DPM Wong almost left the service when he was a young MOF officer. But he trusted his boss’ advice.


Trustworthiness can be distilled to the twin principles of honour – honouring our word, and honouring one another, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.

He was speaking about how Singapore can strengthen trust levels and maintain itself as a high-trust society at the Honour International Symposium last Friday (Sep 16).

Besides highlighting the fact that a high-trust society in Singapore did not happen by chance and was built assiduously by our forefathers, DPM Wong also shared an anecdote with his former boss, Mr Lim Siong Guan, former Permanent Secretary at MOF and in the Prime Minister’s Office. Mr Lim is also the founder-chairman of Honour (Singapore), a charity that seeks to promote the culture of honour and honouring in Singapore.

A wise boss

DPM Wong might have left Government service around the turn of the millennium, if not for his boss then.

“When I started work in the civil service more than 20 years ago, I was in the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and Siong Guan was my Permanent Secretary then,” said DPM Wong about the early years of his career.

“What you may not have heard is that when I was a young officer, a young economist, back then in the Government, I had not yet found my calling in public service.”

“So I was getting restless and private sector beckoned at that time, beckoned with more enticing offers, a better job, more salary. I was very tempted to leave. In fact, I had an offer and I was going to leave,” he continued.

“But somehow word got around, I don’t know how. Siong Guan heard about it, and asked to see me.”

“When he saw me, he just told me very gently that I should be patient. There are opportunities in the public service which I may not have found. If I continued on, I would see for myself that I will be able to do things in public service that I would not be able to do in the private sector, remembered DPM Wong.

“And so I heeded his advice. I stayed on, and I soon indeed realised that my job started to grow considerably and I was doing a lot of meaningful work, work that I certainly could never have done in the private sector — work that entailed national policies, or working with fellow Singaporeans to design different schemes and programmes. All of which would not have been possible if I had left and went to the private sector.”

Honour and trust build Singapore

The people trust the Government because the Government honours its word and honours Singaporeans.

“A commitment to honouring our word means that: We act consistently — be it in domestic or international matters. Which means we uphold the rule of law, with zero tolerance for corruption, so that people and businesses here have confidence that they can be treated fairly in Singapore and can operate effectively here,” said DPM Wong.

“Because we deliver on our promises as a Government, businesses and people also trust that we mean what we say.”

“We adopt this approach when we deal with other countries too; dealing honestly with them and holding true to our word and our interests, even if it means having to disagree with bigger powers from time to time,” he continued.

And as for honouring one another?

“We have long recognised that our Singapore’s progress and our people’s well-being go hand in hand,” said DPM Wong. “We made uplifting every worker the core of our economic mission, and we have forged a harmonious tripartite relationship and partnership between employers, labour unions and the Government based on this common cause.”

“We have built an education system geared to maximise the potential of every child, regardless of background,” he added. “We have worked hard to provide affordable public housing to all Singaporeans, so everyone can have a stake in the nation’s progress.”

“Beyond that, we have learnt to embrace our diversity, and respect our differences regardless of race, language or religion – preserving space for each community to lead their own lives while continually seeking to expand the common ground we share together as Singaporeans.”

“So honouring our word and honouring one another, these are ways in which we have consistently managed to build and strengthen trust in Singapore.”   

Addressing real concerns while Singapore moves forward

These ideas of maximising human potential and giving different people a stake in the grand story of Singapore are present in the ongoing Forward Singapore exercise.

“Fortunately, our income gap has been narrowing over the last decade,” said DPM Wong. “But let’s say if we had the opposite trend in Singapore and you had sharp increases in income and wealth gaps in our society, if people feel that their lives can’t improve and their children cannot aspire to better, and the system only benefits a few at the top, trust will surely plummet.”

Similarly, trust gets eroded when different groups in Singapore do not have their anxieties and concerns addressed.

“If students continually feel that they are pigeon-holed in a system where stakes are very high from early in life,” gave DPM Wong as an example. “Or older workers who struggle after being displaced or retrenched and unable to find jobs. Those who do not meet the traditional yardsticks of merit in our society may feel beaten down by early failure, and feel discouraged from trying again.”

“If we don’t tackle their concerns adequately, they will certainly feel estranged from the rest of society, and feel that the system is not on their side.”

That is why the Forward Singapore exercise was launched — to engage different groups and communities, to arrive at a consensus on how Singaporeans can build a better, fairer and more inclusive nation together.

“Singapore did not just happen. It has been an act of creation, of Singaporeans working together, caring for one another, not just hoping for a better future but willing to try, even to fail, and always learning and pushing on,” said DPM Wong.

“It is people that make the Singapore identity, our national character and our core strengths,” emphasised DPM Wong.

“Ultimately, it is all of us who will decide on how we want to chart our way forward together as a nation.”

Cover photo credit: DPM Wong Facebook