Conversations | By Zhou Xizhuang Michael, Editor-in-Chief
Most people get satisfaction from doing their dream job. But for SMS Chee, he learnt to grow to love his career instead.
Speaking to The Convergence, the Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Trade and Industry & Ministry of Education shares that going into public service was not his initial intended path.
“When I was in school, what I wanted to do was engineering. That was my interest and my passion. I didn’t think of coming into the Government and engaging myself with policy work,” he says.
But SMS Chee began to develop a stronger appreciation for the service after witnessing first-hand what it can do for the people.
Before entering into politics in 2015, SMS Chee had started working in the public service as a civil servant since 1998.
“After dealing with various issues, I began to see the importance of how public service jobs can contribute to nation-building and improving the lives of the people.”
“For me, public service is one of those things that you grow to love, rather than you love at the beginning,” says the 45-year-old politician.
SG United: society needs to give and take
For decades, racial harmony and social stability have flourished in Singapore. But Singaporeans should not take them for granted.
“Like many other societies, we will face forces that attempt to pull us apart. Different communities may start to want different things and not everything can co-exist peacefully,” says SMS Chee.
If there is no “give and take” in society, neither “compromise” nor “co-existence” is possible, he later adds.
In such a scenario, SMS Chee suggests that national progress would be impeded as society condemns itself to social-infighting and conflicts.
“There is a lot of heat being generated but there’s not much results and positive outcomes,” he adds.
As such, being able to “give and take” and arrive at mutually-acceptable compromises is critical towards maintaining social cohesion and facilitating long-term planning.
The process of keeping people together, however, should not be done by force. Otherwise, cohesion remains fragile.
Pointing to his chest, the ex-Chief Executive of Energy Market Authority argues that cohesion must come from one’s heart (emphasis added).
“[Cohesion] has to be something that people value and desire so that they are willing to then make those trade-offs and compromises – and give and take,” SMS Chee elaborates.
To do that, he continues, society needs to create “socio-emotional bonds” through “community-building” and “trust-building”.
SG Unlimited: it’s still morning for Singapore
Despite achieving slower economic growth in recent years, SMS Chee does not think that Singapore’s “best days are over”.
He believes that it is actually quite the opposite.
The Senior Minister of State argues that Singapore today stands on a “much stronger platform” compared to where the city-state first started more than 50 years ago.
“Today, with Singapore’s past few decades of growth and development, people know Singapore is a place that stands for credibility, quality, value, and trustworthiness,” he adds.
Such quality of credibility and trustworthiness would only become more attractive and appreciated in the eyes of foreign companies as global uncertainty abounds.
In turn, these qualities constitute what SMS Chee address as the “Singapore brand”, which would help propel Singaporeans towards greater success both locally and globally.
“Ultimately, it is not just about what is made in Singapore, but also what is made by Singapore and even what is made with Singapore,” he says.
Pessimism, therefore, should not be the order of the day.
“In truth, we are limited more by our own imagination and our own ambition.”
For Singaporeans to remain ahead of the global race and stay competitive, SMS Chee suggests that there are two important skill-sets to have.
First, Singaporeans need to have the ability to “learn and unlearn” so as to stay adaptable and responsive to new changes and disruptions.
Second, to leave our comfort zone and not become risk-averse.
But such skills will amount to little if the nation lacks a strong economy and an option of relevant industries for people to make good their skill-sets.
“Having a positive attitude to learn and willingness to take risks are necessary, but insufficient. Because at the end of the day, [if] Singapore does not have a strong economy or a good industrial ecosystem, it cannot bring in investments that create good jobs for Singaporeans,” says SMS Chee.
Having an open mindset towards the future
Tantamount to harness Singapore’s potential for the future is to keep an open mindset. On this, SMS Chee suggests that Singapore’s openness to foreign companies is an essential source of attractiveness.
Speaking about British technology company Dyson, SMS Chee argues that a company should not be judged based on its place of origin. Rather, we need to look at the value it adds to the Singapore economy.
“Dyson is not a Singapore company by birth, but [the company] is going to create a lot of good jobs for Singaporeans,” he says.
Rather than ostracising or discriminating against foreign companies, the Government should support them and integrate them into Singapore’s business ecosystem better.
In turn, this generates more benefits, in terms of job creation and productivity, for Singaporeans.
Similarly, SMS Chee encourages Singaporeans to stay open to immigration.
A sensitive and challenging topic it may be, SMS suggests that immigration may become less of a choice than necessity as the nation faces the gloomy prospect of an ageing population.
“And if we are unwilling to have a more open approach to welcome people who share our values to become part of the Singapore family, in the end we will pay a price.The younger generations will end up shouldering a heavier burden,” he adds.
Despite the caveat of rejecting immigration, SMS Chee makes a point that striking a balance – between preserving Singapore’s identity and values and accepting immigrants – is the best way forward.
In time to come, the perception of citizenship and identity also has to change. “Being Singaporean is not by ancestry. It is based on conviction, choice, and values,” says the Senior Minister of State.
A more open and connected Singapore ultimately safeguards the city-state’s “long-term survival and the longer-term well-being of [Singaporeans].”
Planning for the future and working with Singaporeans
On changes that the 4G leaders may bring to governance, SMS Chee tells The Convergence that certain areas should remain unchanged.
Speaking about “SG100”, SMS Chee believes that the Government should continue its long-standing practice of planning for the long term.
“During the [Top Guns Forum] I mentioned SG 100. I used that as a way to remind ourselves that we are not thinking about what’s going to happen in the next few years. Instead, we are really thinking about what kind of future are we creating for our children, for our grandchildren,” he says.
Building on this point, SMS Chee reminds that Singapore today owes, in large part, its success to the foresight and long-term planning of leaders who came before us.
“If today we talk about spending the reserves and not saving for the future, what kind of future and legacy are we leaving for our children and our grandchildren?”
“If our forefathers did that to us, we wouldn’t have this position that we have today. Singapore will not be where it is today,” he adds.
He later calls this practice or principle of long-term planning Singapore’s "DNA".
“So, this DNA of planning for the long term and looking after the interests of future generations is something which I think should stay as part of this Government and society’s DNA,” elaborates the Senior Minister of State.
"We should, even at the expense of making people a little bit unhappy in the short term, be willing to engage the population honestly and candidly on difficult issues that we face" - Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat, Ministry of Trade and Industry & Ministry of Education
On the other hand, the Government should continue to tell its people hard truths. Indeed, it is always easier to skirt around hard realities and tempting to talk about popular things.
Nevertheless, SMS Chee emphasises that difficult conversations have to be made with the population so that painful, but necessary changes can be made to solve the nation’s problems.
“We should, even at the expense of making people a little bit unhappy in the short term, be willing to engage the population honestly and candidly on difficult issues that we face,” he says.
On things that would change, however, SMS Chee replies that the Government would seek to work closer with Singaporeans.
While partnership between the Government and its people is nothing new, SMS Chee expects a shift towards strengthening the partnership – and relationship – further.
“This shift is important because I think it also reflects the changes in our society and what the people want. The people are ready for the Government to work more closely with them to jointly tackle common challenges,” he elaborates.
Besides from delivering solutions, such partnerships strengthens social cohesion, too. “What’s even more important is that in the process of doing so, you build up that trust between the different groups, between the young people and the seniors, between the business owners and the communities,” he adds.
Throughout the interview with SMS Chee, much emphasis was put on the notion of togetherness and benefits of Singaporeans working together.
Indeed, challenges could be overcome, and potential could be harnessed to bring Singapore forward in the future.
But before that happens, Singaporeans first need to find avenues to work together and make mutually-acceptable compromises.
About the interviewee: Mr Chee Hong Tat currently serves as Senior Minister of State for Ministry of Trade and Industry & Ministry of Education. He was first elected as a Member of Parliament for the Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in the 2015 General Elections. Mr Chee joined the Civil Service in 1998 and had previously served stints in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Education.