The Real Grind Of Leadership

Since joining the National Youth Council, David Chua’s leadership style has taken a different path. In this interview with Challenge, he opens up on his leadership journey and his experiences with Singapore’s youth.

When Mr David Chua first came on the job as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Youth Council (NYC) in 2016, he recalled going through a rollercoaster of emotions when working on one of his first few projects, the National Outdoor Adventure Education Masterplan with the Ministry of Education (MOE).

As part of the project, NYC was tasked to build a new campus for Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) on Coney Island, where all Secondary 3 students get the chance to interact and work together with peers from within and outside their schools to overcome various challenges.

NYC’s collaboration with MOE entailed working with various government departments and vendors to integrate logistics, finance and manpower needs, as well as figuring out how to align the visions of OBS and MOE into the curriculum of the new programmes to be held at the Coney Island Campus.

Describing the experience as a “whole new ballgame” for the team, David found the journey to be transformative. “The project challenged me and pushed me on so many levels that I’ve gone from periods of excitement to joy, to despair, and to happiness again. It remains a challenge, but excites me still.”

Reflecting on his eight years in NYC, David candidly admits that the journey of leadership can sometimes be draining and lonely – but that’s precisely what drives him to remain committed as a leader. Over the years, he has come to a self-realisation that leadership is a discipline that requires daily commitment and effort.

There are, of course, a variety of resources that he could have easily turned to in order to arm himself with leadership techniques, be it books or podcasts.

But David firmly believes that “It’s how you work with people, how you go to the ground, how you listen, communicate, and work through issues – that’s the real grind of leadership.

A Constant Pulse on On-The-Ground Issues


To David, understanding on-the-ground issues remains an essential component of leadership. As such, he always adopts a hands-on approach, striving to understand the needs of citizens and his officers by walking a mile in their shoes.

“In the National Youth Council, I work together with the senior management to always get a pulse of what’s happening,” he shares.

“We do a lot of different things. Sometimes, I accompany OBS instructors for expeditions – not to see what the participants do, but to experience what it’s like to be an instructor and understand what their issues are, whether it’s the kind of food they’re eating, whether they’re worried about family back home, whether they’re getting enough rest, whether they’re able to handle difficult kids, and what are some of the safety issues they’re also worried about.”

Through this approach, he ensures that policy interventions can make a difference not only in the lives of our youths, but also for NYC officers under his care.

The Youth Are Willing To Push Boundaries


Since joining the NYC, David often gets asked if the younger generation is more coddled today. As a father of four, he admits that he, too, is sometimes guilty of making the same assumptions of the youths.

However, he gets reminded that they are actually stronger than what most assume. They’re willing to push boundaries and strive for their ambitions.

About ten years ago, when David was the chairman of the National Day Parade show, he recalled meeting a 22-year-old volunteer who persisted with show rehearsals week after week, despite suffering from a rare bone cancer.

“She did not live to finish and perform in the show,” he somberly shares. “I remember seeing her on her bed at home, and we gave her a token of appreciation for what she did, and she passed on.”

This encounter also made him realise the importance of journeying with the youth and supporting them as they mature. “There was a community that wrapped around her; they journeyed with her and supported her.”

Give the Youth Opportunities for Growth, Exposure and Learning


The youth of today are still forming their identities, and we shouldn’t be quick to criticise them for being coddled. However, from a youth development perspective, David highlights that the younger generation should be given opportunities for growth, exposure and learning.

“I'm not saying don't be hard on them – be hard on them; they can take feedback, but be honest with them and be committed to their growth.”

There is no single solution to engage the youth. To this day, David candidly admits that there are times he still doubts that he understands them.

“I've watched the ground of the youth population shifting beneath me... With each generational shift, I am struggling to keep up with what the trends are, what their aspirations are. NYC is not about youth engagement, it’s about building trust with the young people.”

Although he might not have all the answers to youth issues, he encourages those who want to engage with the younger generation to create safe spaces for them to voice their thoughts. “As adults, we have a lot of advice to dispense and we’re very passionate about it, but sometimes we need to shut up and just listen.”

Watch our interview with David to find out more about his leadership journey!

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