“People are promoted based on performance”: Minister Chan Chun Sing challenges perception that public service favours scholarship holders

Minister-in-charge of Public Service Chan Chun Sing has challenged the perception that scholarship holders in public service tend to be promoted faster than regular employees and mid-career hires, as he believes that people are promoted based on performance.

In an interview with The Straits Times last Thursday (4 Feb), Mr Chan, who is also the Minister for Trade and Industry, was asked on his opinion about the perception that the public service favours scholarship holders when it comes to career progression.

“I think there’s more than a fair chance that people are promoted based on their performance.

“But, of course, whether we invested in a person before or not, we all hope that they succeed,” said the Minister.

Mr Chan stressed that not all scholarship holders rise to the top, and that there are “great expectations” of those who have been given great opportunities.

“I’m quite confident that the public service has a certain diversity of backgrounds and there’s a continuous meritocracy. And that’s one of the reasons we constantly evolve our selection and development system,” he added.

Mr Chan also hinted that public service will seek to recruit talent from the private and people sectors, and send more officers on external attachments, to stay agile and mobilise diversity.

He highlighted three forces that the public sector is grappling with at present.

Firstly is the increased level of uncertainty in geopolitics, economics and society, caused by the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The second force is the intensified external competition, while the third force is the diverse population of race and/or religion as well as aspirations and perspectives.

Due to these forces, the public service has to shore up resilience by staying agile, anticipate opportunities to keep ahead of the competition, and mobilise diversity when developing solutions, said Mr Chan.

He cited how government agencies had to adapt to changing circumstances amid the tightened distancing measures in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Manpower Ministry and Enterprise Singapore, for example, had to reorganise themselves to answer thousands of phone calls from businesses who had questions on what they could and could not do under the new rules, Mr Chan added.

“You never know what the next crisis might be, but this agility to reconfigure for resilience of the system is critical,” he noted.

The Minister believes that while Singapore is adapting to a new normal, the country also has to adopt a “start-up mindset” and find ways to quickly seize opportunities.

“We need to constantly think of new ideas to entrench our relevance, to not be bypassed,” he said, adding that the crisis reaffirmed Singapore’s position of always trying to think at least two steps ahead.

When being asked about the diversity in the public service, Mr Chan noted that there is a range of talents and skillsets in society.

To Mr Chan, however, the question is: “How do we bring them together into teams to work?”

The Minister shared how he had encouraged the exchange of people between the public sector and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) where he was the secretary-general from 2015 to 2018.

He was informed by NTUC that a candidate it had received was not skilled enough at operations and mobilisation, while the government agency felt its newly employed officer was not adept at policymaking.

“I said: ‘Actually, I think that’s the point’,” said Mr Chan, adding that any new hire from outside the public service must adapt to a new culture.

“But the very fact that we want to bring in a new person is because we want some of the culture in the existing system to evolve a bit,” he noted.

Netizens urge public service to emphasise work performance over “paper qualifications”

Penning their thoughts under the comment section of ST’s Facebook post, many netizens pointed out that public service tends to emphasise the employees’ education level when it comes to career progression, rather than their work performance.

One user shared his experience of trying to move into public service, saying that the private sector gives higher salary to more experienced employees, whereas career progression in the public sector will “peg mainly to your education certificates”.

“So it really depends on individual, if you are academic strong with good grades public sector is the path you want to take. Technical capable and robust skills like myself, private sector will be the path to take,” he noted.

Another netizen commented that the problem with attracting talent to the public sector is the “scholarship scheme”.

“They will be primary forces entrenched in their own world of public sector, polices, red tapes, map to success, KPIs and etc.. Why would outsider want to join and expect their ideas will change and evolve the private sector with this scholars around?” he wrote.

Such a perception may hold back private-sector individuals from joining public sector

Though Mr Chan noted that public service will increasingly seek to recruit talent from the private sector, this may be difficult to achieve due to the perception that the current system in public service favours civil servants and military officers when it comes to career progression.

Previously in 2018, former Member of Parliament (MP) Inderjit Singh noted that such a perception may hinder private-sector individuals from joining political office.

“When we have so many people of the same mould – military officers and (those) from the civil service forming the bulk of the political office holders, it will be a negative in attracting people from the private sector who may have a very different perspective of things and who will feel they will be a minority in Cabinet, and therefore may not be able to make a big difference,” Mr Singh told TODAY.

Additionally, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said that the Government has to demonstrate that joining the public service is a “higher calling”.

“It may seem like a motherhood statement and trying to lean on people’s idealism. But I would be worried if people see it as another job that they could get rich at, accumulate influence, power and wealth,” he said.

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