15 Years of Challenge: A Retrospect

It is said that to go forward, one must also look back. Thus we trace the evolution of Challenge from its first issue 15 years ago, its transformation from serious newsletter to glossy magazine – and hear from the people behind those precious pages.

The date: December 1995. The cover story: Sunny Start to PS21 Public Sector WITS Convention. The catch phrase: “Excellence through Continuous Enterprise and Learning”.

This was one of the stories in the first issues of Challenge – then a 12-page newsletter launched in conjunction with a key movement aimed at spurring innovation in the Public Service, known as PS21.

Challenge, in fact, became a “critical medium” for communicating PS21 and the Public Service’s core values, said Mr Lim Siong Guan, the former Head of Civil Service who mooted the movement.

The magazine helped to “encourage and inspire participation in PS21 by sharing examples of ideas and achievements from across the Public Service,” Mr Lim explained. This meant articles on awards, reports on the programmes undertaken by Ministries, and highlights on service improvements.

The magazine’s name, recalled Mr David Ma, the pioneering Chairman of Editorial Committee from 1995 to 1996, was an acknowledgement of the challenges of making PS21 a sustainable movement.

“PS21 is not about the destination, a change to an end state; it is about a journey to excellence, a journey that is never-ending. I proposed that we named the newsletter ‘Challenge’, and the bosses agreed. That was a good beginning,” said Mr Ma.

Lim Siong Guan
Mr Lim Siong Guan, former Head of Civil Service who mooted the PS21 movement in 1995

The Changing Public Service

As PS21 gained momentum and evolved, so did the magazine. Reflecting the new culture of the Public Service, it became more introspective, proactive, and attuned to the changing needs of its stakeholders.

Initially focused on PS21 and reporting events and schemes, Challenge went on to include in-depth features and profiles.

“As the Service become more diverse and the ‘Y-generation’ emerged, the focus again grew to include sharing of individual officers’ perspectives and views,” noted Mr Boo Chong-Han, Principal of Bedok View Secondary School and a former editorial committee member (2004-2006).

Significantly, one man’s views stood out – in the form of letters no longer than 500 words each. Written by Mr Lim, the insightful pieces were to become a distinct part of the magazine from 1999 to 2005.

Looking back, Mr Lim said those letters – about 60 in all – were aimed at public officers, “everyone [of whom] can play a part and be an activist for change”. They expressed the values and aspirations of PS21, which included being “the best it can be, harness the creativity of its people, and be in time for the future”.

Challenge has certainly taken these messages on board. Today, it embodies the growing diversity and confidence of the Public Service. “We are more able to be self-critical,” Mr Boo said. “From being seen as a mere mouthpiece of the PS21 movement, the magazine today reflects the dynamism and the pulse of the Public Service.”

Rachel Quek
Ms Rachel Quek, Editor (2007-2008)

Quiet Rebel

Notably, the sea change that would redefine Challenge came about four years ago when the magazine went through its “teenage” years, taking on a questioning and self-referential tone in the search of its own voice and style.

At the helm from 2007 to 2008 as editor was Ms Rachel Quek. “[When I took over], Challenge had a reputation for being boring and propagandist. It was just another free publication in your in-tray that will go unread or just a placemat for your chicken rice at lunch.”

Breaking from tradition, stories began to feature more personalities and took on an edgier and more analytical tone, adding energy, value and depth for a more accessible and interesting read.

And this – as can be expected – was not easy. One memorable example was the Member of Public (MOP) series where Challenge writers would experience first-hand – and incognito – the services provided by different agencies. “We got a lot of flak from agencies for that!” Ms Quek recalled. “That series embodied where we wanted to go – pushing boundaries but more importantly, setting people thinking on how things could be improved in the Service.”

Ultimately, the re-haul was an important direction to take, she said, even though “it was extremely difficult to walk the fine line between pushing the line and yet not alienating anyone”

 Boo Chong Han
Mr Boo Chong Han, Editorial Advisor (2004-2006)

Voices And Faces

Also, “Challenge has to reach out to a very diverse group of people,” said Ms Quek. “How do you be something to everyone?”

And so, a “concerted” effort was made to interview “real people”, said Mr Boo. A wide spectrum of public officers has graced the pages of the magazine, from award winners, public officers from different sectors, to permanent secretaries and CEOs.

After all, “people love to read about those they know, or about themselves,” said Ms Quek. “This could be seen as frivolous and departing from the conventional in-house government magazine, but it was precisely what was needed to create some buzz.”

The inclusion of people “just like me” in the magazine appeals to readers such as Mr Lee Khum Thong, a Senior Prison Officer. “I’ve noticed that an increasing number of ordinary civil servants are being invited to share their perceptions or lifestyles, or even be fashion models for a day. It is nice to give them a platform and debunk the myth of the straight-laced civil servant,” he said.

David Ma
Mr David Ma, Pioneer Chairman, Editorial Committee (1995-1996)

Challenge For The Future

Taking the magazine onto its next phase is Editor Tay Li Shing, who came on board in 2009. Ms Tay and her team hopes to build an even wider readership and continue improving. “[We need to] keep pushing the boundaries, while staying true to our values, in line with the genesis and ethos of Challenge!”

“The aim,” she said, “is to build a real sense of camaraderie and help our officers see how we are all part of a larger organisation called the Public Service.” This means being unafraid to talk about problems, as well as being just as ready to showcase the achievements of the Public Service.

From newsletter to magazine, a carrier of campaign messages to meaty read – the evolution of Challenge is reflective of the Service, noted Ms Quek. “It shows that the Service is not boring or staid, and that there’s a different dimension to the Service and the people.” Ms Tay added: “We want to have a chance to reflect, be engaged and to grow. And, we are starting to lighten up and be able to laugh at ourselves too.”

Everyone loves (a) Challenge!

Many times [Challenge] is relevant and thought-provoking. For example the March/April 2010 issue which focused on silver generation set me thinking about the things that I would like to do when I reach old age.
Mdm Ong Tian Nah, Curriculum Planning & Development Division, MOE
The most memorable article for me was the interview with our former Police Commissioner. He touched on corruption within the police force years back which involved a syndicate of senior police officers – It provided a wake-up call that ‘infernal affairs’ is not only restricted to the movies. It’s as real as it gets, even in corruption free Singapore.
Mr Ng JunqiPublic Service Division, PMO
    May 12, 2010
    Sheralyn Tay
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