"Change Is Difficult But Inevitable"

Mr Chan Heng Kee, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Social And Family Development, is not only concerned with building a more caring society, he also wants to make sure his staff can cope with the raft of changes sweeping across the social sector.
Chan Heng Kee

A degree in electrical engineering, and posts in the manpower ministry and Workforce Development Agency (WDA). A quick glance at the CV of Mr Chan Heng Kee may suggest a man of numbers and facts, but any such notion was at once dismissed by the man himself.

“I don’t see it that way,” he countered when Challenge referred to his “affinity” for “hard” subjects. His undertaking at the Ministry of Manpower, early in his Public Service career, he said, was “as social as you can get” – helping those who had lost their jobs during the Asian financial crisis regain employment – and “humbling”.

“You see breadwinners who have been loyal to their companies for many years lose their jobs and become suddenly helpless, through no fault of their own,” recalled the 45-year-old. He later worked again to help workers hurt by the global financial crisis of 2008 while at WDA.

Now as Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), Mr Chan, no longer a newcomer to “soft” issues, is tasked with building a more caring Singapore. The ministry was restructured from the former Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, partly to allow a greater focus on helping the most vulnerable segments of society.

Since its formation in November 2012, MSF has been quietly but steadily reforming and improving our social services, such as setting up Social Service Offices island-wide to bring help closer to needy Singaporeans.


Changes in store

Topping Mr Chan’s to-do list is to build up manpower capability in the social services sector, “the key” to its success, he said. “Developing empathy, building trust and confidence, and hand-holding a vulnerable individual or family – these require human interactions and close relationships, which cannot be automated.” 

He also wants to boost support from the community. “We cannot build a caring society with just government money and services. We need fellow Singaporeans to get involved, to complement what the government is doing.”

He understands this well from his own experience. His son, now 17, had benefited from services offered by voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs). Born premature at 26 weeks, the boy had difficulties with motor skills and co-ordination, and attended riding therapy sessions at the Riding for the Disabled Association of Singapore.

“At his sessions, I saw how the involvement of volunteers to complement professional therapists did something special for both the beneficiaries and volunteers,” said Mr Chan. “Government services alone cannot replicate [that].”

In May, MSF organised the first Social Service Partners Conference to build a wider community of support beyond the government and VWOs. The event got a diverse group of 800 partners – academics, trainers and representatives from social enterprises and corporate entities – discussing change and challenges in the social sector.


When change is the only constant

Change, however, can be onerous, Mr Chan acknowledged.

“Change is difficult but inevitable,” he said. “For every person who says we should slow things down, there are others who would say that what we are doing is long overdue.

“We have been engaging the sector closely. Most agree that the broad direction is right, but ask for better clarity, close communication and support to ensure that we can all move along at the right pace.” This means that change cannot be a fleeting “shooting star”, he said, but ought to be sustained.

“We started a change movement two years ago, characterised by the motto ‘B Unusual’, which means Business Unusual. Rather than adopting a business-as-usual mindset, we’d better start thinking of business as unusual each day, and how we can do things differently.”

A certain empowerment should be in place to allow decisions to be made. Sometimes, the decisions may turn out to be wrong or mistakes are made. We learn from them and do better next time.

Empowering staff

One way he wants things done differently is to empower staff to speak up, make decisions and not be afraid to err.

Once, in a meeting, he had asked everyone at the table for their opinion on a policy issue. Later he received an e-mail from a middle manager, thanking him for valuing her input. “I was happy … because it showed that I did the right thing, but the feeling soon gave way to sadness. The fact that she wrote it says that, within our organisation, we are not tapping the views of our staff sufficiently. We must do better!

“Rather than having to clear everything with the ‘bosses’, a certain empowerment should be in place to allow decisions to be made. Sometimes, the decisions may turn out to be wrong or mistakes are made. We learn from them and do better next time.”

He was similarly optimistic when Challenge suggested that regardless of the changes he is effecting, Singapore’s youths still do not perceive social services as an attractive career.

“It’s already changing,” he stressed. “I talk to many young people, including students, returning scholarship holders and professionals. I sense a rising interest in careers in social ministries and the wider social sector. They [are] yearning … to have a different meaning in their career.”

To attract talent and improve job diversity, MSF is trying a new model. The National Council of Social Service will be funded to centrally recruit and groom up to 300 social service professionals, who will be rotated to different agencies and VWOs within the sector.

“We can then meet aspirations of those who desire greater job diversity. This also offers another way to groom leadership for the sector,” Mr Chan explained.

And to make sure that MSF staff are able to drive change, up to 50 scholarships and training awards are now given out annually.

“We have to first invest in ourselves so that we have the capabilities to do these things. I also encourage my colleagues to have a drawer of ideas and experiments. The time for trying them may not be now, but one day the timing will be right. We’ve got to be ready to seize the opportunity.”


What's in your cuppa?
Kopi - O.

How do you like it?
The way the traditional coffee shops serve it.

Where do you have it?
If not in a coffee shop, then at the staff canteen on the 5th floor of the MSF building, usually before 7.30am, where my colleagues know they can find me.

    Jul 2, 2014
    Wong Sher Maine
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