MOH’s Ngiam Siew Ying: Know Who You Are And What You Stand For

Ms Ngiam Siew Ying, Deputy Secretary (Policy) at the Ministry of Health, shares the value of being prepared and other lessons learned from her career experience.
MOH Deputy Secretary (Policy) Ngiam Siew Ying

Deputy Secretary (Policy), Ministry of Health, 2016 – present
Senior Director, National Population and Talent Division, 2011 – 2016
Director (Land Transport), Ministry of Transport, 2010 – 2011

Dear Young Officer,

If there was something I wish I had been told when I first started working, it would be to know who you are and what you stand for.

Why? Because an internal compass will help guide you through life’s journeys.

You will be frequently called upon to make tough decisions. They could be decisions at work; whether to prioritise your family or your career; or how much you value your relationships with the people around you, influencing, for example, how you treat your teammates and how you lead them. You might also wonder whether you should choose the faster but less ideal solution, or the longer but more complete option. There will be times too when the considerations on two opposing sides are equally compelling, or the risks similarly high.

These moments require us to dig deep to recognise who we are, and make the decision that is best aligned with what we stand for.

I have been blessed over the years to have had many role models. Each of them personifies different elements of character and attitude that resonate with me. And for the elements I admire – I watch, I learn and I keep. And use them to shape what I stand for and the kind of person I want to be.

I once had a brilliant colleague who was somewhat ahead of his time. He could see problems well before they surfaced, and worked on finding solutions for them. Whenever he voiced his ideas, they would often get shot down because they did not involve the most pressing issues of the day.

Then the moment would come when someone says, “we have this problem”, and he would already have a solution at hand. Even if he didn’t get credit for his ideas or was under-appreciated, he never despaired. He just kept on doing what he believed would benefit our Public Service.

These moments require us to dig deep to recognise who we are, and make the decision that is best aligned with what we stand for.

In another case, I had a boss who was as tough (and mean) as they come – so tough that people would try to escape when they saw him approaching. He was not one to mince his words. He had high and exacting standards, with the expectation that you put your best into everything you do. Nothing less.

He invested in his team. He would gather small groups of engineers for sessions that ran till 11pm, without a dinner break. He drilled us on our proposals and concepts to make sure we were clear about what was needed. He put in his own time and effort, made sacrifices, and ensured others could take over and carry on when it was time for him to move on. He was tough, and yet I learnt much under his care.

These individuals, and many more, have given me glimpses of the kind of person and leader I want to be. From them, I have shaped my own leadership philosophy, which is to “do the right thing, and do the thing right”.

Often, it takes courage to “do the right thing”. You may have to go against the current, break with the status quo, or disagree with someone more powerful. You have to work against self-interest. If we worry about all that, we can’t be the person we need to be.

But thinking we are right does not give us the license to be obnoxious about it. To “do the thing right”, we have to be intentional and purposeful. There is a right way to do what needs to be done: a right time, a right strategy, and a right route to take. If we can figure all that out, the right thing that needs to be done can get done.

So that’s my leadership philosophy, which guides me each day. I encourage you to come up with yours. Shape it, nurture it and grow it over time. If you know who you are and what you stand for, you won’t lose your way.

    Jul 3, 2018
    Ngiam Siew Ying
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