Public Service and Citizen Wellbeing

Parliamentary Speech: Budget 2019 Committee of Supply ‘Cut’

Trust, as they say, is built in drops and lost in buckets. The recent spate of service lapses has contributed to an increasing sense of uncertainty about the robustness of the public service. Minister Heng in response to the Zaobao commentary that alleged complacency said, I quote “We will not flinch from taking a hard look at ourselves each time there is a failure, and doing whatever is necessary to put things right.” unquote.

I am heartened by Minister Heng’s conviction and commitment. Indeed, a string of events of such significance happening so fast and furiously offers more than a glimpse of possible fault lines within the system, not just in isolated ministries or with certain officers. Might having an open conversation on these fault lines restore trust? What specific steps are being taken by the Government to restore public confidence?

Additionally, how does the Public Service Division ensure a culture of accountability, transparency and empathy? With increased public scrutiny and expectations, how is the Civil Service College training public officers to understand subjective wellbeing (beyond material wellbeing), and how are they trained to formulate better policies that address citizen wellbeing in ways that also increase public trust in public institutions?

Lastly, how can ‘Public Service Cares’ announced in Budget 2019 be more than just a volunteering programme for public officers but be embodied as an ethos?

Notwithstanding my clarifications, I want to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for every public service officer in the Service who serves sincerely and wholeheartedly. Thank you.

The Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr Chan Chun Sing):

1. As many have suggested, it is not easy for the Public Service to organise itself differently and operate differently to serve citizens better without new skills. Ms Anthea Ong, Dr Teo Ho Pin and Mr Ang Hin Kee are right that we have to help our public officers approach their work with new mindsets and give them new skills.

2. First, we need our Public Officers to think differently. They must be able to see beyond the current task that they are doing, and work with their colleagues in other Ministries or agencies to serve citizens better. This does not come from classroom training alone. The Public Service Division will expand the system of job postings to apply to a wider group of officers, so that our officers will gain wider perspectives, and grow a stronger instinct to work across agencies and with the private and people sectors.

3. Second, our Public Officers cannot just develop good policies but must be able to execute them well. To do this, Public Officers must be able to understand the needs of citizens and businesses better, know what are the constraints and challenges on the ground in implementing policies, and be able to see through the implementation details.

4. The Public Service Division and MCCY launched a new Engagement Immersion for Leaders programme last year. Leaders at Director-level and above were attached to different frontline work environments to serve citizens so that they can gain new insights on how policies and programmes can be implemented better on ground. This year, we will implement Public Service Cares. This is a new initiative to encourage all officers to volunteer and serve the community, and in the process, learn how to better communicate with citizens. It seeks to develop a stronger service ethos and a culture among public servants to walk and know the ground needs even better. Officers, senior ones including, are regularly rotated to join the PA, SSOs and REACH outreach efforts on the ground for them to get a first-hand feel of serving Singaporeans.

5. Third, we need our public officers to have good inter-personal linkages with the people and private sectors. In particular, the Public Service will work towards achieving greater porosity and two-way flow of talents between the public and the people and private sectors. One way is through sending officers to work attachments in the private sector. For example, we sent 10 officers for attachments to various companies such as DBS, Singtel and Grab, through the inaugural Service Delivery Talent Attachment Programme last year. They are bringing back new knowledge and insights to improve the delivery of public services. We will expand such opportunities to strengthen our Public Service and our links beyond the Public Service.

6. Fourth, public officers need to understand our region much better, and develop stronger ties with their peers in the region. To continue to expand the economic and international space for Singapore, our officers must be able to be plugged into various international networks, and understand the economic, political and social systems of countries in the region and in our key markets. Our Public Service leadership must be able to pick up a phone and call their peers to discuss issues and to engage in new collaboration. Therefore, we will continue to encourage both PSC scholars as well as mid-career officers, to be trained in different countries. We will also create many more opportunities for officials across different countries to come together in joint courses, forums and discussions, to share best practices and network together. Just as in the private sector, we should expect future Public Service leaders to have experiences working beyond the domestic context.

7. Finally, our Public Officers at all levels — leaders to officers — must be savvy in using technology, so that we can use technology to make public services better and make the Public Service more productive. The Public Service is aiming for 100% digital literacy. Every public officer — from leaders to counter staff — must know how to operate in a digital world and to thrive in it. The Civil Service College has launched LEARN, a mobile platform to enable officers to learn anytime, anywhere. In the last three months since the launch, over 34,000 accounts have been activated and almost 10,000 courses have been completed on this platform. SNDGO will elaborate more on other Smart Nation Initiatives subsequently.

8. I agree with several Members who spoke on the need to create a more diverse Public Service leadership. We need a Public Service leadership team that has different talents and is able to surface different perspectives. Going forward, when our Public Service selects future leadership teams, we will increasingly look for a combination of operations, communications, mobilisation and international exposure; beyond pure policy making skills. A more diverse Public Service is a more resilient Public Service for the uncertainties ahead.

9. We must systematically select, recruit and develop officers to achieve this diversity. Educational qualifications remain a valid proxy for certain skills and capabilities of candidates we recruit into the Public Service, and we will not disregard that. But the level of educational qualification alone is necessary but not sufficient. The Public Service will also have to look out for other skills, competencies and traits when we recruit new officers. Beyond intellect, we also want officers who have initiative and creative ideas, and those who have strong inter-personal skills and work well with others. In the areas of ICT, the Public Service will be selecting recruits based on the technical skills they possess, beyond educational qualifications.

10. Mr Louis Ng asked about single structures for ITE graduates, diploma and degree holders. Since 2015, the Public Service has been merging salary schemes, such that the ITE graduates, diploma and degree holders are recruited and progressed on the same structure. Where schemes require particular qualifications — for example, doctors, accountants and engineers — we will specify these. Today, almost all public agencies have single-structure schemes.

11. I have spoken at length about how the Public Service needs to change. But just as important are things that will not change: our values, our aspirations for Singapore and the high standards for ourselves.

12. Our values of excellence mean that we will not rest on our laurels. Our Public Service continues to work towards high aspirations for Singapore. This means always thinking ahead and acting to expand opportunities for Singapore or pre-empting problems in future. For instance, for Singapore to remain competitive, we must be a hub for innovation. So MOE, ESG and EDB came together to develop the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA) initiative, to connect Singapore to major innovation ecosystems around the world. The GIA expands on existing overseas internship programmes offered by our local institutes of higher education that place students on overseas internships in start-ups or enterprising and innovative companies. The Public Service is leveraging these internships for scholarship holders and in-service officers as well, for them to broaden their training and exposure. The GIA will create more opportunities for students, entrepreneurs and business owners to gain experience, connect and collaborate with their overseas counterparts.

13. Similarly, we have proactively pushed for more Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) to help our businesses expand overseas and lower prices of imported goods and services for domestic consumers. Such FTAs have to be planned way ahead, as they entail long negotiations with foreign counterparts. The recently concluded EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA) was planned almost a decade ago and was achieved through close coordination among many agencies including MTI, AGC, MinLaw, IPOS, MOM and MEWR. They worked together and sustained the momentum of the negotiations through time across different teams of officers. We are now planning ahead for our FTAs to embrace digital trade in the new economy.

14. We also think long term when it comes to developing our city. Almost 10 years ago, the Economic Strategies Committee mooted the idea of consolidating our container port activities at Tuas in the long term. This will allow our port to achieve greater economies of scale while freeing up the prime Southern Waterfront for redevelopment into a new waterfront city that will be even more exciting than Marina Bay. Today, the proposed new Tuas Terminal is already taking shape, and will be progressively completed by the 2040s. The Tuas Terminal, which will be twice the size of Ang Mo Kio town, is expected to be the largest container terminal in the world. Our Tuas Terminal will help Singapore strengthen our position in the maritime sector.

15. This is not the only long term multi-decade projects we have planned for. We are pursuing other ambitious projects that span many years — in fact decades — whether it is developing Singapore’s deepest cable tunnel system for electricity transmission or planning for Changi East which includes the new Terminal 5, or planning for the Jurong Innovation District or Punggol Digital District. These projects help to create an even more vibrant Singapore and a better home for future generations of Singaporeans. Our Public Service cannot just try to play defensive to uphold the existing system. We expect more from our Public Service — constantly thinking of breaking new ground to take the country forward amidst the stiff competition.

16. Even though we plan ahead, sometimes things will not go as planned. When things do go wrong, the Public Service will work hard to fix the mistakes and seek to do better. Head (Civil Service) recently reminded all senior public leaders to use the recent incidents and lapses as an important learning moment to see how we can do better.

17. I support his call and appreciate that the Public Service is taking its mission very seriously. However, integrity means that we need to take responsibility and be accountable at every level for what went wrong. If we do not address the mistake head on at the respective levels, but instead choose to indiscriminately sack staff and leaders every time something went wrong, then we will have a weaker system over time. We will also discourage the Public Service from trying new things because the surest way not to make a mistake, is not to do anything novel. That will be the biggest mistake and disservice to our nation.

18. The values of integrity and excellence apply equally to the appointment processes. Ms Sylvia Lim asked for clarification on the selection process and criteria used by the Prime Minister in identifying persons to fill key constitutional appointments. The process to appoint individuals to any constitutional appointments is set out in the Constitution. The Constitution also sets out the requirements of candidates for certain roles, as well as the office holders who should be advised or to be consulted on the appointment. In general, the key considerations when identifying candidates include their ability to do the job well, their qualifications and experience, track record, integrity and sense of Public Service.

19. Ms Lim asked if we are aware that Ms Goh Soon Poh, the new Auditor-General, is the wife of Senior Minister of State Mr Heng Chee How. Yes, we are aware. The Auditor-General is appointed by the President in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister. The candidate was proposed to the President’s concurrence after consulting the Chairman of the Public Service Commission. The President will consult the Council of Presidential Advisors which provides an additional level of scrutiny and advice. Ms Goh Soon Poh has more than 30 years of public sector experience and worked in a range of government Ministries. She has served with distinction, with utmost integrity and commitment to excellence. She has helmed Deputy Secretary roles in two of the largest Ministries, MOE and MHA, and also spent time in two central Ministries, MOF and PSD, and will be familiar with governance matters related to finance, procurement and human resources. Ms Goh also has public sector experience that will be useful for the Auditor-General role.

20. The role of the Auditor-General is to audit and report to the President and the Parliament on the proper accounting and the use of public resources to enhance public accountability. AGO’s audit observations are conveyed to senior public officers, namely, Permanent Secretaries of Ministries who are Accounting Officers for their respective Ministries and, hence, responsible for managing that. These senior public officers are responsible for addressing the findings and reporting back to the AGO. The audit process generally does not involve political office holders. There is no conflict of interest generally between AGO and the Ministries it audits. Where there is a potential conflict of interest, there are specific processes to manage these, just as in any professional organisation.

21. Our Public Service cares for our people. Mr Louis Ng asked about staff engagement. PSD currently works with Public Sector agencies to administer a common staff engagement survey across public agencies. The survey enables agency leaders to better understand the areas that the agency is doing well in and what it can do better to help officers. Leaders are expected to respond to the feedback and take appropriate action.

22. Mr Png Eng Huat asked about MediShield Life for pensioners. Like all Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents, Government pensioners have been covered under MediShield Life from 1 November 2015. MediShield Life provides additional help on top of the retirement medical benefits that they enjoy as Government pensioners. This is very useful especially if someone is unfortunate enough to get a severe illness with a huge medical bill. For example, one pensioner on the Comprehensive Co-payment Scheme (CCS) had pneumonia with a bill size of $29,000. She had 85% of the bill covered by her post-retirement medical benefits. MediShield Life helped to pay for the remaining 15%. She did not have to pay anything out of pocket. Another pensioner on the CCS had lymphoma with a bill size of about $14,000. He only had to pay out of pocket expenses of $300, after taking into account his post-retirement medical benefits and MediShield Life.

23. Mr Chairman, Sir, our public officers joined our Public Service because of a calling. And that is to build a better home, a better nation and a better future for all Singaporeans. Our future is in the hands of this generation of leaders — from the public, private and the people sectors. Like it was almost 54 years ago, we must all be pioneers once more and always. If we put our hearts, minds and hands together as one Singapore team, I am confident that we can prevail against the challenges and Singapore will remain vibrant and successful. Our Public Service will lead and support fellow Singaporeans in achieving this.

Ms Anthea Ong:

1. Mr Chairman, can I kindly request for Minister Chan to further expand on my question on how or what specific measures or steps is the Government taking to restore confidence in the Public Service?

Mr Chan Chun Sing:

1. Mr Chairman, every time when something goes wrong in the Public Service, regardless of which agency the first thing to do is to get to the bottom of it by the respective agency to see what are the lessons learnt. That the agencies must do internally to make sure that they get to the bottom of it and put things right.

2. The second step that we always will do is to make sure that these lessons are shared across all the other agencies. Because things that happen in one agency can offer important lessons to other agencies.

3. There is a third step that I would always ask the Public Service to do is when we do our debrief is to ask ourselves if we could have prevented or preempted this incident right at the beginning. And that is why I always discuss and share with my fellow colleagues in the Public Service that it is necessary but not sufficient just to put things right. Actually, more important than playing defensive we need to make sure that our systems are in place to preempt problems from arising in the first place.

4. Of course, it is very difficult for the Public Service to say that I have done this and therefore I have prevent these problems because the problems never even manifest themselves. But that is our challenge. That is the high bench mark that we need to set for ourselves as the Singapore Public Service if we aspire to be a Public Service that Singapore and Singaporeans can be proud of.

5. And, indeed, as I shared we have done many things that I think we can be proud of because that has put Singapore at the forefront of many these views so that we have prevented and preempted many of these issues. Be that as it may, we should never be complacent.

6. So, the way to restore public confidence is to make sure, one, we get to the bottom of the issue; and if there are people who are responsible, we will make sure that we rectify that, even as we take the responsibility at that level we would ask ourselves could we have trained that person better, could we have changed our process to take into account the human factors to prevent those mistakes from happening in the first place.

7. So, these are things that, I think, we owe it to ourselves in the Public Service to get things right and to prevent things from going wrong in the first place because it gives us no joy to say that we are able to recover from our mistakes fast. In fact, I would like to see ourselves not getting into those mistakes in the first place.


Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities.

She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion, environment — and volunteerism in Parliament.

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.