Conversations with Ding Wei Jie

Wei Jie is a civil servant in the public service. His job appointment’s official title is quite a mouthful, being: Assistant Head for the Safety and Security Industry Programme Office of the New Businesses Division in the Economic Development Board. He is an alumnus of the National University of Singapore, where he pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering.

Beyond his professional life, Wei Jie is personally passionate about engaging youth meaningfully to become more globally-, critically-, and politically-aware democratic citizens. He has organised and facilitated a series of dialogue sessions to provide a safe, conducive space for youth to discuss and deliberate such issues as politics, race, and development.

Weijie: For me, there are currently a few domains that make up my typical day. I think there’s, firstly, company engagement; and secondly, running the innovation testbed by the safety and security industry programme office. These two actually tie in together in that the first is about seeding interest in current companies to try and incentivise them to participate in the testbed. Through company engagement, we get to know the ground situations, then bring companies on board the testbed, to drive the demand. For example, if the Ministry of Home Affairs has a need to resolve which can’t be solved using current market solutions, then companies can come aboard to innovate solutions through this platform.

Weijie: I think the principle has always been the same for me: I recognise the value of public service work. But how I actually got started was through the military, in the navy. With my military background, having explored the defence part of the service, I then wanted to try working in the economic sphere instead. Especially since I was already volunteering in some statutory boards in the social sector, so I thought: why not try exploring the economic function of the public service too? And I actually chanced upon this job through my friend, and thought it an apt opportunity to bridge my professional learning by combining my operations background with the goal of economic value-addedness, to generate revenue for the industry and country. I also wanted more exposure to strategic planning and some higher level policy work.

Weijie: Well, just to put things into context: I’ve been in this job for just over 2 months now. But as far as my own personal expectations, yes – it’s fulfilled my expectations and surpassed them too because I’ve really gotten a lot of insights from working with the Senior Management in the Economic Development Board. I’ve also learnt a lot through networking with the various partners. However, I think what was less expected was that, timing-wise, I joined during a period when we’re heavily involved in closing quite a number of project cycles so the administrative handling is quite intensive actually, having to prepare letters of offer to all the companies and settle that sort of administrative work.

Weijie: It’s different working here in the Economic Development Board as compared to working back in the navy. I think because the defence arm is so vast and broad, the entire structure is also necessarily very complex so the constituent components can operate rather separately. This makes chances to work together with other levels of personnel relatively hard to come by too. But in the Economic Development board you actually get the chance to not only meet with, but also work together with the Senior Management really quite often. This makes the working environment become a lot more collaborative too; there are also helpful colleagues who will want to take the time to meet with you to clarify doubts – both yours and theirs. And this emphasis on networking and interaction helps with the steep learning curve and helps speed up the learning process.

Weijie: The thing is, I was formerly from the navy, and when I was there, the view from my station overlooked the landscape of Marina Bay Sands so that was my area of contribution for security. But now, my area of contribution is perhaps not as clear-cut anymore, so having these ‘exciting’ moments isn’t as tangible. But it’s really about being involved in the nascent stage of an industry, and growing it from its current stage into a million-dollar industry. The impact really comes only years later. What’s rewarding in the process though is in overcoming the obstacles and bureaucratic issues to move the industry in the right direction. And being given this chance, and in a way the authority, to make changes to processes to keep the growth of the industry on the right track – there’s an intrinsic satisfaction the comes from that, from knowing that you are shifting the industry in the right direction.

On a good day, besides making meaningful progress in the two domains of company engagement and running the innovation testbed by the safety and security industry programme office, it’ll actually be quite ideal if you have 3 things come together: so firstly, when you get insights from industry and Senior Management; secondly, when you are able to identify and change things to improve innovations testing; and thirdly, when you are able to identify and change processes within the system to make things faster and more efficient.

Weijie: So I was a manpower officer in the navy and oversaw the navigational aspects of operations of landing ship tanks, which are mainly humanitarian in purpose, and Mine Countermeasures Vessels, which are mainly for mine-clearance operations. I also had some policy planning experience in planning for peacetime exercises, activation and mobilisation strategies, and ways to conduct ship operations. After that, I went on to become an engagement officer in the Ministry of Defence scholarship centre. Onboard the ship, it was always a really close-knit environment – really aligned to the navy core value of ‘Family’, the equivalent of the Singapore Armed Forces’ ‘Care For Soldiers’. The environment actually ran pretty ‘rankless’ in that it wasn’t so much about your title or rank, as about knowing your technical and operational work. For the safe running of the vessel, no one would hesitate to correct – and help you – when you were wrong, unsure or in need. There was always just this sense of camaraderie. Actually, a rather surprising element in the Economic Development Board is that I’ve also found this same sense of family and camaraderie.

Weijie: My reasons for choosing the navy – having a non-deskbound job and having been sold on the idea of family-like bonding and camaraderie within the ship environment – still stand. The thing is that almost nowhere else, other than in such military environments, are you actually presented with such a need for technical and operational expertise alongside such heavy task urgency. However, looking back, I would probably want to have clarified more about my opportunities to learn from and be exposed to other parts of the public service; and tied to this, also about the availability of secondments. Because as the current model stands, military management is driven by an operational model tending toward specialisation. This narrows somewhat the range of exposure and experience you can get as a public servant when you start from this sector, as compared to a more generalist sector.

So, what I would tell any young aspiring public officer is: you’ve really got to know why you want to join the public service. There’s a passion, an interest in public service work that really binds all public servants together regardless of sector. And you should think of the areas of interest in the service that you want to enter – where do you feel this attraction to? Because if you don’t know what you want to go for, or don’t have the passion for it, then you might end up having regrets. This is especially since you’ll still have to spend quite a while to get good at what you do, and secondment opportunities may not be that readily available. If you’re going to go for the navy, the leadership opportunities and the nature of such a job are hard to get elsewhere otherwise. As for the economic sector, really know what you’re doing before any disillusionment sets in. In the Economic Development Board, there are actually real gains – the insights you glean from Senior Management, and the nature of your work allows you to bring everyone together to grow industries. And if there’s something I believe in – that I’m still working on personally – is being an effective conduit for the department to grow the industry.

Weijie: A big part of my concerns was whether the skills and experience I possessed from my years of service in the navy would be recognised outside that field and whether it would prove transferable. This was especially because I felt my exposure to policy work wasn’t quite sufficient. Strangely enough, these fears are being addressed quite well as I ease into this new job; at the end of the day, it’s actually similarly about knowing the technical operations of the systems and about managing people.

Weijie: The good highlights would include my time as a trainee navigational officer bringing officer cadets for navigational training from Singapore to Vietnam and then to Korea. Back then, I had a pretty tough Commanding Officer (CO) so I spent many sleepless nights planning for the deployment of the ship, the ship’s anchoring and entry into overseas bases, and the nautical movement plans towards and into the ports.  Only after many rejections did my CO finally approve of my plans, giving me the green light to go ahead with the execution. The excitement in the execution, and the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction after a day of unexpectedly smooth sails before finally successfully and safely bringing the ship of 200 to berth in the foreign navy base at Busan, despite the bad weather, for the very first time, was one of the best feelings ever.

But it hasn’t been all good, and some not so good parts are also hard to forget: I remember when there was a duty crew with an on-job trainee who seemed to have suicidal thoughts because of personal problems. Even though my Assistant Chief was of the view that this trainee was just trying to geng (to malinger; to feign illness), I felt that I had to ensure his safety first. And so I had him escorted under watch to the medical centre. On duty, boring is good – it means nothing’s happened; often, things get ‘exciting’ for the wrong reasons only when not-so-good things happen. That’s when you have to react to crises, weird situations like the rope breaking and the ship then drifting from the anchored point, and injury of servicemen while technically off-duty. These really test your reaction to novel situations and so become memorable, but you’ll probably be grateful not to have too many of such instances to test you on the spot to think on your feet.

Weijie: Well, technical/professional knowledge and skills is definitely a big part of what I do. But you also have to take into account the insights gained through speaking to the rest of your colleagues. Everyone can then come together for innovation after getting a sense of the ground from speaking to various company stakeholders. For us in the New Businesses Division, this is done so that we can push for security technology innovations and solutions. There’s also strategic decision making – which needs you to be agile enough to make changes to your thinking and to that of the system, so as to push beyond current already-mature states. This also means making the right decisions to push for innovation platforms to be formed. And to do that – facilitating change – you’ve got to get buy in from people, so we engage the ministries, industry stakeholders, and external stakeholders like partners and consultants. The backbone of what we do though is teamwork that comes from building positive working relationships and mutual trust between colleagues in a collaborative environment.

Weijie: Paper and technical qualifications – these are actually not that significant when starting off your career, especially since knowledge from your bachelor’s degree, for instance, can be learnt from ground zero on the job. But I think what you take away most from your prior education is the way you think and work with people, with teammates. These ‘soft’ areas have been the real take-aways from my degree in engineering: learning to work with others on design projects and final year projects. Also, this mode of education has helped me develop a more structured systems thinking.