Why Are You (Still) In Public Service?

Chief Executive Officer, Housing & Development Board (HDB), 2010–present
Chief Executive Officer, Urban Redevelopment Authority, 2004–2010
Why Are You (Still) In Public Service?

Dear young officer,

At the HDB, I make a point of meeting new recruits during their orientation, often asking them why they joined. Many (especially mid-career recruits) explain they want a “stable job” and “work-life balance”. At times, I get an encouraging response when some say they like to help people. In turn, younger staff’s favourite question for me is, “Why are you still in public service?”

The reality is, being in public service can be challenging. When formulating policies, we rack our brains to find solutions to seemingly intractable issues – be it firing up the economy, dealing with an ageing population or securing the safety of our small nation. At the frontline, we meet demanding customers and may be “rewarded” with criticism, rather than appreciation. Certainly, if our aspiration is just to “have a stable job”, it is not likely to inspire nor motivate us beyond the routine. So to my young colleagues, it is useful to ask why we joined the Public Service in the first place.

The “meaning” behind the job

When I graduated as a young architect, I wanted to design and build those amazing buildings we often see in glossy architecture magazines. But as fate would have it, I was thrown into the world of urban planning. I soon realised that beyond the aesthetics of a single building, bigger existential issues had to be solved in our small island citystate. At only half the size of metropolitan London, do we have enough land for development and enough water to survive? How do we ensure a sustainable and liveable environment and provide quality, affordable homes in one of the densest cities on Earth?

Being in the Public Service, we are in a position to address these issues and influence on a much larger scale. Not many jobs offer this exciting privilege.

Of course, the journey is not always smooth. For example, the plans for Marina Bay were formulated and revised over many years as our economic and social needs changed over time. When we were finally ready to implement the plan in 2003, we were hit by SARS, which triggered a crisis of confidence. We persevered by marketing Marina Bay internationally. We convinced the government to proceed with the development of world-class infrastructure, despite the economic downturn, as a show of commitment. This helped us to secure many investments, which kick-started Marina Bay. 

Even in this fast-paced world, the values of patience, perseverance and hard work still hold if we want to do great things.

Along the way, we had to convince decision makers, overcome funding challenges, ride through property cycles, and win over partners. There have been heart-stopping moments (will we end up with a half-finished Marina Bay Sands?), a lot of fun (what a fantastic sight it would be when fireworks light up our beautiful city skyline), and fulfilment too (when our residents thank us for building beautiful homes for them).

When the city shapes up beautifully, families have good homes, people’s lives improve and their aspirations are fulfilled, the sense of satisfaction is immense. My colleagues and I truly believe that we can and have made a difference. That we receive thousands of visitors every year eager to find out “how we do it” is validation for many who have worked hard to make Singapore what it is today.

Love what you do and stay the course

Public service cannot be “just a job”. We need that sense of purpose and passion to sustain us through the long journey to achieve what we set out to do.

Singapore continues to improve because each generation builds upon the legacy of the previous one. You are in a great position to bring fresh ideas and perspectives to take Singapore forward to the next lap. But even in this fastpaced world, the values of patience, perseverance and hard work still hold if we want to do great things. So I wish you the best in finding meaning in what you do and to stay the course.

    May 12, 2017
    Cheong Koon Hean
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