DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the Public Service Leadership Dinner 2015

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam | 27 October 2015

DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the Public Service Leadership Dinner on 27 October 2015.


DPM Teo Chee Hean,

Chairman and Members of the Public Service Commission,

Head of Civil Service,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is a pleasure to join you all for the second Public Service Leadership Dinner.

To each of you who have been recently appointed to the Public Service Leadership Programme, congratulations. You have the opportunity and responsibility to play a role in evolving the Public Service and enabling a better future for Singapore.

2015 has been a significant year for Singapore. In March, the nation came together as one and paid tribute to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our founding Prime Minister. In August, as we celebrated Singapore’s Golden Jubilee, we reflected on the foundations built by our pioneers, on what we have achieved together over the last 50 years, and readied  ourselves to go forward with confidence. The result of the General Elections in September was as much a recognition of the efforts and policies this Government has put place over the last five years especially, as it was a statement of trust in its stewardship of Singapore as we enter a new and challenging environment.

The new environment

The context in which we will build our future is vastly different from what it was in the past.  Our society is changing. The major waves of social mobility are gradually fading. We will have to work harder than before to sustain mobility, starting with efforts to even out the odds early in life, and intervene to promote second chances well beyond the school years. Equally, we have to find ways to help a growing group of older Singaporeans to stay active as they age, and to receive humane and affordable care as life’s fragilities set in.   

Economic policies too have to grapple with new realities.  Globally, we are very likely in for an extended period of slow growth. And within this subdued climate, the way production is being organised globally is also changing. China is producing more of the components that go into its exports on its own, and hence importing less of the value. Technology is also steadily disrupting many existing producers, and many existing jobs, even as it results in new winners.  At home, Singapore is facing the limits of our own labour force growth. We therefore have to earn our place in the world in new ways. With deeper skills, making a determined effort to make the most of technologies and not just be displaced by them, and with entrepreneurial verve and expanded networks abroad, there will be no lack of opportunity for Singapore. 

The environment has also changed in other respects. Sectarian strife in the Middle-East is now endemic, and being propagated globally. The stability of the immediate region, for reasons both external and internal, is less assured than it has been in decades. It will take constant effort and fresh strategies to maintain the social harmony for which Singapore has stood out in the world.   

Public Service Transformation

Just as our economic and social strategies cannot stay still, the Public Service will need to evolve. Our citizens’ needs and aspirations are changing, and the solutions to problems are both more complex and less assured of results. The public sector will also face the same manpower constraints as the wider economy. 

Let me highlight three priorities in how we must go about the business of the Public Service in this new terrain:  

  1. We must develop the habit of looking at issues through the eyes of ordinary citizens, and bringing policies from different agencies together to serve their needs;
  2. We must develop deeper pools of expertise to meet emerging and more complex challenges, and to make effective use of new technologies to serve citizens better;
  3. And we must strengthen a culture where every public officer can learn and develop themselves through life, so as to make the most of their abilities for Singapore.

Looking at issues through the eyes of ordinary citizens

We have to view and understand citizens’ needs through their eyes. It means a few things. First, we must walk in the shoes of citizens from different walks of life whenever we can, both in the course of the public officer’s work and when we get a chance to volunteer on the ground. We must be close to the ground, listening to feedback, sensing the deeper concerns that often underlie that feedback, and spotting the gaps in policy delivery that should not be there.

Second, we must recognise that the issues that citizens face often do not fall within the responsibility of a single agency. Whether in helping young children, tackling the problems of youth-at-risk, enabling older citizens to stay active, or in helping the displaced worker, the best solutions are often those that bring agencies together and that cut across policy disciplines. Few Governments do this well, although many want to do so. It is not the natural reflex among our own agencies, but we are getting there, and we must.  Developing and coordinating solutions together - usually among two or three agencies, sometimes more - must be second nature to public servants, up and down our organisations, so that we can best meet citizens’ needs.

Third, and this is important as we go forward: we need others to discuss, debate and develop the future with us – the community, the private sector, other civil society stakeholders, and individual citizens themselves. Having them all on board will help the Public Service better understand a changing society, and identify more opportunities for progress. And it is when people get involved themselves, take the initiative, roll up their sleeves and put in the effort to make things happen, that we build broad ownership over Singapore’s future. As PM put it in his speech at the Swearing-In Ceremony for the new Cabinet recently, we are all co-authors of the next chapter of the Singapore story.       

These are three important priorities in how we should evolve, and there are already examples of how we are putting this into practice. Let me cite a couple. The SERS (Selective En Bloc Redevelopment) project at Tanglin Halt Estate in 2014 is a good example. I will go a little bit into the details because it’s the details that do justice to what HDB did.

It was our largest SERS project to date, involving almost 3,500 households. In the lead-up to the project, HDB formed cross-sectional “New SERS” teams comprising both planning and operations officers to re-look at the SERS benefits package and journey through the eyes of the different groups of home-owners.  The “New SERS” teams reviewed the feedback gathered from email and telephone queries, as well as the operations officers’ interactions with the residents on the ground.  The teams distilled two needs of homeowners which were not well addressed by the existing rehousing options,[1] and introduced new options to deal with them:

  1. First, to address the needs of elderly homeowners who were concerned about their retirement savings, not just their housing. HDB introduced a new rehousing option - two and three-room replacement flats on 30 year lease at the designated replacement site.  Elderly homeowners who take up this option can receive a cash bonus and use the proceeds to top up their CPF Retirement Accounts to buy a CPF LIFE plan, while continuing to stay close to the community where they have built ties over the years.
  2. HDB also found that some homeowners do not require a replacement flat - some prefer to move in with their children for example - and they find it a hassle to look for a buyer for their SERS flat in the resale market. It therefore introduced a second option to provide an ex-gratia payment on top of the SERS compensation to homeowners who do not wish to take up a replacement flat. 

Besides introducing these new SERS rehousing options, HDB has also redesigned its whole approach to communicating with residents:

  1. It will be assigning one ‘Journey Manager’ for each homeowner, as a single point of contact through their whole SERS journey. The Journey Manager can build up a long term relationship through personal interactions with the homeowners that he or she is responsible for.
  2. HDB has also revamped the entire information package and customised the collaterals for different households[2] with different needs. SERS flat owners aged 50 and above received a separate, simplified guide with an enlarged font size and targeted Q&As, specially designed with the needs of the elderly in mind. And during the door-to-door house visits on the day of announcement, voice clips with recorded explanations in different languages (including Hokkien and Cantonese) were played to residents who were unable to converse in a common language with the HDB officers.
  3. HDB also crowd-sourced ideas from its “I want to Innovate” competition, and adopted ideas such as the development of audio guides for residents who could not attend the guided tours, and an 360-degree Precinct Model Viewer for residents to view the 3D flat models online from the comfort of their homes, and at their convenience.

It is an example, and a very good example, of what happened when we take a fresh look at established policies through the eyes of citizens. By doing so, and walking alongside the Tanglin Halt residents, HDB has been able to ease their anxieties, solve issues on their minds and help many of them look forward to the rest of their SERS journey.

Let me give you a second example - which involves the public sector working with other stakeholders, including the private sector, to design solutions. The Health Promotion Board (HPB) and Alexandra Health System (AHS) started a pilot programme last year to help taxi drivers’ stay healthy. This is not a small matter - there are more than 50,000 taxi drivers, with a median age of 55, and many driving long hours daily. Most do not get to exercise regularly.  

HPB and AHS had many conversations with the taxi operators and taxi drivers themselves. For the taxi drivers, taking time out for health screening just didn’t make sense – it meant unused taxi rental costs and lost earnings. But the agencies also analysed the drivers’ work patterns and identified their monthly servicing down-time as a window of opportunity. HPB and AHS partnered Comfort Delgro and SMRT to carve out physical space in their servicing centres as health centres. To date, more than 7,800 drivers have been screened and over 95% have followed up with a trained health coach at the servicing centres to discuss the results of their health screening. With the success of the pilot, it is being scaled up to four service centres to cover more of the taxi driver population by the end of this year. HPB is also working now with the public bus companies, and supermarket retailers, to help their mature workers to stay healthy. 

Building new capabilities for the future

We have to develop new and deeper capabilities in the Public Service, to meet emerging challenges and take full advantage of data and technologies to serve citizens better.    

One important future capability is in data analytics. It opens up exciting possibilities for public policy making and service delivery - leveraging on data to get better insights on citizens’ needs, preferences and behaviour, and responding effectively.

  1. The Municipal Services Office (MSO)’s integrated municipal feedback management system, OneService@SG is a good case.  It allows for many possibilities in delivering prompt, high quality services. To give a simple example, feedback related to dirty areas can be plotted against data on littering enforcement locations, cleaning frequency and the contractors involved, to identify correlations and trends, and enable NEA and the community to try as best to keep our neighbourhoods clean.
  2. Another example - transport planning. Land Transport Authority (LTA) uses its ‘Planet’ (Planning for Land Transport Network) programme to use Big Data and GIS technology to understand commuter behavior and preferences. With Planet, LTA can reduce passenger waiting times significantly.  

Data analytics is not the only capability we must deepen, but I highlight it because there is scope for virtually every agency to use it to improve. It has great potential in every area, from healthcare to transport, in spotting emerging social problems, or in opening up business opportunities. We must do more with the data that we already have, integrate it across agencies so we can make better use of it, and collect the data that we do not yet have but which can enable higher quality of service.

Building a culture of learning and developing every public officer

Underpinning all we do, in every public agency, is a culture of learning. A culture of continuous questioning and refreshing of what we know, and the organisational practice of helping every individual to develop throughout life.  That’s the thrust of SkillsFuture. No one is made the day he or she enters the Service, or even a decade or two after they start working.

The Public Service has already taken steps to move beyond looking at formal qualifications, to valuing skills acquisition and development through life.  Since August this year, for instance, both degree holders and non-degree holders are recruited on and progressed along a single extended Management Executive Scheme. 

However, removing barriers to progression is not all that this is about.  We must actively support officers to continuously acquire skills throughout their career or careers in the Public Service.  This requires efforts on two fronts.

First, we need to develop a system of articulating skills, competencies and career pathways so that public officers understand how these competencies will help them perform their roles and progress in their careers.  An example is in the area of service delivery.   

  1. There are an estimated 6,000 frontline service staff across the Public Service.  They are the face of the Public Service for most citizens. Currently, each agency trains its own frontline service staff based on its own requirements and its internal training roadmap. 
  2. The Public Service Division (PSD) is now working with five government agencies – Central Provident Fund Board (CPF Board), Housing and Development Board (HDB), Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), National Environment Agency (NEA), and National Library Board (NLB) - to develop a common Service Competency Framework. It aims to help officers and their supervisors to make systematic efforts to acquire the skills and knowhow they need to do well in their jobs, and to advance to the next. 
  3. The five pilot agencies can use this common Service Competency Framework to develop their officers and work with Civil Service College to curate relevant training programmes for their frontline officers and supervisors.

We have embarked on similar efforts since two years ago to develop clear competency framework and career pathways under the Public Service Leadership Programme.  HCS will share more on the progress in his speech later.    

Second, skills acquisition of course goes beyond formal training.  Learning from role models at work, and learning amongst peers in networks and communities, are equally important. That’s what the best organisations find, in the private and public sectors everywhere.

It starts with every one of us, including those of you in leadership positions in the Public Service.  How can we each be better developers of people spontaneously and in deliberate ways? How do we ensure that jobs are meaningful for everyone in our teams and organisations and how do we recognise their contributions regularly?  These are the questions we should ask ourselves at the start and end of every week.

I should note that motivating and developing others are fundamental leadership qualities that you are already being assessed on as officers in the Public Service Leadership Programme.  So it really is about paying more attention, and living these qualities through our actions, all the time.

Closing Remarks

We have a lot more to do in building the next chapter of the Singapore story, and it is an exciting time to be in the Public Service. But it will be a more complex terrain, with more difficult trade-offs to make. The Public Service will need strategic vision, deep capabilities as well as close and continuous connections to the ground. We also have to stay open to ideas from others, and co-develop solutions with the community, the private sector and civil society and people from all walks of life.

But we start the journey of the next 50 years from a position of strength and confidence. Let us keep evolving, keep adapting our methods and developing our people, as we build a better future for all.  


[1] Under the traditional SERS scheme, the homeowners would have had three possible rehousing options:

  1. To purchase a new 99-year lease flat on the replacement site;
  2. To apply for a Build-To-Order or Sale-of-Balance flat elsewhere; or
  3. To sell the SERS flat with the rehousing package in the resale market.


[2] Each household was furnished with details on the rehousing options available to them and the benefits they are entitled to. The package also included a SERS guidebook in English and their respective Mother Tongue language.