A Mission Made Possible, Law Song Seng

A letter from Dr Law Song Seng

Senior Advisor, Ministry of Education, Brunei Darussalam
Former CEO, Institute of Technical Education (1992-2007)
A Mission Made Possible, Law Song Seng


When you’re called to serve in an unfamiliar area, say yes. What may initially appear to be a tall order may well be your “mission made possible”.

In 1981, I received the call to serve in the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB), the predecessor of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). As a young 36-year-old academic in industrial and systems engineering at the National University of Singapore and not knowing much about vocational training, I accepted the assignment. What was supposed to be a two-year secondment lasted 25 years. After all, transforming a system, especially in education, is a long-term undertaking.

The task was daunting, the key challenge being the rebranding of the VITB and changing the societal mindset and attitudes towards vocational training. The VITB had long suffered from a poor image, shunned by society as a last resort for failures in schools.

But there was hope and excitement when ITE was established in 1992. This policy shift to reposition vocational training at the post-secondary level was the turning point in making ITE’s journey of transformation possible.

Rebranding took the combined efforts of the ITE board, management, staff and students. As CEO, I remember having to personally share our plans with principals and teachers through special seminars. I had to consciously make myself accessible to the media through over 200 briefings and interviews. ITE was very transparent with the media about the plans it had. This openness to the media was quite unheard of in those days, as the Public Service was generally more conservative then. We also strengthened our marketing efforts and introduced publicity campaigns.

On hindsight, my lack of experience in vocational training might have been a bless-ing in disguise as I was not locked in the prevailing mindset about how a vocational institute should be. Being trained as an engineer, I was able to rationalise how different parts of a system (in this case, ITE) should be aligned to form a better system.

But first, I had to commit myself to what many viewed as “mission impossible”, and a mission calls for perseverance. For there were times during the transformation process when my team and I questioned ourselves: “Is the effort worth it? How much time and resources should we put into this?” We knew it was going to be tough, but decided to persevere and continued to strive to transform how people viewed vocational institutes.

I had to commit myself to what many viewed as “mission impossible”, and a mission calls for perseverance.

And our labour paid off. The concept of vocational training was challenged and redefined. The traditional system of small “vocational institutes” was transformed into modern mega “regional campuses”. ITE won the inaugural Global IBM-Harvard Innovations Award in Transforming Government in 2007.

At the end of 25 years, I’ve also matured as a leader. Strategic plans, initiatives and modern campuses are important building blocks of an institution. But a successful organisation must also have leaders and people who share a common mission, vision and values. Now when I think of leadership I think of teamwork. As a leader, you have to be hands-on. You have to lead by example. You also have to be a mentor to others around you.

This culture of commitment and trust among leaders and staff would trickle down to the ground where lecturers engage with students. At ITE, the “ITE Care” culture is what matters most. Students who come to us feel that they have failed, have low self-esteem and are unsure if they have a future. Teachers at ITE need to support and encourage them, and to understand their needs and help them. The success of ITE is measured not by what the management and staff have done, but by the success of the graduates.

We may not always be the authors of our life journey but we can say “yes” when we are called to serve, even if it’s beyond our comfort zone. The challenge is to make your next assignment your mission made possible!

    Jan 22, 2014
    Dr Law Song Seng
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