Thursday 29 October 2015

A collective effort to build Singapore’s future: Head of Civil Service Peter Ong at the Public Service Leadership Dinner, 27 October 2015

By Peter Ong, Published TODAY, 29 Oct 2015

Public Service leaders need to be able to manage diversity, collaborate as a team across agencies and build for the future, says Head of Civil Service Peter Ong. Speaking at the annual Public Service Leadership dinner at the Orchard Hotel on Tuesday, Mr Ong added that tackling diversity requires a more nuanced take on policies and more time, as public officers could be required to hold competing interests and tensions at the same time, while solutions would also no longer be as clear cut as before. 

The following is an excerpt from his speech:

Today, we are at a critical time in history for the Government. This is for three reasons.

First, we celebrated SG50 this year. This gave us a chance to reflect on our history and the reasons that made Singapore strong.

It also helped us to renew our sense of mission and commitment to Singapore’s future, as one people and as one Public Service.

Second, our people have given the Government a strong mandate at the recent General Election for the next five-year term.

Third, we have a new Cabinet, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has shared four priority areas, with leadership renewal as a key objective.

What does this mean for us in the Public Service?

How can we best sustain the momentum of SG50 to work with Singaporeans in building a brighter future? Over the past few years, we have invested time and effort to explore new ways of connecting with and engaging citizens to understand their needs.

We have implemented policies in a targeted and integrated fashion, including improving service delivery.


In the years ahead, we must continue these investments. We must never cease to find new ways to harness the energies and ideas of our citizenry, while meeting the needs of our diverse population in a rapidly changing environment.

In the broader landscape, we see the dramatic pace of strategic ruptures taking place all around the world. The sudden tsunami of refugees into Europe, the collapse of commodity prices in a short period, the spread of the Islamic State, the Russian seizure of Crimea, the unprecedented cyber attack on Sony, to name a few. Closer to home, our immediate neighbours also face global headwinds, which pose risks to their economic outlook.

Indonesia has not managed to inoculate itself from weaker growth and growing unemployment. The haze blanketing the region is caused by fires in peatlands that seem not to be easily tamed. Malaysia has been affected by commodity prices and rising cost of living. We must not forget that our small, open economy is closely intertwined with theirs. How will they respond, and how will that in turn affect us? These changes, and those that are just over the horizon, will likely present us with unique dilemmas, given our context.


To adapt successfully to meet these challenges, we must appreciate the importance of building our future together — first, the citizenry with one another, second, the Government with the people.

What does this mean for you in the Public Service Leadership Programme who are aspiring to become Public Service leaders? What capabilities must you have to perform effectively? As Public Service leaders, we will need to be able to manage in diversity, collaborate as a team, and build for the future.

We must be cognisant of the tremendous changes that create diversity in our population. Diversity can be a source of strength, but it is also difficult to lead in diversity. It takes more time, requires a more nuanced take on policies and requires us as public officers to hold competing interests and tensions at the same time. Solutions may sometimes not be clear cut, and the pursuit of common cause for all parties can be an evolving process with no firm destination. We will need both the courage to make tough decisions, and the empathy to understand when it might not be prudent to impose a one-size-fits-all solution.

The need for constant communications will be ever present, and fostering partnership with the people will be a key skill. We must also stay anchored on sound values that will serve as a compass in such ambiguous times, and lay the foundation of trust with all we interact with. Last year, I described our evergreen core values of Integrity, Service and Excellence, which must continue to be at the centre of our work.

At the swearing-in of the new Cabinet, PM Lee spoke about the more complex and cross-cutting challenges that will confront us in the new phase of nation building. As the challenges we face become more complex, single agency solutions will become less adequate. We have made efforts to optimise and improve coordination. For example, the PMO Strategy Group was set up in July this year, to help join the dots across government and partner ministries in strengthening whole-of-government coordination on priority areas.

But in order for the Public Service to function as one, we need to truly collaborate. Because of the way we are organised, different agencies can often use different vocabulary and perceive the world rather differently. Our communications within our organisations tend to be far richer than those that straddle our organisational boundaries. In a world where information flow is so rapid, we should learn to treat our partners in another organisation no differently when it comes to sharing of perspectives and information. Collaboration occurs at a higher level than coordination or cooperation. Coordination helps manage overlaps and cooperation enables support for each other’s objectives when they are aligned. But collaboration occurs when agencies come together to jointly develop solutions to support shared whole-of-government objectives. This may involve trade-offs for some agencies, but as a whole we will be better off.

There is a Chinese saying that we enjoy the shade of trees planted and cared for by those before us. As we enjoy the fruits of the labour of the early generation of Public Service leaders, do not forget to sow the seeds for future generations. In this year of SG50, we have seen a resurgence of sentiments and reflections about our collective future.

The passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew also gave us pause to not only look back to our founding years, but also to our collective future. In the spirit of building our future together, we must learn to frame our challenge as a collective one that both Government and people will have to confront and surmount together. And we must draw on the collective resources and ingenuity of everyone in our society to seize the many opportunities too.

We must make it possible for all to add their contributions as we write the future chapters of our nation’s development together.


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