Be Patient and Be Not Afraid

Peter Ong
Head of Civil Service
Be Patient and Be Not Afraid by Peter Ong

Dear Young Officer,

When asked to write this letter, I polled a few young officers to discern the pulse of youth. Their responses led me to think that many want to know their place in the organisation – how they are contributing, what the future will be, and whether they, like me, would stay on to make the public service their lifelong career.

I would like to offer three observations from my own experience. First, be patient with yourself. As a young officer, it is natural to want to know how well you are doing. Have I got the last piece of work done right? Did that presentation go well, given the silence in the room? There is a deep desire for instant feedback.

I’ve learned through experience that a short delay or absence of feedback need not necessarily indicate bad news. Very often it is simply the fact that in our culture, supervisors are not disposed to giving direct feedback, even if positive. Supervisors may sometimes judge that a balance is needed lest the officer becomes complacent or puffed up. The important ingredients for your career like building deep capabilities require patience, and professional development takes time.

Second, officers who have suffered setbacks early in their careers but are later able to pick themselves up and stay resilient often go on to do very well. I’ve not seen any successful public officer go through life without setbacks.

When I was doing investments during my posting at Temasek Holdings, Mr Dhanabalan used to tell me that if I am able to always avoid mistakes, it must be because I am not taking any risks at all.

Once, I was part of a team visiting another country to initiate a bilateral agreement, only to find out when we got there, that major features of what we were hoping to seal in the agreement were already in another signed multilateral agreement. We left the meeting feeling silly, wondering how we could have missed this. You can imagine the embarrassment of having to update my Minister about the fiasco. Fortunately, through creative re-crafting and introducing new features into a new draft, we later sealed the agreement.

The episode gave me confidence I was part of a system that allowed honest mistakes, but more than that, let me recover if I did not simply get discouraged but sought corrective action.

I have seen many officers whose potential may not have been fully evident earlier, get recognised subsequently because they continued to add value and exhibit strength of character.

Third, the grass always appears greener on the other side. Many young officers often ask me whether I thought of leaving at any time. I always tell officers who are contemplating leaving that such self-reflection is healthy. The commitment to the service is greater if they know they can leave and easily land a good job outside, but yet choose to stay. This choice to stay is a strong anchor that helped me work through my career challenges; challenges you will face in any job.

Over time, you will discover the ethos of service when you see the positive impact of the work you do. There is probably no other job that can have wider implications for Singaporeans and the future of Singapore. There is also the privilege of working with really smart people up and down the chain who deliver public value through bold, innovative, far-sighted and well executed policies others find difficult to implement.

I hope you will discover that the Singapore Public Service is big enough for you to live out your potential, discover your outer horizons and do fulfilling, meaningful things you will not regret.

In one of the Letters to a Young Poet, the words run: “You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

    May 9, 2011
    Peter Ong
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