Will Minister Ong Ye Kung’s speech about government innovation change anything?

By October 12, 2017Current

TL;DR – It was a great speech. What next?

“The race is on; the stakes are high. I do not think there is time for excuses. I do not think there is time to lose.”

That was the message that Minister Ong Ye Kung to 2,300 senior officials at the Public Service Conference 2017.

In that speech, Minister Ong explained why it’s vital for our government to be innovative, the obstacles to innovation, and how we can overcome those obstacles.

Why it’s vital for our government to be innovative

Minister Ong pointed out that many countries around the world are moving quickly in the “innovation game”. This includes small, nimble countries like Estonia, and large countries like China and India. They do this because of the Darwinian nature of global competition. If we lose in this game, the consequences are dire. Minister Ong explained:

“But for countries, we run on a different logic. We cannot close down. We do not go bankrupt per se. We cannot retrench our citizens. But countries can be broken. Countries can be impoverished and it can bring severe hardship to people. So countries, too, need to constantly rethink, reinvent themselves, to stay relevant, to gain a foothold in the international division of labour. And in this era of technological disruption, this is the economic challenge of our time.”

But can our government do it? Can our government be innovative?

The obstacles to innovation

There are signs to suggest that Singapore doesn’t have the environment that is conducive for innovation. Minister recounted a visit to a polytechnic. The principal showed him some of the projects that students have done over the years. One was a project done over ten years ago that was essentially a shared taxi service project, i.e. Uber.

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But, as Minister Ong pointed out:

“Uber was not born in Singapore or executed here. It was started in San Francisco by a couple of youngsters who were not happy that they could not get a taxi.”

It goes to show that ideas are cheap. True innovation that really creates value depends on the excellent implementation of the idea. So what’s stopping us from being more innovative?

Minister Ong suggested that the main obstacle is public servants themselves. He observed that public servants spend a lot more time “enforcing rules, coming up with new rules, or regulating something more tightly” than “reviewing rules, reassessing the pros and cons, the risks and the returns, applying the rules differently, and exercising more judgement, so that more new and innovative activities can happen”.

What are the reasons for this? Minister Ong suggested the following reasons:

  1. Misunderstanding the concept of “whole-of-government” approach to mean “every agency having its own vested interest, having a veto right, and making the possible impossible.”
  2. No time
  3. No budget or manpower
  4. No support from bosses

Are these obstacles insurmountable? Minister Ong doesn’t think so.

How can we overcome these obstacles?

To address the issue of not having time, Minister Ong said:

“Innovation is like exercise. You make time… we must make innovation a core responsibility of every senior public officer. And over time, this core responsibility becomes a habit.”

He also pointed out that “innovation is not really about having a big budget, more manpower, or a lot of time”. Instead, the best ideas often come about because we are very short of resources and because of ome desperate need.

Finally, Minister Ong reminded the audience that they are all public officers of a certain seniority here so they are all bosses here. They can empower their staff and themselves to do something. He said:

“So do not wait for that grand plan. Do not wait for the boss to tell you that this is the vision and this is the grand plan in order to start doing something today.”

Will this speech result in any change?

It was a great speech. It really was, and we would recommend that everyone reads or watches it. Here’s the link.

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But will the senior public officers in the audience really get the message? Will senior public officers really stick their necks out and take the risk to be innovative? We aren’t optimistic.


Former Head of Civil Service Ngiam Tong Dow famously said this:

“When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollar, every minister — no matter how much he wants to turn up and tell Hsien Loong off or whatever — will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary. Even if he wants to do it, his wife will stop him”

He eventually retracted that statement.

But think about it. Senior public officers are very well paid. Would they do anything to risk that high pay and steady upward trajectory in their career path? Unlikely. The disincentives of trying to be innovative and failing is far higher than the rewards of being successful in being innovative.

So we think that if Minister Ong is truly serious about getting the government to be more innovative, he needs  to revolutionise manpower policies of the public service. For a start, the public service should abandon forced rankings of public servants. That’s one of the things that Microsoft did to regain its innovative edge. Speaking of Microsoft, Minster Ong should also learn how Microsoft inculcated a growth mindset in its employees.

If Minister Ong can do those things, we think he will have a far better chance of getting the government to be innovative.

Can it be done? We hope so.

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Because, as Minister Ong emphasized, “there is no time to lose”.


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Joey Wee

Author Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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