Leadership Is About Paying It Forward

Tay Choon Hong, Deputy Chief Executive of the National Youth Council, writes a letter to his younger self, reflecting on his growth in the Public Service.
Mr Tay Choon Hong shares his reflections on his service in the Public Service.

Tay Choon Hong

  • Deputy Chief Executive, National Youth Council, 2017–present
  • Senior Director (Youth), Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, 2017–present
  • Director, Public Sector Transformation Office, Public Service Division, 2012–2017

Dear Young Officer,

I often wonder who actually reads these letters. Many Public Service leaders have provided excellent advice in the past, and I pondered over what would make it worth your time to read this page. Incidentally, I started my Public Service career in May 2003, during the SARS outbreak, and we are now battling COVID-19. Being in a reflective mood, I decided to write a letter to my younger self, penning down my learnings over the years, and I hope that you will find some of these helpful for your own learning.

To My Younger Self:

When you first join the Public Service, you can’t help but marvel at the sheer breadth and depth of work the service is responsible for. You’ll witness the dedication of officers who worked so hard to battle SARS (and in time to come, H1N1 and COVID-19 pandemics). Very quickly, you’ll connect with a larger meaning and sense of purpose. Your commitment to serve will deepen, not through ideology, but with every project you deliver to bring practical benefits to the country and our citizens.

You’ll often reflect on the values that define who you are as a public officer. The Public Service values of Integrity, Service and Excellence will be an unwavering guide to your attitudes and beliefs amidst an ever-changing operating environment. Of course, as an individual citizen, you also have your own identity, values and beliefs.

Sometimes these values are at odds, and often these manifest when you personally disagree with certain policies. You’ll have to learn to hold the tension between maintaining a strong sense of who you are, and becoming a professional in the business of governance. It means executing your role to the best of your abilities, notwithstanding your own views, to serve the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans.

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You’ll learn what ‘making a difference’ truly means. It is how your work impacts the citizen that matters most. Sometimes it is hard to see the line of sight from what you do as a policy officer, to what the citizens experience in their daily lives. You have to try hard to connect the dots, by walking in the shoes of citizens, and taking a hard look at whether your policies are truly creating value for them.

As you work tirelessly to come up with new ideas, you realise that you may not always get it right the first time round. But you’ll become adept with engaging citizens for feedback, experimenting and iterating with prototypes, and you’ll become comfortable with failing early and fast in order to succeed sooner. You also learn the value of strategic patience, because sometimes your ideas are ahead of their time, but nonetheless, you build coalitions of like-minded colleagues and partners and rally them to support your ideas.

You’ll face many challenges across your career, such as when taking on difficult projects where you do not have the benefit of prior experience. You’ll feel like a novice time and again, and you’ll experience some hard knocks for sure. Sometimes you wonder if you truly have what it takes, when others seem to be always so poised and unflappable. There will be dark moments filled with self-doubt, but yet those moments present the greatest growth potential.


"Resilience does not come from giving 110%, for the candle will soon burn out."

You’ll figure out that it is ok to be not ok. Some days you just need to give yourself permission to take a breather. Resilience does not come from giving 110%, for the candle will soon burn out. It comes from first recognising and embracing your vulnerability, and to nurture and care for your being. You’ll develop a growth mindset that involves seeking help from mentors and advisors, reading up a lot to grow your knowledge, and learning through doing.

You’ll learn that leadership is not a position of power, but a calling to empower people. It is about selflessly serving those who come into your team, nurturing and caring for them, challenging them to give their best. It is about paying it forward, imparting all that you have learnt from your seniors, to build the next generation of Public Service leaders. Their achievements, more than your own, will make your heart swell with pride and joy.

As the years go by, you’ll discover more and more about yourself. As you go ever further in responding to the call of service, may your learning never end.

    Apr 21, 2021
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