant reforms in our legal ecosystem, and the establishment of Singapore’s second law school and our first dedicated international arbitration centre. At Ministry of Education, she spearheaded major policy shifts that have re-shaped our educational landscape, including the revamp of the PSLE scoring system. More recently, as Permanent Secretary of National Research and Development, she guided the development of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 plan, to help propel Singapore to the forefront of innovation and technology.

Last, but certainly not least, I would like to pay tribute to Mr Ravi Menon who is retiring after 36 years of exemplary service. Ravi’s grounded and progressive leadership has shaped our nation’s financial landscape and its standing in the global economy. As Permanent Secretary of MTI, Ravi helped see our economy through the Global Financial Crisis. He strengthened our position in global trade through initiatives like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the European Union - Singapore Free Trade Agreement. As the longest-serving Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Ravi has reformed Singapore’s financial regulatory framework, overseen the introduction of digital banks, and established Singapore as a leading FinTech hub. Ravi’s recent endeavours in championing sustainable finance, both locally and internationally, have positioned Singapore at the forefront of this movement. Ravi will continue to contribute his considerable experience and expertise to advance Singapore’s climate efforts as our first Ambassador for Climate Action and Senior Adviser to the National Climate Change Secretariat.

Thank you Khum Yean, Lai Fung, and Ravi for your invaluable contributions. The Public Service and Singapore will reap the benefits of your contributions for many years to come.

Political-Public Service Partnership

Everyone in this room today is part of our next generation of Public Service leadership. Our retiring Permanent Secretaries are passing the baton to you. Leadership renewal is essential for sustaining the relevance and dynamism of any organisation. This is mirrored in the coming transition from the third generation (3G) to the fourth generation (4G) political leadership.

Laying the groundwork for any transition requires continuous work over many years – providing the incoming leaders with a range of experiences in Singapore and international settings, stretching and testing them in challenging assignments. The next generation of political and Public Service leaders have already had many opportunities to work with each other, get to know each other, and understand each other. Both of you had your mettle tested over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous situation, under time pressure, you worked well together to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of Singaporeans, exercising leadership to mobilise and harness a Whole-of-Government and Whole-of-Nation effort.

This experience has been a crucial one because the coming years will be trying. The comforting certainties of the previous two decades of peace and globalisation brought growth to a wide swathe of countries, and better lives for many, including Singapore and Singaporeans. Instead, we now have two terrible wars – one in the middle of Europe, and the other in the Middle East. These will have profound and long-term ramifications that will colour relations between major nations, make global cooperation more difficult, and deepen social divides across communities around the world. The US-China contestation is not just a setback to a more open global economy, but increases the risk of a conflict that no one wants. Our operating environment will be marked by disconnect, disruption, and division.

Singapore’s future will, in no small part, depend on finding a path through these challenges. The only way for Singapore to successfully navigate this is if our people remain united in mission and able to work together for the common good. This will require a strong partnership between the new generation of political and Public Service leadership, working in conjunction with our people.

My own observation across five decades in Public Service and politics is that each previous generation of political and Public Service leaders worked well together because we collectively embraced a common mission and vision, and a set of operating principles that were foundational for Singapore’s success. This ensured that there was fundamental alignment, even when there were differing views on specific policies or programmes, or their timing and implementation. We all knew we had the same mission, to achieve the same vision.

While one can describe these principles in a variety of ways, I will express them this evening as five Cs. Not cash, condos, or credit cards. Rather: (1) connectedness; (2) creativity; (3) cohesion; (4) courage; and (5) continuity.


First, connectedness. Singapore’s prosperity and progress flow from being plugged into an open and connected world. The salience of this principle has only increased over the last decade as globalisation has slowed and the world has become more fractured.

This principle means that, even as we look for more immediate partnerships and collaborations, we must also keep our eye on the long term, and continue the hard, unending work of trying to nudge the world towards being more open, connected and collaborative. We need to do so even if these efforts do not yield immediate benefit to us. We pushed very hard to conclude the CPTPP and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and now the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, even though we already have high quality bilateral free trade agreements with many of those same member countries. We do so because these partnerships create connection and openness at a regional and global level. It is such an open and connected environment that eventually produces greater collective prosperity for the region and peace, which in turn creates new opportunities for us.

This goes beyond trade and economics. We facilitate and actively engage in discussions and agreements in various domains that move us towards a more collaborative world: in security, intellectual property, health, climate change, and even biodiversity in the high seas. In our foreign relations, we choose principles, not sides, and stay connected to all parties.

By doing so we do our part to promote a world of opportunity for all. And this, in the long term, means that we will have more opportunities to thrive and grow.


Second, creativity. In tackling the challenges of the day, our goal should not just be to optimise within constraints, and certainly we have many, but to find ways to redefine those constraints and break out of their confines.

We have done so throughout our history. We took our vulnerability in water and turned it into a strategic strength. We have made ourselves one of the biggest oil trading and refining hubs despite having no oil or gas. Tonight, we are in one of the most iconic buildings in the world (Marina Bay Sands), built on land that once did not exist, around a bay that once also did not exist, and which is now full of life-giving fresh water. All of these moves took creativity; a boldness to think out of the box.

The challenges we face today demand the same spirit. Take the challenge of climate change. As a small island nation, how can we literally hold back the global tide to avoid being flooded by rising sea levels? We will do so by overturning the constraints of our geography. Our Long Island of the East Coast will protect us from rising sea-levels, give us more precious prime land, and also provide us with an additional reservoir of freshwater to increase our resilience against higher temperatures and the increased risk of drought. Solutions for three of our most pressing strategic challenges at one go.

Our tiny island forces us to be more creative; at the same time, there is no lack of space for creative solutions on our tiny island. Our world is not static. Space for creativity – to create new space for ourselves – is continually emerging, in new forms and in new ways. And it is our job and our responsibility to find that and turn it into reality.


The third principle is cohesion. Our unity as a society is our greatest source of strength. United we stand, divided we will surely fall.

We do not have the natural ingredients for a united society. Our formative years on the road to independence, and the careful evolution of our social, political, and legal structures provide the foundation and framework that help us preserve and strengthen our society. Some have argued that now that we have arrived and achieved a level of social harmony and cohesion, surely we can dismantle these structures which were needed in our early years. But it is these structures that got us here, and they continue to underpin, underwrite, and strengthen our society.

Our housing and language policies, our community-building programmes, the structure of our political system that leans towards multi-racial politics and parties, and away from ethnically-based parties or politics. All these have helped to keep our society united for over half a century. But now more than ever, we are influenced by external events, especially because there are external parties whose interests are best served when we are disunited.

The tools for amplifying division are also growing: the internet, social media, and now artificial intelligence. This is a fundamental issue that many countries are facing, not just us. We have continually evolved our laws to protect ourselves, such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, and Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. Several countries looked askance at these laws when we first introduced them. However, these countries too are now finding that they have to protect their own societies and people, and have introduced various forms of these rules to try to moderate the irresponsible use of such tools, including new ones which are emerging. But we also need to be cognisant of new fault lines in our society that may emerge, and address them early so that they do not grow and become open to exploitation.

Forward Singapore is thus very important as it seeks to renew and reinforce our social compact for this and future generations. Strengthening opportunities and support for Singaporeans, especially in an era of technological disruption, and enhancing our multi-racialism and the Singaporean identity, will always be work-in-progress to ensure we stay cohesive.


Fourth, courage. In one episode of Yes, Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby, a worldly-wise Permanent Secretary, wryly explains to a younger colleague that telling a Minister that his decision is “controversial” means it might lose him votes, while calling it “courageous” means it might lose him the election.

This bit of dialogue was tongue-in-cheek, but it exposes a truth that has come to infect many polities which are increasingly susceptible to short-term, politically expedient, populist policies to secure votes.

What should courage mean for political leaders? For politics to succeed and do good for a country, courage means being willing to make and stand by decisions in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans, particularly when painful or unpopular, and to make the case for them and bring the electorate along.

And for Public Service leaders, courage means being willing to provide your considered advice and views in Singapore’s best interests, even when these may not accord with the views of your Ministers. And of course, we must have Ministers who are open to diverse and differing views and taking these on board.

We are, thankfully, not in an episode of Yes, Minister. In Government – in Cabinet and in our Ministries – we need to continue to have debate and a diversity of views in a professional manner but without fear or favour. This is the way that we discharge our responsibility as stewards of Singapore’s future.

As a relatively young Minister of State 30 years ago, and later Minister, I benefited from the wise counsel of many senior Public Service leaders. They spoke and acted with integrity and courage, and I have great respect for them. We were united in purpose, which is to do better for Singapore and Singaporeans. Mr Ngiam Tong Dow when I was a young Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance, Mr Tan Gee Paw in then-Ministry of the Environment, Mr Wee Heng Tin in Ministry of Education, and Mr Lim Siong Guan in Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Education, and when he was Head, Civil Service.

Now that I am no longer so young, I have to remind myself that I should continue to listen, and to learn, especially from younger officers, some much younger, so that they will grow up in an environment where they are encouraged to speak and share their considered views and to justify them. This way, we all learn and become better at doing our work for Singapore.


I tell you this to remind us that political leaders rely on the professional advice and judgement of the Public Service leadership. It is an essential partnership that must be built over time, through mutual trust and respect.

This brings us to the fifth ‘C’ – continuity. We have successfully handed over the reins of responsibility across three generations of leadership; all the while maintaining the vision, drive, and integrity that provides the quality of governance that has helped Singapore to survive and thrive.

Having worked with the 4G for many years now, I have every confidence that we will do so once again as we make our next transition. They are good and able people. Their hearts are in the right place and, like you, they want the best for Singapore. They have also shown that they can work together as a team. And they are bringing in more able and committed persons to strengthen the team further.

In the transition, you can be sure that others will test our new leadership – to see if we are united, to see whether we continue to have the strength and mettle to defend and further Singapore’s interests, and whether we will continue to be a steadfast and reliable partner.

The 3G have helped to give them as much exposure as possible, and we will continue to support them.

They will also need a strong partnership with the Public Service leadership. All of you in this room have a part to play in ensuring that we continue to have a capable, competent, and committed Government, so that we can continue to have a strong and united Singapore, for the benefit of Singaporeans.


So now, as a white-haired Minister, these are my messages to those of you who still have black hair, and those of you with white hair too. You have benefitted from watching your seniors – such as Ravi, Lai Fung, and Khum Yean – and from their guidance over your earlier years in the Service. You are now becoming the leaders that others will watch, whom others need to learn from. This responsibility is equal in importance to any policy or programme you need to deliver.

I urge you to continue making sure that the world remains a connected place, approaching Singapore’s challenges with creativity, always working hard to strengthen our cohesion, acting with courage even in the most difficult of circumstances, and creating continuity of leadership in Government. And, when the time comes, deliver these messages, in your own way, to your officers and to your successors.

Once again, my congratulations to all the officers we are recognising tonight. I wish you all a good evening. Thank you very much.

Majulah Singapura!