"Learn, Unlearn, Relearn"

Stressing the need for Singaporeans to keep on learning, Manpower Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Loh Khum Yean shares how he has been kept on his toes throughout his career..
Loh Khum Yean

The Government threw Mr. Loh Khum Yean a curve ball when they sent the scholarship applicant to study economics in Japan over 25 years ago.

The current Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) could not speak a word of Japanese then.

“I wasn’t sure why they wanted me to go to Japan,” Mr. Loh, 46, recalls, of his interview with the Public Service Commission. “I was really taken aback and I said I needed some time to think about it.

In the end, he decided it would be a different sort of opportunity. He learnt the Japanese language from scratch and spent the next five years in Tokyo, graduating with an Economics Degree from Hitotsubashi University.

He returned to Singapore, fluent in Japanese, with a deep respect for the Japanese work culture and resilience.

If there is any lesson he hopes people would draw from this, it is that when it comes to learning, do not be afraid to be thrown into the deep end.

Learn, Unlearn, Relearn

Loh Khum Yean

The message is not new and it is one he has become even more convinced of since taking over the hot seat in MOM in 2009.

Currently, the Ministry is leading a study on the most relevant skills Singaporeans would need in the future. From the preliminary findings of the Future Skills Needs study, what Mr. Loh personally found most insightful was this:

The urgency for learning, unlearning and relearning is more pressing than we previously understood to be.

It is his answer to the evolving nature of the business landscape. “As economic activities in Singapore evolve and businesses move to value-adding activities, Singaporeans’ best strategy is to maintain the right mindset and ensure their knowledge, skillsets and competencies are learnt and re-learnt to remain relevant. This will help them take on better jobs with higher incomes over time.”

But lifelong learning cannot always be driven by the thought of earning more money. “The desire to learn should be spontaneous and internalised in a positive way, rather than merely from a pragmatic utilitarian view. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Also of increasing importance is what he calls the “soft skills”, to complement hard technical knowledge. “These are skillsets like creativity and innovation, social media skills, communication and networking skills. The whole idea of integrating hard and soft skills will be pertinent.”

Learning on the Job

The Public Service careerist’s personal learning journey, since he joined the Administrative Service, has been deep and wide.

Instances where he was thrown into the deep end and emerged wiser started from his posting at the then-Ministry of Communications in 1991. There, as a young officer, he learnt firsthand from the public listing process of SingTel.

“We had to talk to people who had never owned shares,” he recalls. “We also worked with banks and other agencies. Part of my learning was about putting in place the systems and processes.”

Shortly after, as an officer at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Mr. Loh had to learn quickly on the job when the 1997 Asian financial crisis struck. “Not that I wished it upon myself! We were not working alone, but with other Government agencies. I learnt about risk management and the role of the Government in lending confidence to the whole system. It was a great learning experience.”

The longest stint in Mr Loh’s career was at SPRING Singapore from 2003 to 2008. As the then-Chief Executive Officer, he oversaw a corporate restructuring exercise requiring a shift of mindsets as SPRING repositioned its focus to enterprise development.

“I would say I was most proud of helping to put in place systems and capabilities to facilitate the growth of our local enterprises,” says Mr Loh. Asked if his CEO stint was the most challenging to date, he laughs: “There’s MOM now!”

Hot-button Issues

Hot-button topics feature on his agenda every day. When asked for his personal take, he was thoughtful in his replies.

On the findings of a recent global survey by talent management company Lumesse which found that Singapore workers least enjoyed going to work, were the least loyal and had the least supportive workplaces: “I think employers do need to improve on how they engage their employees in areas like work-life harmony, and recognise the softer dimensions of their employees’ changing aspiration for greater work flexibility, satisfaction and meaning in work.”

On the call for a weekly rest day for foreign domestic workers, Mr. Loh said that the review was ongoing, but he feels that the key is to have mutually agreed arrangements that can address the concerns of individual households.

Time Out

As the man helming the agency that promotes work-life harmony, Mr Loh tries to live out that principle by putting in the occasional rounds of golf whenever he can. He also reads, enjoys weekend meals with family, and has been attending Mandarin lessons.

Says the Anglo-Chinese Junior College alumnus: “I speak some Mandarin, but I feel that I have much room to brush up and improve.”

Mr Loh gives an unexpected glimpse beyond his serious mien when he reveals his love for TV entertainment and movies.

“For me, it’s really just pure entertainment,” he says twice, somewhat apologetically, “not the kind of movies where you sit and ponder.”

He enjoyed Thor recently, which he thought was “quite well done” and at the time of the interview, was looking forward to the final Harry Potter movie.

Now, if only solving the world’s (and for that matter the Ministry’s) issues were as simple as casting a few spells. Expelliarmus problemo* anyone?

imma boss mug

What’s usually in your cuppa?

Coffee in the morning

What’s your favourite drink?

Ice cold Original Coke

Where do you normally go for your favourite drink?

At home

    Sep 8, 2011
    Wong Sher Maine
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