Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Integrity in Action - Public Service Values Conference 2015


DPM Teo Chee Hean
Permanent Secretary Yong Ying-I, Chairman of Civil Service College
Mr Wong Hong Kuan, Director of CPIB
Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen

          I am very happy to be here today for the Public Service Values Conference. I would like to thank the Civil Service College and CPIB for putting together this conference and bringing you here together, to share with one another.

Public Service has played a key role in Singapore’s history

2        This year, we are celebrating SG50. It is a 50-year journey which has taken us as a people and taken Singapore from third world to first. The Public Service has played a very important role in this journey, because you have worked hand-in-hand with the political leadership and with the people of Singapore. You have served as able stewards for Singapore, helped to design and implement bold policies, and improved the lives of our people. We have housed 80% of our population in HDB flats; we have built a world-class education system; we have created many good jobs for Singaporeans. Lives have changed.

3        This success was the result of effort from public service officers past and present, at all levels – frontline officers such as SAF servicemen and Home Team officers who kept Singapore safe; teachers who nurtured our children; healthcare workers who took care of us when we were ill; procurement officers, human resource partners and support staff who made our organisations tick, quietly behind the scene; policymakers who helped the leadership make the best decisions for Singaporeans.

4        Each of you has different roles, different talents, but all of you work together in the public service to serve Singapore and to serve Singaporeans. So I am very glad today that we have many officers from many different agencies, holding different responsibilities at all levels, come together for this seminar.

Trust in the Public Service is key

5        One principal reason why the Public Service has been able to do good for Singapore was because you have enjoyed trust from Singaporeans. We trust the Public Service to carry out your duties capably and competently. And we trust the Public Service to act with integrity, always in the public interest.

6        This trust that Singaporeans have in the public service as an institution, and in each one of you individually as public servants, is crucial, because you are making important decisions that affect many people’s lives. If you are making policies, that affects many lives at once. If you are frontline, dealing with people face-to-face, you are affecting somebody each time you interact with him. You are managing projects which together cost billions of dollars, and the public has to be confident that public officers are acting fairly and impartially, dealing with everyone, as the terms go, without fear or favour, without affection or ill will.

7        Because you have such important responsibilities, the public must be able to trust you.  Trust you on what? Trust you that your heart is in the right place. Trust you that you are working not for personal gain, but for national interest. Trust you that you can and you will do your job well. Therefore, because people trust you, you have a duty and responsibility to do your best to safeguard that public trust. And if any of you does something wrong and breaches that trust, you are not only letting down the public service or yourself, but you are also letting Singaporeans down, and you can do a lot of damage.

8        We watch Singapore’s rankings internationally on corruption, on transparency, on the quality of government, very closely.  Because how others assess us and our performance has an important influence on whether they are confident in Singapore, whether they are ready and prepared to invest here, whether they have respect for you and me, for Singaporeans, and in fact, whether we can hold our heads high in the world. Whether it is the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, which also measures corruption amongst other things, or the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, we track it, year by year.  We report it and we bring Singaporeans’ attention to it. Overall, we have done well – usually among the top few in the world, and in Asia, the top one or two and usually by a long way.

9        But because we are ranking up there, it also means that expectations of us are very high. This year, in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, we dropped two positions, from fifth place to seventh place. Well, you cannot know why people change their perception, because this is based on a survey, but we can guess and surmise that it could have something to do, and must have something to do with the high profile cases we have seen in the last couple of years – a Head of Department charged with exchanging sexual favours for favouring tender awards; even a case in CPIB itself, where a branch head misappropriated funds under his charge.  These cases hurt our reputation. They hurt our reputation with Singaporeans; they hurt our reputation internationally.

10       So we have got to continue to do better, and not let Singapore’s image be damaged, because that would be a disservice to the many exemplary officers we have, officers who quietly do their duty, are exposed to temptations, but say no, report it and do the right thing.  

11       Officers like SGT Goh Wee Kian or SGT Tan Kai Siang from Police CID, who were patrolling Geylang, which is a complicated environment. They came across a woman who was suspected of vice activities. The woman offered them a bribe, but they chose to do what was right.  They rejected the bribe offers. They arrested the woman, both for vice and one extra offence, one more charge – attempting to bribe police officers.  SGT Samuel Anandaraj Anthonyraj, an SCDF officer. He came across a traffic accident at Serangoon Road, found that the driver was drunk, and he stopped the drunk driver from fleeing the scene of the crime. The driver offered him $1,000 not to tell the Police.  He rejected the bribe, told the Police, and the offender was subsequently jailed. I spoke to SGT Samuel just now. I said it is not SCDF officer’s job to look for drunken driver.  He said, “Once in a lifetime.” This is “once in a lifetime” for SGT Samuel, but for us all, it is the standard that we must live by.

12       Overall, Singapore’s system is clean. We maintain high standards. But we must keep working at them, because the problem of corruption will never disappear completely.  It comes from human frailty. The temptations will always be there, and from time to time, somebody will succumb, out of weakness or of greed.  

13       That is why corruption is a problem in so many countries. In the developed countries, even the United States, if you follow the news recently, you would have noticed that one senior politician, an ex-Governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, was charged with illegally accepting gifts from a businessman who sought special treatment.  The businessman was also friends with his wife. He was convicted and jailed. And he is not the first governor to go to jail in America. In emerging economies, like China, it is also a very serious problem.  The Chinese used to uphold the Maoist ideal: 为人民服务, service to the people, completely self-sacrificing, I take nothing. If you leave five cents in your hotel room by accident, they would chase you down and give it back to you. But that was never the whole story. Over the last few decades, with the wealth created by the reforms and the opening up, corruption has become a very serious problem for the Chinese. Under President Xi Jinping, China has made anti-corruption a top priority. Because President Xi knows that fixing this and strengthening trust in the Chinese Communist Party and in the Chinese government is vital to his government’s legitimacy and to be able to run China and keep it stable. It can cause major upheavals. So he has been going after high-profile targets in a very determined way. Even in his New Year message, he spent a big part of his message talking about how important it was to continue to pursue anti-corruption.

14       That’s China, that’s America. In our own region, Southeast Asia, corruption is endemic. It is a cancer in so many countries. It is obvious to travellers, to investors, to anyone who does business. It goes by different names – sometimes people talk about money politics, sometimes people talk about KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism). I don’t have to give you examples.  You can see them in the newspapers. Or if you travel, you may well come across some of them yourselves. It happens.  

15       Fortunately, in such a complicated world, Singapore is the shining exception. But never take this for granted. Not only must we uphold our high standards, which already takes unremitting effort, but we must enhance them, and maintain our zero tolerance for corruption, regardless of the rank and seniority of the officers who may be involved. As the Chinese say, you must go after the “Tigers” and also the “flies”. Never let corruption take hold here, because once it takes root, it will be very difficult to weed out.

16       So remember: This level of trust that we enjoy, that the Singapore Public Service enjoys, and this degree of cleanliness and integrity in the public service, is a most unnatural state of affairs. So when corruption cases do come up, don’t be demoralised.  Punish the culprits, remedy the weaknesses, but work doubly hard to strengthen the trust that you have earned.

17       Today I would like to talk about three aspects to dealing with this problem. One, exercise strong leadership at all levels; two, emphasise integrity as a value which all of us must uphold; and three, strengthen our system, so that we have incentives to keep it clean and systems to detect things when they go wrong.


18       So first of all, the leadership must set the tone and continue to set the tone from the top all the way down, and act with integrity.

19       The PAP started this way. In 1959, Singapore gained self-government and General Elections were held. That was when the PAP fist came into power. But before the General Elections, the PAP had to make a very serious decision: Does it compete to gain power and to form the Government, or does it compete to win short of forming the government and be a strong opposition? If you compete to form the Government, you inherit all the problems which the Government would have – unemployment, housing, misery, education, the whole lot, plus the political problem of dealing with the communists within the PAP.  So why not let somebody else solve all those problems first? But if you had let somebody else solve all those problems first, and they had let the civil service go corrupt, which the British had kept mostly clean, the PAP was very concerned, the leaders – Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh, Kenny Byrne, Raja and so on –that once the civil service had gone corrupt, it is a cancer.  You cannot root it out again; it’s finished. So they decided to contest to win, to form the Government.  

20       They won, formed the Government, and ever since, we have kept the system clean and non-corrupt, now for more than 50 years. We have selected leaders who are honest and not corrupt.  We have subjected ourselves to the laws of the land. There is no different set of rules for Party members or for civil servants – we are all subject to the laws of Singapore. When wrongdoing is found, we do not hesitate to act.  From time to time, we have had Ministers who have got into trouble. From time to time, we have had cases which embarrass the Government. We have to act.

21       To keep the public service clean, we expect the same standards not only of Ministers, but of public service leaders at all levels, to abide by high standards yourselves, to ensure that their subordinates maintain equally high standards of conduct, and run a tight and disciplined outfit. When people stray, pull them back, put them right, and if necessary, report them and punishment has to follow. Whether you are a police sergeant walking the ground, a staff officer evaluating or administrating a big tender, or the CEO of a statutory board recommending which of different technologies the Government should go for, you must make it your duty to do your utmost to make sure that the system is clean, down the line and up the line, and report any wrongdoing that you come across, without fear or favour. So the first thing is there must be strong leadership. 


22       Secondly, we must continue to emphasise integrity as a key public service value, which means that every public officer must understand what Integrity means – that as public officers, you steward public resources, you shoulder a heavy responsibility, and you must always act in the national interest, and not for your personal advantage. And you have to act on this understanding.  Be prepared to take personal responsibility, be accountable to Singaporeans, and don’t make excuses for wrong actions or shirk responsibility to put things right. You have to believe in these values, believe, be convinced, that it is your duty to do the right thing and to serve Singaporeans.

23       In fact, integrity is not just a Public Service value, but is one which has been firmly ingrained in Singapore society.  Whether it is a public sector organisation or whether it is a private sector organisation or something in between, like town councils, we expect the same standards of integrity and honesty.  Singaporeans know this, so very few Singaporeans will consider offering a bribe to get something done or to get off the hook, because they know it will get them into more serious trouble. And Singaporeans go one step further, and do not hesitate to report wrongdoing. In fact, many corruption investigations, including cases from the private sector, start with tip-offs by members of the public or colleagues in the organisation who see something wrong and feel duty bound to report it.  This is the real achievement for us in Singapore: That these values have taken root in our society and we have created an anti-corruption culture in Singapore. So the second thing we must do is to entrench integrity as a value in the civil service. 


24       Thirdly, we must have a robust system in the civil service, a system that polices the high standards that we have set; a system that deters wrong-doing by bringing offenders to justice and reliably, with a high chance of catching you; a system which trusts our officers, and backs them up in their work, but also makes periodic checks to verify and make sure that if something is wrong, we will find out.

25       The CPIB plays a major role in this, because it enforces anti-corruption laws impartially and vigorously.  It investigates the cases thoroughly, it brings offenders to justice, and it has served us well over the years, kept Singapore clean, preserved our high reputation abroad. It is one of the initials in Singapore which is famous not only in Singapore – when you say CPIB, they know what you are talking about. They may not know what is inside the CPIB, but they don’t really want to find out, which is the way it should be.

26       This owes a great deal to CPIB officers past and present – directors and officers who work quietly behind the scenes to keep our system clean, like Evan Yeo, who was the former Director.  I had one dealing with him. One year, when I was in Defence – I was the Second Minister there, we unexpectedly came across a case of corruption involving an arms deal. This was back in 1987, so 28 years ago. It involved the head of a company which is jointly-owned by Mindef.  We discovered this one afternoon. I went to see the Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong. We settled it. I cleared the matter with him. It was about five or six o’clock in the evening. We called Evan Yeo, spoke to him. By nine o’clock, he had mounted a raid on the suspect’s home, seized the evidence, and eventually we convicted the man in court and he went to jail. He (Evan Yeo) did not stand around, he did not spend a few days wondering what to do. He knew what he needed to do, he did his duty.

27       That was 28 years ago, and since then, CPIB has handled many more difficult cases. Recently, it had had to handle cases with international links, for example, the case of football match-fixer Eric Ding. CPIB received a tip-off about an Asian Football Federation Cup match, and very quickly, within hours, Eric Ding’s involvement came to light. Within two days, CPIB secured confessions from conspirators, thwarted the matching-fixing attempt, and eventually secured the conviction of Eric Ding.

28       Because CPIB has been effective, they have been a good deterrent. Anyone thinking of straying will think twice because he knows he will most probably get caught.  And when he gets caught, he knows that he will be held fully accountable under the law regardless of rank, background, connection, or how much embarrassment he would cause.

29       We will keep strengthening the CPIB. We are reviewing the Prevention of Corruption Act, and we are going to increase CPIB’s manpower as well, and capabilities.

30       But fighting corruption is more than just having a strong CPIB. We must keep all of our government systems up to date – procedures, IT system, processes. For example, we constantly review our procurement rules, the appropriate approving authorities and spending limits. When we need to change, we find loopholes, we will fix them. After the Brompton bike’s case, we changed our processes. We may still need to buy foldable bikes, but we make sure we do it honestly and there is no hanky-panky involved. We can use, and we will use technology to detect wrongdoing in an environment which is more complex, which is faster paced.  For example, we have got computers, we have got information systems, we can use big data. With big data, you can bring all the information together, scan it, spot irregularities in transactions, so we can zoom in and make enquiries when something looks doubtful. Why is it that the contract amounts are always just below the limit?  Three quotes, no tender – why are the quotes always from similar companies?  Is there a pattern there that pops out, which we should be able to spot? I think MOF is giving you a presentation later on how they are doing this.

31       Thirdly, when we talk about system, we must also talk about incentives and rewards. The civil service has to recognise and reward the right behaviour, not just ability and performance – how well you are doing on your job, but also good character and moral stewardship. Therefore, we make sure that our officers are paid properly, paid commensurate with their job responsibility, and we make sure we insist on high standards and high performance. So if you are not performing, you have to move; if you are performing, you are properly rewarded and we treat you properly. This way, by being honest about this, by being direct and doing the correct thing, we avoid the problems of other countries which pay officers unrealistically low wages, resulting in endemic corruption at all levels.  This is one of the difficulties which the Chinese have, because it is very hard for them, in an environment where people doubt the standing of the public service, to raise the pay of the public service and explain that I have to pay people properly so that I would reduce the problem of corruption.  They say you stop being corrupt first, and then I pay you afterwards. It is a chicken and egg problem, and let us not get into that chicken and egg situation.      

32       The public also plays an important role because they too share the public sector’s zero tolerance for corruption.  We can do more to increase public engagement, so that more people can do their part. We are going to set up a One-Stop Corruption Reporting Centre so that people can make complaints discreetly and in a more accessible manner. And we are setting up a permanent Heritage Gallery to educate the public.  

The next 50 years

33       As we look forward to the next 50 years, these are things we need to do to strengthen the value of integrity in the public service – strong leadership, entrenching the value, and having good systems which will make sure that the value can be put into action. And that can keep Singapore exceptional.

34       Very few other countries can boast of such a clean, zealous and well-qualified pool of public officers.  This is an enduring competitive advantage for Singapore, and a major reason why we have achieved so much over the last 50 years.  People say, what have you got? You have got no gold, you have got no land, you have got no oil.  What have you got? I have got my people; I have got my system. The people are well-educated, and the system is not easy to replicate. You can look and see how we do it, but to do it in another country with a different history, with a different culture, not so easy. There are clean countries in the world with different histories, but we have become one of those few countries with such a high reputation, and we have to stay there.

35       A first-rate Public Service will help us to keep ahead of the pack as we venture into the next chapter of the Singapore story.  Singapore expects and deserves a first class Public Service, and an overwhelming majority of you meet and exceed these high expectations every day. As public service officers, you play a vital role in achieving our shared vision, and making Singapore a better home for all.

36       So I hope you will carry the sense of mission with you always. I hope you will find something useful from this seminar and take it back to your colleagues in all your different organisations and tell them: This is important, and the leaders, the Ministers, the PM consider this important and we expect this of civil servants.  

37       I wish you a meaningful and fulfilling journey in the Public Service as you put integrity into action. Thank you very much.

Last updated: 01 Feb 2016