To Listen, Labour and Lead: Building a Better Singapore Together

Addressing public sector leaders, Singapore’s Prime Minister calls for greater diversity in the Civil Service, and a change in the Government’s approach to policymaking.


Date Posted

14 Jun 2013


Issue 12, 14 Jun 2013


Fundamental changes are underway in our society. Our demographics and population mix are shifting. Elderly Singaporeans worry about retirement needs and healthcare costs. Younger Singaporeans have high aspirations, yet harbour nagging anxieties about whether they can achieve them. Businesses are struggling with the significant slowdown in foreign worker growth.

Income distributions are widening. Social media is fundamentally changing relationships between the Government and people, and within society. The interests of different groups are now more diverse and stridently expressed, as we can all attest. Many countries grapple with these challenges. We see this in their economic and political difficulties, whether in Europe, the US or even China.

Singapore is not immune from these global trends, but we are better placed than others to overcome our challenges. Singaporeans are well educated. We have an efficient and well-run system. Our strong economy gives us resources to improve lives. Our reserves, if carefully husbanded, will help us to weather storms. We are located in the most dynamic region in the world. Above all, we have a Government that is committed to serving Singapore. We should therefore look to the future with confidence.

How Government Must Change

Our job as political leaders and civil servants is to build upon these strengths, and work with Singaporeans to solve our problems and build a better Singapore. This means getting both our policies and politics right.

Pressing Problems

Our first priority is to deal with pressing problems, especially housing and public transport. These are urgent political and national imperatives. We must make visible progress on these problems, and address the valid concerns of Singaporeans. The Ministry of National Development (MND) and Ministry of Transport are fully seized with the task, but these are issues for the whole Government.

As a Government, we need to respond faster and more coherently to new and urgent priorities. Whether we are resolving issues like housing and public transport, or battling an imminent danger like SARS, we need to break out of ministry silos to think and act as one Government. In particular, we must share more data across agencies, to put together a more complete picture of the overall landscape; and take a whole-systems perspective, not just that of our own ministries.

Reviewing Policy Fundamentals

To respond strategically to our new environment, we must make some major shifts in philosophy and policy. We must find a new balance between self-reliance and social support to mitigate widening income distributions. We must strengthen safety nets for specific groups of Singaporeans, especially our elders. We also need to rethink major social policies, including healthcare and housing. The Government is doing so across different platforms, including in Our Singapore Conversation.

While these strategic shifts are essential, some hard truths do not change. We must continue to strengthen and reinforce our core values. We must stay united and face the future together. We will always need a strong Home Team and Singapore Armed Forces to keep our country safe. We still rely on a competitive, vibrant economy to provide good jobs for our people and generate resources for our social programmes. We must strengthen our Singapore identity, while remaining open to the world.

The Administrative Service must increase the diversity of experiences among its officers.

This being the Administrative Service Dinner, one more of these hard truths is worth stressing: The need for a high-quality public service that is competent and honest, staffed with able and committed officers, imbued with a sense of responsibility to the nation and a spirit of service to their fellow citizens. One reason we have been able to build such a Service — though by no means the only reason — is that we have paid our officers realistically and competitively, in line with the quality of the officers and the value of their contributions. We have been reviewing Administrative Service salaries, but we are not changing this principle.

Making this calibrated change will not be easy. We must consider carefully what to change and what to reaffirm, and avoid raising unrealistic expectations in the process. We must be prepared for uncertainty and anxiety before we reach a new settled position; we can see some of these emotions in the reactions to MND’s suggestion to lower the cost of new Built-To-Order flats. But staying put is not an option, and we have to navigate this uncertain environment together.

That is why close cooperation between the political leadership and the Civil Service is so important. Both must be clear about their respective roles. The political leadership has to set the direction, develop the narrative, manage the politics, and carry the ground. For this to work, policies and programmes have to deliver not only practical results but also political dividends. For its part, the Civil Service has to develop options imaginatively, analyse issues objectively, and implement policies well. It has to be more customer-centric, for citizens see our front-line officers as the face of the Government. Ministers and civil servants have different roles, but a common mission — to improve the well-being of our fellow Singaporeans.

What Civil Service Must Do

Fortunately we have an excellent Civil Service, especially the Administrative Service. You have all been working hard — reviewing policies, adjusting to the new environment, engaging the public, raising the morale of your colleagues. I appreciate your commitment and support. But there is more that the Administrative Service can do.

First, the Administrative Service must increase the diversity of experiences among its officers. Administrative Officers (AOs) should be sensitised to the challenges faced by the less fortunate, to anticipate their needs and ensure that our policies continue to benefit all segments of society. AOs should also have more experience in business. It is one thing for a ministry to set rules like foreign worker dependency ratios, quite another to be a small- to medium-sized enterprise having to cope with such changes which may massively impact business.

The Administrative Service has posted AOs to the People’s Association and the Community Development Councils. It has seconded officers to companies like Shell, McKinsey and IDEO, and it is constantly on the lookout for good mid-career recruits. Many AOs also volunteer with voluntary welfare organisations or serve in charities during their free time.

What more can the Service do? More operational and external postings will help, especially to expose officers to perspectives on the ground. I am glad that the Community Attachment Programme will be expanded, to keep AOs in touch with ground realities.

The Service must also reach out to external parties to work with the Government. For example, the Ministry of Trade and Industry is engaging industry associations to develop productivity roadmaps, because the associations know their own industries better than SPRING or International Enterprise Singapore can. We should also bring in more officers from the private and people sectors, and help them adjust to the Service’s culture and environment so they can contribute more.

Beyond the Administrative Service, the Civil Service must develop more specialist leaders from the Professional and other Services. We will put more emphasis on sectoral and professional expertise within the Public Service Leadership corps. This will complement AOs who are “generalists”, and build deeper expertise in specific areas. That way, the Civil Service as a whole will be a “T”-shaped organisation, with a wide breadth of experience but firmly anchored in critical competencies.

Second, the Government must change its approach to policymaking. We no longer have the luxury of making policy “in a lab”. Today’s environment is more complex and fluid, and our trade-offs more stark. Ideas are more vigorously and widely contested, especially online. Our policy process must adapt to this new landscape. We must gather a wider range of views, especially from outside the Government. We must market-test and adjust our policies more. We must also acquire a better feel of how our policies impact different groups, and what their likely reactions and concerns will be. With win-win solutions more elusive, we must be more willing to “satisfice” to achieve our main goals. This includes recognising when it is better for the Government to wait for the right time to solve a problem, or to take a partial step and defer a fuller solution to some more propitious moment.

The Civil Service must harness the energy and passion from within its ranks, especially among our younger and junior officers.

These imperatives apply to all our policies, whether community projects like developing Wisma Geylang Serai, perpetually thorny issues such as public transport or car ownership, or major reviews like our housing policy rethink. The adjustments will not be easy to make. They require confidence and skill on the Government’s part, and maturity and commitment on the part of the public. But they are essential to avoid blind-spots, generate buy-in and improve the quality of our policies.

Third, the Civil Service must harness the energy and passion from within its ranks, especially among our younger and more junior officers. Many officers have a healthy idealism, and lots of ideas to change society for the better. We should tap their passion, and empower them to identify problems, develop solutions and drive change. Give them the satisfaction of championing an idea, and seeing it through from concept to completion. If we dampen their fire, they will leave for more exciting opportunities elsewhere. Indeed, many good ideas have emerged this way. Workfare had its roots in an Amoeba Team, while young officers from the Ministry of Finance were the ones driving the design of the Wage Credit Scheme in Budget 2013.

We must institutionalise these arrangements and make this the prevailing ethos of the Civil Service. This means changing how the Service engages its officers. We should encourage more bottom-up initiatives, and use Whole-of-Government platforms like the Strategic Issues Group to overcome Ministry silos. We should explore new ways to “stress-test” our approaches, such as by using “red teams”.

Upholding Values and The Public Good

These changes can be unsettling. In this “messier” environment, we may feel off-balance at times, but we cannot go off-course. Always let our core values guide us, and remember that our role is to serve Singaporeans and Singapore. This is true for both political leaders and civil servants. Three values in particular are salient.

Firstly, always carry ourselves with the highest standards of integrity and incorruptibility. This is fundamental to our mission, and a key factor in Singapore’s success. Our system functions properly because policies are developed for the public good rather than for private or vested interests. We do not tolerate any impropriety. Anyone breaking the rules will be caught and punished, whatever his post and however embarrassing it may be. If we lower our standards, we are headed down a slippery slope.

Secondly, serve with humility. Let us do the right things and do things right, but never be self-righteous or arrogant. Being humble also means accepting that Government does not have all the answers. That is why we must engage the public more, to walk in their shoes and tap their diverse perspectives.

Lastly, always be stewards of the public good. We are in positions of authority, and must live up to the trust bestowed on us. Stewardship also means improving those around us — our colleagues, the rest of the Civil Service, and most importantly the lives of Singaporeans. Ultimately, stewardship means developing our successors and handing on to them a better Singapore than the one we inherited.

The Government does not have all the answers. That is why we must engage the public more, to walk in their shoes and tap their divese perspectives.


Building a better Singapore is what Government is about. This is an exciting time to be in the business of governance. The world and Singapore are changing rapidly, but the possibilities are endless. Despite our challenges, I am confident we can succeed. We have an excellent Civil Service and Administrative Service, a strong base to scale loftier heights and a shared passion to improve Singaporeans’ lives. We must Listen with empathy, Labour with conviction and Lead with humility. Let us persevere in our mission to create a brighter future for all Singaporeans.


Lee Hsien Loong is the third Prime Minister of Singapore. This article is an adaptation of a speech delivered at the 25th Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony on 27 March 2013.

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