Rovik Robert On Building Communities And Spaces For Conversations

Challenge is now podcasting! In each episode, we speak to public officers on a range of issues related to the Singapore Public Service. Transcripts have been edited for clarity and language.
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For this episode, we sat down with Rovik Robert, who’s the Economic Development Board (EDB)’s Senior Associate for Business Environment. He wears other hats too. These include being the founder of The Hidden Good, a community engagement agency, and producer and co-host of the SG Explained podcast.

Among other things, we spoke to Rovik about how he juggles these different roles, and how they might just be part of a larger mission for him.


Host: Douglas O’Loughlin
Audio: Fei

Douglas: Hello and welcome to the Challenge podcast where we discuss all things public service in Singapore. I'm your host, Douglas O'Loughlin, a consultant in organisation transformation and a former public officer. And for this podcast, we'll be speaking to public officers on a wide range of backgrounds.

Today we have a very special guest. I'm a big fan of Rovik Robert. So welcome, Rovik, to the show.

Rovik: Thank you. How's it going?

Douglas: Yeah, it's great. How about you?

Rovik: Not too bad. It's a Monday when we're recording. So I'm starting off the week, but this is a great way to start it with you, Doug.

Douglas: Yeah, you too. I'm a huge fan of who you are, what you do. So it's a privilege.

Rovik: You can't see it right now but I'm blushing.

Douglas: Well, maybe to start with the big picture. You’ve been involved in so many things. Starting from, at least what I know of, The Hidden Good, SG Explained, and you're working at EDB. And you also do Clubhouse, and There are a lot of people who have ideas, a lot of people do some things, but you're doing a lot of really, really good work. And I'm just wondering what is it about you, your background, life experience, that's created such energy in you to get involved in so many amazing causes?

Rovik: Wow, that's a great question to start with. I think it started very young for me. I've always been curious about how the world works, and especially how we can make an impact in some of the stuff we do. I also think, I've seen situations as a person who's grown up in Singapore, as a minority, as someone who's maybe had the experience of being an immigrant (in the US), I've seen a lot of cases where there could be better ways to approach topics of justice and inclusion. And that has always been a motivation for me as well.

So, as I grew up, I tried to find platforms where maybe I could start building a voice, start representing the communities I was in, and at a certain point, even start fighting for communities that maybe didn't have a voice yet and creating space for them. So public service was, of course, an intuitive calling. Being in the Public Service, my mom kind of inspired me a bit as well.

But a lot of the stuff I did with The Hidden Good, with SG Explained, it's really just extensions of that same energy. It's about trying to give people a voice, trying to find ways to talk about things that need to be talked about, and inspiring others to also find their own voices in whatever they do.

Douglas: Have you seen much change in society, in the willingness to have some of those more difficult conversations? What have you seen shifting over the years?

Rovik: Yeah, I think we're a lot more conscious these days. And, of course, a lot of that has to be attributed to social media, to the Internet. But I think it's also how we use some of these tools. The Hidden Good came about at a time when the key driver of social news was Stomp!, and for those who don't know what Stomp! is, it’s basically this online portal where people could just submit citizen news, and a lot of it was very negative and pessimistic. And that started to define a lot of what Singaporean culture was. And, of course, with any kind of negative news it tends to take on some pretty dark undertones, whether it's about race or ethnicity, or even nationality. I think that was where I saw an opportunity for Leon, who is my co-founder, and I to actually try to change the narrative. That was my first kind of dabble into some of this. So when we put out a lot of these videos, we started to see that actually, people were looking for a platform, they were looking for somewhere they could also have a voice. And we just happened to be almost like a lightning rod for them to just come and move towards.

I think as we saw that evolve, a lot of the people who are involved in The Hidden Good have started a lot of their own initiatives. Online media tends to be in my opinion, at least in Singapore, a bit more balanced. For any negative comment that's out there, there tends to be someone else who's willing to counter it with some positive examples and provide a bit more of a balanced narrative. So I do think spaces are shifting. I think there are more spaces for minority voices. I think there are more spaces for diverse voices. Of course, there's a long way for us to go in creating space for inclusion, but I do think we're much better off than a couple of years ago.

Douglas: Congratulations! I mean, the idea of not only starting an initiative, but having it trigger other initiatives is really inspiring and amazing. So, well done to you and Leon, and all the team from The Hidden Good.

Rovik: Definitely one of the things I'm proudest about, this community that we're still a part of.

Douglas: Nice. And I guess the next initiative is SG Explained. So maybe just talk about where that came from.

Rovik: Yeah. I think maybe there's a recurring trend here, which is, maybe I get a bit itchy too fast. When I first came back from college (in the US), I was looking for ways to get plugged back into what was happening in Singapore. The podcast community was a bit more active in the West, so you had a lot of these emerging shows coming out. You had Serial, which was doing narrative style podcasts and that really started a whole trend in the US.

I started thinking about what podcasting could look like in Singapore and I tried to combine my need to find out more about Singapore with my interest in podcasting. So I said to a couple of my friends, I don't know anything about CPF. But I need to apparently know enough to know how much to put in or how to maximise it. So I decided, rather than to just feel lost about it, why not do the research, and maybe try to find a way to summarise it or synthesise it, so that it's understandable, not just for me, but for anyone else who wants to listen to it.

Douglas: Very cool. Having listened to a number of episodes, it's really great that you've done a wide variety of issues: policy issues from different agencies, but also food and culture and community work. So just put in a plug, can you remind people or tell people where they can find SG explained?

Rovik: Hopefully, anywhere that you listen to your podcast, you can just search SG Explained.

Douglas: And then maybe one more initiative that you're part of, which I really think everyone in Singapore should be aware of, is Can you explain to folks what's that all about?

Rovik: Yeah, so is a tech-for-good collective. Basically, it's meant to be almost like a watering hole for anyone interested in the tech-for-good space. So you don't have to be a developer or a programmer. You could be someone who is what we call a domain expert and maybe you're in the healthcare sector, social sector, or even the education sector and you want to see how tech tools could help address some of the problem segments there. You could be a designer or even a business development person. Because a lot of what we're trying to do is also build sustainable tools. And the idea is that we bring people together, we have a common set of tools, and maybe guidance and community that we can provide to people. And what they do is that they start projects.

Under, I have two roles. I do content and I also do podcasting for, and I help with some of the editorial needs. And I oversee a team of awesome contributors. I am also co-leading a project on how we can create spaces for diversity in Singapore. So it's about dialogues and how to scale spaces for dialogues. It has the jargon, but it's a bit tricky. It's a promising area we are really, really passionate about. So I love being part of these communities.

I mean, fun fact, I used to be a computer science major, or rather, I guess I am a computer science major – it doesn't change. So coming back and working in my current role at EDB, I guess I wanted to find a space where I could still apply some of my tech skills. And so this was a really good place to kind of see that in action as well.

Douglas: Actually, all the things that you do sound like a full-time job already, and you've reminded us that you do have a full-time job as a policy officer at EDB. So how did those roles merge? How does all the social work kind of feed into what you do at EDB and vice versa?

Rovik: I was already drawn to EDB because I am really passionate about the concept of moving the boundaries in which Singapore can operate. So this idea that a lot of what Singapore is able to achieve is really down to the imaginations of our people. And at the EDB, that's where a lot of it lives. We imagine what we can do with our resources, with our talent, and how we can create good jobs for Singaporeans. So I was drawn to the mission, I wanted to be a part of it.

So I got a scholarship with the EDB, and this was before I started The Hidden Good and before I started all of these things. I was a young chap, not really knowing what I was going to do with my life. And in that period, when I went to college, or I was in the Army, I started to discover some of this passion. When I came back to EDB, I tried to figure out a way to meld a lot of these things together.

Within EDB, I started doing policy work because I wanted to understand the foundation of what we were doing. In my current team, we look at a lot of the core tools that EDB uses: whether it's incentives, tax, or trade. But as a result of the stuff I do outside, I've also started to develop a sort of intuition around how communication works, around how we tell stories and how we engage people on the work that we do. Because one thing I've learned in Singapore is that if you don't appreciate that policy is communications and communications is policy, you're in for a long ride because people may not understand what you're trying to do, people might misunderstand what you're trying to do, and your policy would not achieve its intent just because people don't understand that.

So a lot of what I'm doing in my current team beyond understanding the foundation and doing some of the core policy work, is to also think about how we engage our stakeholders, how we communicate, how we do change management. It's an amazing way of reinforcing a lot of these key themes and trends and even with my team, it's been a kind of reinforcing process for that too.

Douglas: What you just said reminds me of the former Head of Civil Service, Peter Ong. He used to say that policy is implementation. And it occurs to me what you just said that actually communications is the bridge between the two. So there's policy and communications, which leads to good, effective implementation. That sounds about right?

Rovik: Yeah. And I have to give attribution: that quote is from my Managing Director Chng Kai Fong. He's the one who came up with that. And I found it to be immensely useful in everything. Because a lot of times when we have all the best intentions and our policy, we don't know how to tell stories, how to compel people to really show what we're trying to do, it becomes very hard to bring them on the journey.

And we're at a stage in Singapore's story where everyone needs to be brought on this journey. It's no longer about top minds just thinking about stuff and everyone else following. There are so many brilliant people out there. It's not just that they want to be heard, they want to feel like they can contribute too. And that's an immense potential to take advantage of. Which is why stuff like SG Explained, The Hidden Good, are communities, and what you're really harnessing is the power of people to work together. And when you can do that, you can move much further and much faster than if it's just a couple of people telling others where to go.

Douglas: Yeah, we're learning, right? Actually, I did a project with your mum years ago, where the idea was not just a set of policies and throw it over the wall, but to get a whole number of agencies and social workers together to co-create and shape it a bit, as well as to make sure it gets implemented correctly. So we are definitely learning.

Rovik: Yeah, yeah. And it's a new skill set, right? Which is why I enjoy doing what I'm doing on the side: It doesn't feel like multiple full time jobs, it feels like one big mission that has just different projects in different parts. And I see it as many parts of a whole, I see it as reinforcing parts of a bigger system. And it gives me range in some of the stuff I do. Of course, there are some of the basics that we need to take care of, which is balancing your time, balancing your energy and making sure you take care of rest, making sure you're accountable. But I think once you get those things in place, you can really build and scale from there.

Douglas: But how do you refresh yourself, keep your energy up, given all the things that you're doing?

Rovik: Yeah, I think you just have to be very in touch with where you are. There are times where I'll catch myself being a bit drained, feeling like I'm doing something for the sake of it. And you have to be honest with yourself, you have to catch yourself and you have to say, what can I do to change where I am? A lot of that means doing something different. So, for example, I went kayaking this past Saturday, not because I love kayaking. I do enjoy it. I really wanted a change in atmosphere, I wanted a change in perspective, and a lot of it means talking to new people. So plugging into different communities, being part of different spaces. A lot of it means just saying, hey, I need time off.

Douglas: In SG Explained, you sometimes discuss issues that are a little edgy for people, like race and ethnicity. Have you ever received, I don't say criticism, but have there been instances where people felt a bit uneasy or said that you crossed some boundary? Has there been any discussion around that, any pushback at all?

Rovik: I think that's a very relevant question. When you work in this space, or when you explore this space, I think you have to go in with your eyes wide open. So I'm fully aware of a lot of the red lines that as a public officer we have to operate in as well. Thankfully, I have good mentors and people within my organisation to give me guidance around some of these things. The way I think about it is I operate both within the letter of the guidelines, as well as the spirit of the guidelines. All of these things are to make sure that you protect the impartiality of the Public Service, the policymaking process, and make sure that there's still confidence in the Public Service.

When I do these podcasts, and when we look at these topics, there's a couple of ways we will look at it. The first is to do a lot of preparation. So when we look at social topics, we make sure that we're not being biased, or even creating the perception of bias. So we look at different perspectives. If needed, we bring in voices that may need to represent some of these perspectives. And my voice doesn't need to be the only voice that needs to be heard.

The second thing is when we look at policy, to then just state policy and to let the facts present themselves. So if there is an episode on a historical event, it would be a commentary in itself without me needing to say, this is good or this is bad. People can make their own impressions. And really, at SG Explained, we're not trying to do commentary: we're trying to be a narrative-building platform for a lot of these topics. We're trying to show continuity, we're trying to show evolution, for example. And for a lot of that, a lot of things are in what's left unsaid, rather than what's said.

The final thing is, of course, to protect the spirit of the guidelines. At the end of the day, I'm speaking about it in an objective way. And we invite comments, we invite criticism, we invite any form of engagement. And you see that in the community engagement that we have, whether it's on Instagram, or on Facebook. A lot of people actually show appreciation for the fact that we've explored the range. They will give their view in a non-combative way because they feel like maybe there's a gap that they can help address, or maybe that there's an additional voice that needs to be heard. And when that's done, I think it creates a new kind of space that may not have existed before. So it's very delicate, it's a lot of deliberation. The reason why we still do it is because I think it would be incomplete to do the work that we do and not touch on some of these topics. But we have to do it in a very sensible way.

Douglas: So Rovik, in addition to SG Explained, which is out there in the world, I have also come to understand that you run a podcast at EDB. What's that all about? And do you think other agencies would and should consider doing a podcast of their own?

Rovik: So actually, what was interesting was that around just around the circuit breaker last year, a lot of people at EDB were starting to feel a bit disconnected from what was happening in the rest of the organisation. I mean, the organisation was trying its best – they were trying to create regular communication, using existing communications channels. But I think what we were missing was the sort of informality around how we bump into one another and just chat.

A lot of the magic of the work that we do there is bumping into one another while going for coffee chats, and stuff like that. So Kai Fong, my MD, actually reached out and he said, you're doing all these podcasts on the outside, why don't we try doing one on the inside, just to talk about topics and help people feel connected back to the organisation? And so I was more than happy to help out. We have since done 20 episodes, and it's called EDB Coffee Chats. And we balance it. Each alternate episode, we talk to either internal stakeholders – a team that people may not have heard much about or may not be aware of – or an external stakeholder. So you know, people on the EDB board or some of our stakeholders in the MTI family.

And it's been an amazing journey, because we just get this whole range of perspectives. People have listened to the podcast, I've been given feedback that they really have appreciated some of the larger contexts in which they operate. For new joiners, especially people who may not have seen other EDB colleagues face to face, it's a good way for them to really get a softer understanding of what's going on. It's really just a way to create space with different kinds of conversations. So you still have your town halls for your big strategic or operational kind of conversations, and you still have your virtual meetings that the teams run, but this is a different kind of space.

Do I think other divisions or other agencies should do it? I think it's up to the intentions and outcomes that you want to achieve. I think it's a good tool to experiment with. It's a way to add warmth to your organisation and create some abundance because people are just there to share. It's really a different kind of space.

Douglas: Yeah, I really love this idea. It is a very different space. Like you say, there are town halls, you can send out emails and do different things. But this gets the whole organisation connected.

Rovik: Yeah. It goes back to something I've been kind of discovering: A lot of the magic can happen when you just set some boundaries. You say, hey, we're going to try something here, and you leave people to do with it what they want. So with some of these podcasts we have some questions, but a lot of the real value is when people come and share things because they want to give back. They want to encourage other divisions or other offices to explore a different way of thinking or try something new. And we've seen that not just with the podcast, but even other things we've done at EDB. We have a group that explores topics around inclusion, and that's a huge topic that we've seen across society. And I think at EDB, we also care about it. We want our people in our community to feel safe and included. And a lot of that was just at a ground level.

Douglas: So I'm hearing actually two potential angles for everyone out there to consider: One is a podcast, which you say is warm, more informal, brings on different guests with different perspectives; and then this idea of creating spaces for people to have these conversations.

Rovik: Yeah, yeah. So it's really just creating accessibility for a lot of people.

Douglas: Because I guess if you're a public officer, or having been a public officer myself for many years, or maybe in health care, it is something you can only really talk about with each other in a way you can really relate to. So sounds like you've been creating spaces for that to happen.

Rovik: I mean, I've great partners. None of this was done on my own. I'm just really encouraged by other people out there who want to do these things as well.

Douglas: Clubhouse is the space I think you've gotten into as well. What's happening over there? Does that spill over from SG Explained or something else? Or is it just something you joined and been playing around in?

Rovik: Yeah, I think I have this problem – the blessing and the curse of being a first fast adopter. So when Clubhouse was first announced, I was early on the platform. When I was on it in December last year, the Singapore community was still not on it. So a lot of it was just going to some of the American rooms or the London rooms and seeing what people were talking about there.

Around February, a lot of the Singaporeans and Malaysians started coming on. And in a very, very magical way you started seeing people who needed a space for topics, creating spaces for themselves. So at first, it was just Singaporeans based overseas, who are living in communities where they're kind of confused about, you know, how their governments are responding to COVID-19. And they want some sort of connection to home, to safety. Clubhouse suddenly created that space because the warmth of the voice, and just hearing people speak, made them feel connected. And so a lot of people were just talking, and then it started breaking out into rooms around education, mental health, even current affairs, things that were happening.

And I think because of some of the work I was doing with podcasting, as well as some of the stuff I've been learning around moderation, facilitation, it just became a very natural space for me to sit in. I find myself contributing, moderating rooms, and helping people create some of the spaces.

I manage a club called The Singapore Club. When they announced that anyone could create a club, I was like, someone has to create a Singapore club, and I don't want it to fall into the wrong hands. So I trusted myself a bit more, created it, and I gave a couple of people the co-admin role, and what we want to do is encourage people to create spaces for any kind of topics. Right now what I do is help a lot of people who are domain experts but don’t know how to run rooms. What I'll do is help them co-moderate the first room, and they get to subsequently start their own rooms.

Douglas: Actually, I don't know if you even know this. But if you remember that the other time we met a few months ago at a conference, and there was an opening session around the issue of “it's okay not to be okay”. Later we opened it up to the 600 participants. And there were people turning on their cameras and crying into the cameras about how they were feeling and what a tough year it had been. So there's something about role modelling vulnerability that creates spaces for other people to also step up. It's so lovely to see and experience.

Rovik: Yeah. And a lot of it is just acknowledgement right to say, Hey, what you're going through, I see it. You know, whatever you need, we can give it to you, if we can. I think those practices are not intuitive to us. Sometimes there's not enough time or resources for it. And so, a lot of this is what we're trying to figure out on Clubhouse. A lot of it is what we're trying to figure out in the communities that I’m in. I think it's a huge factor in how we move forward as well.

Douglas: As we start to wrap up, anything else on your mind?

Rovik: Yeah. Maybe let me pull out two. I think the first one is about acknowledging where we're at in our Singapore story today. I think a lot of leaders have come out and said that COVID-19 is really the crisis of our generation, a test of our generation. I believe that too, I don't think it's just a matter of executing strategy or executing a lot of these plans that we have in staying resilient – I think all of that is important. But I think it's also an opportunity for us to have a conversation on how we hold space for dissent, how we hold space for some of these conversations that we're seeing starting to emerge right around race, xenophobia, class. It's not that these are new, but definitely being sparked a lot more.

And it's not just affecting the citizenry, it's affecting us too, in the Public Service. We’re citizens too. I've been thankful to be part of communities within the Public Service, where we're trying to create space informally for these conversations to happen. The other thing that's sitting on my mind is I love the fact that we're doing a podcast. It's a new medium, we're trying new things. Maybe I'll see you at Clubhouse sometime, Doug.

But I think experimenting with new ways of communicating and engaging people is going to be a huge asset, and we're all going to have to learn it. It's not just about putting out a press release or finding a way to influence social media. It's really about true, authentic engagement. A lot of that means being human as a government voice. And I think that's a skill again, that I'm learning. I'm trying to practise and I'm learning from others. And I think we can all learn together.

Douglas: So we've covered a lot of ground. Thanks, Rovik, for this conversation. We have listeners, I guess, from the Public Service, from outside the Public Service in Singapore, and maybe outside Singapore as well. So anything you would like people to take from this, leave them with a parting message?

Rovik: Yeah, I think the parting message I'd give is always be willing to try new things. Believe in the power of people and communities. And I think we're stronger together. That's really something I hold dear.

Douglas: Thanks for being part of the podcast and all your sharing and all that you do.

Rovik: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Douglas: Thank you for listening to this podcast. I’m your host Douglas O’Loughlin. Follow us for new episodes, and follow for more public service stories.

To hear more conversations like this, follow the Challenge Podcast on Spotify.

    Jul 7, 2021
    Keval Singh
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