My Teams And I Were Never Discouraged


Assistant CEO (Policy & Community), National Heritage Board, 2015–present 
Group Director (Policy), NHB, 2013–2015 
Director (Heritage Institutions), NHB, 2010–2013  

Dear young officer,

Ever since I agreed to pen this column, I have imagined myself as a Morgan Freeman type, dispensing wise sayings to impressionable young officers who would lap up what I say with awe.

Several weeks later, I was still nowhere close to coming up with bon mots of the “sacred cows” and “black elephants” variety. So I had to tap the collective wisdom of my colleagues as well as friends from different ministries and agencies through our WhatsApp chat groups.

Assuming you already possess the necessary competencies to do your job well (and have some career ambition), here are free nuggets of advice that we senior (read: old) public officers have found to be useful as we progressed through the Service.

Make friends, lots of friends

Unless you are a seasoned telemarketer, nothing can be more nerve-racking than cold-calling another division or agency to request for information (except maybe delivering your first presentation in front of your Minister or Permanent Secretary).

It therefore helps if you have friends in different parts of the Public Service whom you can email or call on when the need arises. Start making friends by helping out fellow officers who approach you for help or information. Build up your personal network of contacts through the people you meet during courses and events.

On my part, I often call up my friends and contacts from the various planning agencies to seek updates on (re)development projects that have an impact on heritage buildings and sites. I solicit their views on our recommendations for heritage preservation / mitigation / commemoration in order to put together more holistic and balanced submissions.

Be resilient, very resilient

If you are the sort who would collapse at the mere mention of bad news, then the Public Service may not be the place for you. Some examples of common setbacks will include policy papers that are returned maimed beyond recognition, increasing workload, hair-tearing deadlines and stakeholders’ negative feedback. 

You therefore need to be able to cope with and “bounce back” from setbacks and different types of workplace-related stress, and you can do so by establishing the necessary social support, maintaining a sense of optimism and regarding workplace problems as learning opportunities.

When I first started working at the NHB, I was on the receiving end of brickbats from heritage groups and enthusiasts on many occasions, but my teams and I were never discouraged. This is because we have always maintained that there will be useful learning points from negative feedback and we have committed ourselves to working with these groups and enthusiasts, and following-up on their feedback.

Re-ignite your passion, see with new eyes

My last piece of advice has to do with a common predicament that most public officers find themselves in.

As we progress in our careers, it is easy to become jaded and perhaps disillusioned with the work that we do and the issues that we have to deal with. At times like these, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves why we joined the Public Service in the first place. For me, it has always been the opportunity to work in the heritage sector and make a difference in the lives of our fellow citizens through the heritage policies I have a hand in shaping, and the programmes our museums and divisions introduce.

Similarly, when confronted with perennial workplace issues and problems, we should not give up but, rather, see if we can approach them from a different angle and, in doing so, address or resolve them.

To paraphrase Marcel Proust, we do not have to change our jobs in order to discover new things that interest or challenge us – sometimes all we need is to change our perspective (or adopt different perspectives) and see what we have through “new eyes”.

I would like to end by stealing one of my favourite X-Men taglines: “Welcome to the Public Service! Hope you survive the experience!”

    Aug 3, 2017
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