Trust between political leaders and civil servants key: Heng

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also the minister in charge of the civil service, at the annual Administrative Service dinner and promotion ceremony yesterday. Mr Heng had been invited to speak at the e
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also the minister in charge of the civil service, at the annual Administrative Service dinner and promotion ceremony yesterday. Mr Heng had been invited to speak at the event by Mr Teo.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

This builds a virtuous circle of good politics and good policies, says Finance Minister at public service event

The trust between Singapore's political leaders and the civil service helps to build what Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat calls a "virtuous circle of good politics and good policies".

This, he said at the annual Administrative Service dinner and promotion ceremony yesterday, "is a rare, precious and fragile thing".

"Its value to our people and what it brings to our young nation is incalculable," he added. "Beyond appreciating it, we must each play our part in it, and our part to safeguard and strengthen it."

The political leadership trusts that the non-partisan civil service serves the government of the day by formulating and implementing sound policies that serve the citizens and strengthen the nation, he said.

In turn, the public service trusts that the political leadership has its back, and that leaders will put all their efforts into winning and keeping the people's trust, so that public servants can continue to do their work with utmost integrity, he noted in his speech at the dinner.

Yesterday's event saw 16 officers appointed to the Administrative Service and 57 promoted.

Mr Heng said he had been invited to speak by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also the minister in charge of the civil service and was the guest of honour.

In previous years, the keynote address had been delivered by ministers including Mr Teo and Mr Ong Ye Kung, who leads the innovation drive in the public service.

Mr Heng called on the public service to develop "its unique model of innovating, in fidelity to its responsibilities to the public".

It must innovate: question the status quo, consider what should be kept or changed, and experiment with new ways of doing its work.

But even as it takes risks, the public service cannot "fail fast, learn fast" like start-ups, as this could erode citizens' trust, investor confidence and more, he cautioned.

It is a critical time as major shifts loom over the horizon, such as the rise of Asia; of technology changing the way people live; as well as trends of ageing, shifting aspirations and new or growing social divides. All these pose challenges that extend beyond the remit of any single ministry, said Mr Heng, in an echo of key themes in his Budget speech in February.

He urged public servants to study these major changes carefully and to take a long-term view in preparing for disruptions ahead.

INSIGHTS FROM AN OLD BBC SITCOM

Preparing for this speech, I thought about the old BBC sitcom Yes, Minister.

I have filled the roles, at different times, of each of the main characters - Jim Hacker, the minister; Sir Humphrey Appleby, his permanent secretary (PS); and Bernard Woolley, the minister's PPS (principal private secretary).

Yes, Minister gets its humour from the dysfunctionality that arises when there is no trust between politicians and public servants, with a minister who is forever caught up in fighting short-term issues, a PS who is more occupied with maintaining turf than serving the public, and a poor PPS caught in between.

None of them quite focused on the larger national task.

We are very lucky that, in Singapore, we don't have this situation. Our public service and political leadership share two critical things: common causes and trust.

FINANCE MINISTER HENG SWEE KEAT

Also speaking at the event was civil service head Leo Yip, who thanked three former permanent secretaries for their service - Mr Peter Ong, who headed the civil service as well, Mr Tan Tee How and Mr Choi Shing Kwok, who all retired over the past year.

Mr Yip said the same driving forces affecting Singapore affect the public service as well.

There is a need to embrace technology and adjust processes for an ageing workforce, he said.

Outlining the characteristics critical for change, Mr Yip said the public service should push the boundaries of possibilities, and think and act as one. Increasingly, the solutions to problems are multidimensional in nature, he said, and agencies must work together to deal with issues that cut across the domains of different ministries.

He added that in an era of rapid innovation and change, one must not be paralysed by an overdose of deliberation or fear of failure.

"The public does not benefit from just good ideas," he said. "It is only when good ideas are translated into good action can we bring tangible benefits to our people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2018, with the headline 'Trust between political leaders and civil servants key: Heng'. Print Edition | Subscribe