Luke Goh: Drawing Strength From Values

Luke Goh, Deputy Secretary (Trade) at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, on the values he holds dear to thrive as a public officer.


Deputy Secretary (Trade), Ministry of Trade and Industry (April 2016–present)
Senior Director, PS21 Office, Public Service Division (September 2014–March 2016)
Director, Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College (September 2014–March 2016)
Director, Sector Development & Commissioning, Ministry of Health (June 2012–August 2014)
Central Banking Officer, Monetary Authority of Singapore (1998–May 2012)

Dear Young Officer,

I was recently asked: “What led you to persist, stay sane and thrive along the way as a public officer?” This triggered a reflection of the most striking encounters and conversations that have left deep impressions over the years.

They remind me of the values that resonate with me: having courage, staying humble, and seeking out wisdom.

Having courage

In all the appraisal feedback I have received over the years, the most striking was this: “(The fellow) has a knack for making insightful but inconvenient observations in a palatable way.” I was then a few years into my first job at the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Boy, did I carefully analyse that statement. Did the supervisor mean I was too free with my comments, too fixated on second order details that didn’t fit neatly, or a wet blanket at meetings?

Conversations with young officers today suggest that such sensitivity still persists. “What if I speak up and the idea comes out silly?” “What if bosses consider it bad form to raise HR issues openly?” My experience has been that points made constructively and politely receive fair hearing, even if the view is a contrarian or discordant one. Remember that how you say it matters at least as much as what you say!

The best wisdom is rarely from within. You have to seek it out.

Staying humble

In moments of frustration, recalling role models of quiet dedication helps me have a sense of perspective.

Dr Saman Kelegama was one of Sri Lanka’s most learned economists who lectured internationally, served on numerous government commissions, and was involved in think-tanks and boards of listed companies. He was my counterpart in the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations.

Saman was negotiating Sri Lanka’s first FTA in more than a decade. He had a herculean challenge, caught between contending reformist and protectionist pressures. He faced open personal attacks in the Sri Lankan media. His team would informally recount to our negotiators the hostility from their domestic trade associations and professional bodies.

In him, I saw a true professional; shrewd and careful in assessing our proposals with a professorial and humble demeanour.

When I consider the position my professional friend was in with the cards he was dealt, the most arduous or thankless challenges encountered in my public service career fade in comparison.

Saman sadly passed away midway through our negotiations. Both our teams redoubled efforts to conclude negotiations knowing that his aspirations would live on in the agreement.

Look out for kindred spirits. The load will not be halved but it will feel that way.

Seeking out wisdom

Unlike courage and humility, which must be internalised and acted on, the best wisdom is rarely from within. You have to seek it out. It is natural for young officers to have some angst – most are figuring out professional life choices, what their strengths are, whether they will succeed in the Public Service. If this is you, here are the two best pieces of advice I have received over the years.

First, look out for kindred spirits. Treasure the rapport, uphold the trust, and journey together. The load will not be halved but it will feel that way. For all our critique of the employee engagement survey, there is wisdom to questions like whether you have a best friend at work.

Second, this sagely advice from a mentor: “Always do what you think is right and do your best. You cannot deal with how others will assess or judge.”

As the higher stakes in the next phase of nation-building translate to public service challenges and opportunities, knowing what you stand for and the qualities that drive and sustain you will make all the difference to staying the course.

    Jul 26, 2019
    Luke Goh
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