"The Relationships Matter Just As Much As Getting The Job Done"

Collaboration is one of Ms Tan Gee Keow’s key values, something which she applies readily to her work at Strategy Group.

Ms Tan Gee Keow is Deputy Secretary of Strategy Group in the Prime Minister’s Office. The 41-year-old, who tells Challenge she never thought she would be invited to A Cuppa With…, comes across as an intelligent, easy-going person, often sharing perceptive insights that she rounds off with a pleasant laugh.

Formed in July 2015, Strategy Group aims to strengthen whole-of-government policy development and action on national priorities, especially those that cut across multiple agencies.

And when it comes to initiating and managing collaboration between the numerous agencies, having “a thick skin” helps, Ms Tan says. This means speaking her mind even when it could be risky doing so — when she has to gently prompt others to take a different, non-silo perspective to get a good discussion going, for example.

“My husband and I always joke that he should not take any risks in his job on the same day I have to go to an important meeting, where I might have to say something controversial, so I don’t have to worry even if I’m sacked!” she writes in an email right after our interview, punctuated with a “*smile*”.

A thick skin has also made her unafraid to ask questions, even if they might make her look silly. That has helped her familiarise herself quickly with any new role or task, and navigate through a career spanning policy work and research in the education and defence ministries, as well as ground-level work at the Community Development Council.

Her time at the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources was one of her most challenging yet exciting undertakings: handling the 2013 haze crisis, Singapore’s worst since 1997.

Her Permanent Secretary then, a former army general, had asked her to mobilise a crisis team. But the army jargon he used — “Con ops”, “S1”, “S3” — stumped her. Ms Tan quickly approached her colleagues with military backgrounds to help “decrypt” his language, and jointly put together a crisis organisation structure.

Ms Tan also chaired daily media briefings for updates on the haze. With a background in Economics, she was the least technically trained member on the panel, which included weather experts and scientists. So she had to ask many questions to quickly pick up the knowledge needed, and is now proudly her family’s “Chief PM2.5 Scientific Advisor”.

But she is most proud of how the various ministries involved banded together quickly to “dust off contingency drawer plans” and put them into action.


“There were easily 8 to 10 agencies working together,” she recalls. “In all our conversations… it was always, ‘I’m going to try and do what I can to help you.’ That gave me confidence and comfort to know that the whole of government can work very well together given a common mission.”

Coming together

The experience drove home for Ms Tan the power of collaboration, which is precisely at the heart of Strategy Group.

She defines its mission as bringing different parts of the government together to work on national priorities, “so we can get the best outcome for Singapore and Singaporeans”.

“Increasingly, it’s hard to do things by yourself,” she explains. “The policies that we do within an issue, more often than not have an impact on another agency’s policies and issues, so we have to come together more often to work out solutions together.”

At inter-agency meetings, she notes, people sit behind name tags that state their respective ministries — and almost immediately, they put on ministry-centric hats.

“Yes, we want them to bring their ministry’s expertise to the discussion, but what we want eventually is to develop solutions that are beyond individual ministry hats.

“Success is when it becomes second nature for a ministry to step forward and make a contribution that helps achieve another ministry’s mission,” Ms Tan says.

For example, if secure retirement is a goal for the Ministry of Manpower, then the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of National Development can also contribute towards this goal through their affordable healthcare and housing policies.

And although working out solutions together can be “very painful” — it is more time-consuming for everyone, and requires uniting people who have not teamed up before — she strongly believes that the outcome will be almost always be “superior” to a single unit’s effort.

Building trust to lead

To achieve collaboration, one must first earn and build trust, Ms Tan points out. “We should start with a common mission, what we are trying to achieve together and get people’s minds out of the silo of vested interests.”

So during the first few months, she and her Strategy Group colleagues came together to develop a shared vision and mission. It was also important to her that everyone shared the same set of values.

Success is when it becomes second nature for a ministry to step forward and make a contribution that helps achieve another ministry’s mission.

“It’s not just about what we do, but how we do it. We have to do things like build trust, collaboration, understand people’s motivations and where they come from, make sure that the relationships matter just as much as getting the job done.”

Reciprocating trust is another principle she holds: she trusts that others will do the best job that they can. And if someone lets her down, her approach would be to first find out why, and talk things through.

“As a parent, being let down is something that happens all the time, right?” Ms Tan, who has three children, says good-humouredly.

She relaxes by spending time with family. “I joke with my kids a lot, they joke with me a lot… so I de-stress by going crazy with my kids.

“In August last year, we waved our National Day star-clappers wildly from our car at pedestrians and strangers in other cars. It was great to find that most of them would smile and wave back!”


What’s in your cuppa?
In the morning, usually a kopi; in the afternoon, teh. I have started adding siu-dai (“less sweet”) to my orders!

Where do you take it?
I’m not picky. The kopitiam opposite MOM HQ or Funan’s Ya Kun works well for me.

    May 11, 2016
    Tan Hwee Hwee
    Roy Lim
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