Make a Meaningful Difference, Tan Chin Nam

Dr Tan Chin Nam 

Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Manpower (1998 -2001) and 

Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (2002-2007)
Make a Meaningful Difference, Tan Chin Nam


As I review my 33 years in the public sector, one thing stands out as the most important aspect of leadership – the ability to make a meaningful difference.

A good leader is one who is able to create purpose out of his or her work, moving and aligning others to achieve greater things together for the organisation. I am fortunate and honoured to have been given many opportunities to create, reposition or transform organisations in the Service. The journey has not always been easy – there were many challenges along the way. What sustained me in difficult times was my personal motto: to be a useful person and to make tomorrow better than today. It is a journey about making a better difference in what we do.

I started my career in the public sector as a systems engineer in the Ministry of Defence applying modern management approaches in solving complex problems including computerising the ministry. This paved the way for my active involvement in the national computerization effort which led to the formation of the National Computer Board. Throughout this journey, I observed that everyone is in a position to make a difference irrespective of the level of responsibilities.

National Computer Board (NCB) was set up in 1981 with the vision to drive Singapore into the Information Age with a series of national IT plans to follow. This was motivational for the staff. They found this national level movement meaningful and engaging and were equally inspired by the 3P Philosophy of Professionalism, Partnership and People. NCBians were emotionally connected with their work and users.

Following the decision to transform Singapore into a global business city as part of an economic restructuring in 1986, spirited officers from the Economic Development Board (EDB) went all out to seek new investments to create a knowledge-based economy with higher value-added manufacturing, companies’ operational headquarters and new services. They had dared to dream – and do – because they had a strong sense of meaning in their work. The clients of EDB were connected with this very purpose and became Singapore’s partners in progress.

The same was true for the Singapore Tourism Board. Their brainchild was to rebrand Singapore as a New Asia Singapore, where tourism gets a makeover into an “experience industry” and fun becomes a serious business for enterprises. Thus the foundation was laid for Singapore to become the unforgettable, top global destination that it is today, with work, life, play and learning all integrated into one single lifestyle and space. Not only did industry members find this redefinition exciting, other agencies (the Urban Redevelopment Authority, EDB, etc.) also shared the vision. Tourism became everybody’s business.

The journey has not always been easy – there were many challenges along the way. What sustained me in difficult times was my personal motto: to be a useful person and to make tomorrow better than today. It is a journey about making a better difference in what we do.

When I was appointed Permanent Secretary of Labour, some colleagues offered their sympathy, suggesting managing work permits for domestic helpers and construction workers could not be very exciting. But with the Manpower 21 plan, the ministry was repurposed as the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) with the vision to make Singapore a Talent Capital in the knowledge economy. This involved re-looking at manpower as capital for the country’s knowledge, innovation, emotional well-being and social relations. Efforts were underway to cultivate an engaged workforce, including transforming the workplace into one in which staff can have an emotional connection. Naturally, this mission was a big boost for the motivation and morale of MOM staff.

While I was in MOM, then Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan asked me to lead a committee to look into the upgrading of LaSalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. The recommendations of the committee were accepted by the government with polytechnic level funding given to the two colleges and also two brand new campuses. This is a precursor to the establishment of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in National University of Singapore and the School of the Arts for secondary level education. Everyone is therefore a talent and can realise one’s full potential in different ways. Arts education has acquired a new meaning as a result and this is quite exhilarating.

When former minister George Yeo invited me to redefine the national library system, he had asked, why shouldn’t the library be part of a shopping mall? This opened the way for the reinvention of the library in Singapore – as a cornerstone of lifelong learning and community building. We experimented with innovations, including the creation of Library@Orchard and Library@Esplanade, co-locating the Drama Centre with the brand-new National Library building and adopting Radio Frequency Identification technology for the queueless borrowing and returning of books. One constant throughout this journey was the introduction of a coffee culture in every library. Staff who were initially apprehensive about the changes were soon championing the transformation. It is amazing how redefining the meaning of an organisation can ignite and unleash such energy in its members.

Finally, as we transform the economy from being labour intensive to skills intensive, capital intensive and then knowledge intensive, we see Singapore becoming an innovation and creative economy. The Ministry of Information and Communication (MICA) contributed to this with a definition of the creative economy for Singapore with the Creative Industries Development Strategy which became part of the recommendations of the Economic Review Committee with innovation and entrepreneurship as the centerpiece.  This led to the creation of the Media Development Authority (MDA) through integrating and transforming Singapore Broadcasting Authority, Singapore Films Commission and the Films and Publications Department of MICA. MDA was given a new industry promotion responsibility alongside its content regulation role. Recommendations like Mediapolis in one-north and Digital Media or Interactive Digital Media (IDM), became pillars of MDA subsequently.

So when the going gets tough, think of the meaning of your job, and work creatively and collaboratively to make it more meaningful. Every one of you is a leader in your own way. There is no need to wait for a CEO or public sector leadership position before you make a meaningful difference. After all, we are the stewards of functions entrusted to us by the country – a privilege –and ultimately it’s about making tomorrow better for our children and our children’s children!

    May 14, 2013
    Dr Tan Chin Nam
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