Conversations with Shawn Loh

Shawn Loh is the Deputy Director for Population Policy and Planning, at the Strategy Group of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). He got married at 24, had his first kid at 26, his second at 28, and his third at 31 this year. That is his explanation for why he is now leading the team working on population policies at PMO-Strategy Group.

Shawn’s academic background is in financial economics. He started his life in public service at the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s Planning Division, where he worked to refine internal strategic planning capabilities and improve education policies for children with special needs. More recently, he led a team working with the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Advisory Panel to introduce a slew of CPF reforms at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM)’s Income Security Policy Division.

Shawn: In a nutshell, the Strategy Group is a small unit that leads and organises the public service to implement the Government’s priorities over the long term. 

We work in strong partnership with agencies across the whole of government, towards our common purpose to help Singapore and Singaporeans. There are 3 “A”s to this work – raising the Ambition of our plans for the future, ensuring Alignment across all agencies to work together on these plans, and catalysing Action especially in areas where we see gaps.

There are several teams in Strategy Group working on different cross-cutting priorities. My team works on one such priority – our long term population strategies that help shape a healthy population profile in Singapore. These strategies are supported by many policies to help Singaporeans have more children, to ensure a balanced flow of immigrants and transient workers so that we can all live better lives, and to build a city that we can be proud to call home. Our population strategies are closely connected to other strategies within Government, such as strategies relating to building a strong and cohesive Singapore society, as well as those to support our future economy.

Shawn: In the broadest sense, I see my work everywhere and all the time – but I mean it in a good way! Our population strategies impact every single person in Singapore. The way we all live, play, and work. So if you look around us, work naturally comes to mind. For example, when we’re in this café, I’m asking myself questions like “what workforce does this café employ?”, “how can they do things more efficiently with less manpower?”, and “why do they still not accept cashless payments here despite the Government’s push for more employers to adopt technology?”.

But in a narrower sense, a typical day at work is one where my team and I work to “balance our population equation”. We work hard with our colleagues in the various ministries and agencies to find the right set of population strategies to balance across many competing policy objectives. For example – too many foreigners, and we might struggle to build a cohesive society, but too few, and we might forsake some economic vibrancy. This is a dynamic problem. The world keeps changing and the needs of Singaporeans too, are changing. So we have to adjust our strategies in tandem.

During one of the more hectic days, I could start the morning in a meeting with colleagues from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on how foreign workforce policies should be reviewed to support the needs of our future economy. Then, I might have a discussion with colleagues at the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY) on programmes to build a more cohesive society, before ending the day at the Urban and Redevelopment Authority (URA) to discuss the implications of our future population growth on infrastructure plans. 

I suppose you have to like meeting people in this job! When I’m in the office, my time is divided into three parts. I spend one-third of my time at meetings. Another one-third of my time is spent discussing and refining specific pieces of work – mostly policy papers and presentations – with my team of 10 policy analysts. We are all generalists with some focus areas: some of us are more inclined towards data analytics, some are economists, and a couple are psychologists. What unites us is our heart to make this country a better place. We work by seeing the connections and interactions across our focus areas. The last one-third of my time is spent reading, writing, and thinking about the next issue on the horizon and where we are going.

Shawn: Our people. I’m lucky that we are a dynamic team that is constantly curious, highly collaborative, and genuinely cares for each other. Strategy Group has some really interesting people, and I often feel that I have learned something new after random conversations with colleagues over lunch or in the pantry.

What motivates us to go the extra mile is not just what we do, but who we do it with. Especially since we spend so much time together! I’ve found this to be true in all my workplaces. My role in leading such a team is to sustain this team culture and spirit even when the going gets tough.

In terms of the actual content of our work, we continually have to adapt to our changing context. This makes the work exciting. Even in the same portfolio, we face very different issues from our predecessors. Policies that were once vehemently rejected can one day be updated, resurfaced, and implemented. This is possible due to new realities, new facts, but also the willingness to seize these opportunities when they present themselves. You may have the right idea, but you must also be at the right place at the right time to see it through.

Shawn: If I could change something, in all the workplaces that I have been to, and this probably applies to Singapore workplace culture in general, it would be the long work hours. We Singaporeans are working too hard, and not working smart enough. We define too much of ourselves by our work. I think that’s really not the best balance of work-life that we should strive for.

If you ask your parents what they thought about the civil service, they would say you would work 9-to-5. Well, many civil servants most certainly work longer than that! And this is something you find across many professions in Singapore.

So, what I am always on the lookout for is how we can work smarter, be more productive, and build a work culture where long hours are not viewed as a positive sign of a hardworking ethic. It should matter to us, as a whole society, to be able to complete our work and still be able to spend both quality and quantity time with our families and other pursuits. I have three young children, so you can see how this is an issue close to my heart!

Shawn: It’s been one of constant growth, continuous uncertainty, and immense luck.

In each place I’ve worked at, I never knew where I was going next. So – through little choice of mine – I started out at MOE as a policy officer, moved to MOM to lead a small policy team, before coming here to Strategy Group. And I still don’t know where I will contribute to next! 

I guess I’d summarise my learning in three ‘P’s. 

The first ‘P’ is People. I’ve met extraordinarily committed and competent folks throughout the public service. At MOE, I developed a deep respect for the education profession, through my interactions with many teachers who cared deeply about their mission to mould the future generation. At MOM, I built and led a small crack team of policy officers and worked with an extremely professional CPF Board to introduce a slew of CPF improvements, an issue very close to Singaporeans’ hearts, during a period when CPF issues were always in the news.

I’ve been lucky to have the chance to lead teams with a strong mission focus, with individuals who believe in making a difference and are willing to go beyond what they are paid to do to make this difference. As a leader, there’s real satisfaction in seeing them grow and flourish. It’s something I’m very grateful for over my time in the service.

The second ‘P’ is Process. The public service is a strange animal, with processes and a mountain of acronyms that outsiders have sometimes described as arcane. It takes a while to navigate the bureaucracy and find out how to get things done. Then there are the “staffing” processes that I picked up as a junior staff officer to the Ministers – how to write speeches, organise big meetings, take notes, and the like. You really get exposed to these things even at a junior stage, if you’re in the right areas. There are always opportunities to learn and grow. Sometimes, you work directly with the Minister and you learn a lot from this, but it’s hard work.

The third ‘P’ is Policies. Our bread and butter. In policy units, I’ve learnt that the best policies are not made in an ivory tower, but with a keen sense of the needs of the public. People are counting on us to get it right. I’ve dealt with ground feedback and appeals, engaged the public and unions on difficult policies, and worked through policy communications, legislation, and implementation. I’ve had to speak with angry Singaporeans with legitimate complaints, explain why some policies cannot be bent to suit their needs, and most importantly, find a common ground or another way to help them.

Shawn: It’s gotten harder now that I have three kids, all aged five and below. We only have 24 hours a day and we want to give our best in everything we do. One learning point I will offer newer colleagues is that you have to decide what you must prioritise at each point in life, and be comfortable with the trade-offs arising from that decision. We are often stressed from having many goals. But with some experience you realise that you just can’t do everything. And to some extent, it’s a liberating realisation.

Shawn: Perhaps I should add a fourth ‘P’ to what I shared earlier – and that is Purpose. Before joining the public service, ask yourself “Why?”. Are you driven by the chance to make a large positive impact on your country and the people around you? Are you interested to solve problems at a national scale? This is the fundamental thing that gives you purpose and gives you an internal compass that answers why you do what you do.

Once you’re in the service and thinking about your future career here, just do your best and maximise the opportunities given to you. But also remember that a great many things are not fully within your control: if you aren’t at the right place, at the right time, talking to the right person, you may not be able to push for a change that you want, but it doesn’t mean that you didn’t do the right thing. As with most matters in life, do your best with the cards you are dealt and accept that some things are out of your control. And don’t forget to enjoy the experience of making a difference!