Reflections with Baey Yam Keng

By Kagen Lim and Teow Junhao

Mr Baey Yam Keng has been a Member of Parliament for 14 years, entering the Singapore Parliament in 2006 and becoming Parliamentary Secretary for Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth in 2015. In 2018, Mr Baey was appointed as Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and Ministry of Transport. He also has experience in the private sector as Vice-President, Corporate Marketing & Corporate Social Responsibility at CapitaLand Limited, and Singapore MD of international public relations consultancy Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

My role in the ministry as SPS is to help the Minister and work closely with the colleagues in the Ministry on policies – including the political implications of the policies; or how they affect people, how people receive them and how to communicate better to the public. In a way, we shape policies such that they can resonate with people. As a SPS, I also have a more direct role as a link between the Ministry and my parliamentary colleagues, hence the name ‘Parliamentary Secretary’. It could be on questions they have which relate to the Ministry’s work. As MPs, they also have constituency-based interests. Let’s say if the MOT is building a new MRT station, there will be conversations and meetings with LTA, to discuss these matters and residents’ concerns. If there are areas where we need to mediate or facilitate a discussion between the Government and the MPs, I try to strike a balance between being a fellow MP and in the Ministry, I try to be as objective as possible. Sometimes, I need to explain government policy, but at the same time I also try to see things from the community’s point of view for certain requests of the Government.  In addition, I work closely with the Government Parliamentary Committees (GPCs) which are groups of MPs who focus on specific portfolios of respective ministries. There is one for MCCY, for MOT, etc.

Certainly. As an MP you can just speak for your residents and put up those requests, suggestions and feedback. However, we need to take a broader perspective once you are a political officer-holder. In Parliament, there is the front-bench and back-bench. Back-benchers represent their constituencies, whereas the front-bench represents the Government. In debate or ‘Question Time’, back-benchers will ask questions and the front-benchers will answer. The front-benchers are representing the respective ministries to respond to MPs’ queries. The perspective would have to now be taken at more of the national level. This is because sometimes, an issue could seem very dire on the ground but might actually be the concern of one small, specific group of constituents. In the Ministries, if we change a law, we not only have to think about how changes might help a particular situation on the ground in one constituency, but its implications on other areas too.  Changes may also set precedence for things that we may not want to happen as policies would need to be consistently applied across the island. The Ministry would thus tend to have a much broader scope of consideration. Ministries are also responsible for public spending in various domains. When I was just a MP, I was more focused on matters in my constituency. I now have obligations both to my constituents, and to Singaporeans at large for the fulfillment of policy objectives.

In the private sector, the KPIs are very clear. For businesses, the motivation boils down to the bottom-line: they want to make money. What is measurable is very clear. In CapitaLand, a real-estate company, whether you sell condo units or run shopping malls, the aim is for profit. Whatever you do in a company is to help the company make money. There are very clearly-defined objectives. In a way, it makes things easier and that motivates people who are driven by their revenue targets or sales projections. That is, generally speaking, how the private sector runs. The whole set-up, whether corporate office or the supporting functions are geared to deliver that end result, whether it is revenue target, profit target or share price (if it is a listed company).

If you look at the public sector, it has KPIs too, but some are not as easily measurable as a dollar sign. Some may also not be so directly linked to the work that we do. They are broader and hence dependent on many more factors. As a public servant, we must then be motivated by things that are less direct and find meaning and satisfaction in the work that we do. I think most public servants would be energised by the fact that the work of the ministry or any government agency affects the public at large.

Both sectors are very different. However, people would have different interests and ways that they are being motivated to do well. But it does not mean that you cannot have a person who can do well in both roles.

There are also common skills that can help a person in both sectors. For example, people management, human-to-human interactions, these life skills are always useful, whether in the private or public sector. Skills learnt from one sector can be applicable in the other as well. For example, like governments, businesses also operate in an environment where the policies matter. Let’s say, MTI or MOF has laws which govern businesses, but at the same time, help businesses grow and contribute to the economy. The government still benefit, in terms of corporate tax collections etc. If someone from the private sector joins the government, the person can use his experience to make policies which help the private sector. That is why the government also does a lot of public consultations on many matters, whether it is about the community, society or a particular industry group. We would like policies to be relevant in serving their purpose, and ultimately bring benefits to a majority. That is why we need to have good and sound policies.

My ten years or so in the public sector has helped me look at things at the broader, national level. I think that is something that is not easily available in the corporate world. As a young officer, at the start of my career in the EDB, that was especially enriching because I got the chance to attend high-level meetings and engage with senior management of MNCs. That was very valuable.

When I went to CapitaLand, and subsequently to a PR agency, that gave me first-hand experience with the dollar-driven business. I also learnt how to manage the different types of business – one which is very asset based and another which relates more to soft skills in consultancy and public relations. When running the PR agency, I have to handle the P&L and HR policies which really helped me understand the business world.

Now back to the Ministry, as a political office holder, I saw that it is not just about the policies but how it relates to people – how this would help the public at large and various sectors that we are serving. For example, MCCY looks at the arts and heritage, while MOT looks at transport, such as maritime and land transport. While I can leave the policy details and the fine print to the civil servants in the Ministry, I need to see the larger picture. When I explain this in Parliament, I also need to consider the views of my fellow MPs and the public. They might not have the time to understand everything, so how I explain and clarify the Ministry’s initiatives in a nutshell matters. As a political office-holder, that will be our role and our contribution in having a good policy that not only works, but also accepted and understood by the people.

I think at different phases of life; you would just have to accept that there would be different work-life balance. When someone gets married or starts a family, his or her work-life balance would also change. In our roles as political office-holders, we would just have to accept that we have to devote more time and attention to public work and make up in other ways for family time. I think it is important to have an understanding spouse and children, and the support of the extended family is useful as well. Ultimately, whichever part of our lives that we are in – be it at work, in the constituency or with our family, I think we just have to be focussed, and not get distracted. For instance, when I am on a family holiday, I try not to spend too much time on emails, so my family feels that I am with them. We have to be present, both physically and mentally.

Yes, definitely.

Firstly, the profile of our elected members has changed. I suppose it is because the party is choosing candidates with different qualities, as a different type of politicians are needed by the public now. Nowadays, there is a lot more engagement, and politicians can better relate to people with better communications and better use of social media. When I started in 2006, social media just started and now it is a very big part of our work. All MPs are now on Facebook and quite a lot have Instagram accounts. It took some time, but I would say that we should be thankful that there is social media now to help us reach out to our constituents and the public in general. Otherwise, we have to rely on mainstream media, which has a limited bandwidth. That helped us with a channel to engage and communicate. It is a good change in terms of the availability of technology and media. We have to be open to making mistakes along the way – we learn, we experiment and we find a better way to engage people. That is what the public expects and likes as well. People would find MPs now more reachable. Another thing that has increased is the on-the-ground activities, with the human touch and face-to-face interactions.

I think we also becoming more relaxed. I don’t think 12, 20 years ago, an MP or political office-holder would accept an interview by a group of students – maybe there wasn’t even such a group like you too. The supply side has changed, and I think we are also responding to the changes of demographics, technology, people’s preferences and lifestyles. In the past, we only had Meet-the-People sessions once a week – which is still continuing – but now, throughout the week, people can always reach us through emails, private messages and social media platforms. The distance is much closer. I personally think that social media is very powerful and useful. I am always quite willing to try new things.

There are considerably more options available to the youths of today. Even for universities, there are so many more options and places. During my time, there were only 2 Public Universities. Now there are 6 which are funded by the Government. In the past, some had to venture overseas to read the Courses they are keen on. Now, there are so many more choices when it comes to Courses of Study. This is partly a response to the needs of the economy. Courses like Cybersecurity and Data Analytics, for instance, are new and certainly skills which the country needs.

These are very exciting times to be making decisions about one’s life. Youths have opportunities to venture into various pursuits both in and outside Singapore. Youth Corps Singapore enables youth to serve their communities through volunteering and develop interests into passions. There is also funding support for issues that youth are championing through the National Youth Fund. This government fund enables youth to run various projects. Our schools also do a good job of developing curiosity in our young generation and growing their various interests. I see many youths who have continued these passions in their careers or as lifelong passions.

My take is that youth are most fulfilled when they are able to do different things. This is enabled by new platforms like social media that extends their reach.  I encourage all youth to make full use of these golden opportunities to do good, help others through various causes, and most importantly develop as a person.  I know that youth who work on their passions tend to be very committed to their work. This spirit and attitude is important.

Against this landscape of opportunities, choices, things that youth can do, it also means that the scene is quite a busy and competitive one. The barriers to entry are considerably lower. This change is positive and shows that our society is evolving. However, youths of today need to work very hard in order to succeed and excel in their chosen vocations. My advice is for our youth to accept that things may not go smoothly. Success may not come easily because of the stiff competition, so resilience and patience will be critical attributes. Youth may also inherit their definitions of success from their parents. I was born in the 70’s. Growing up, I have seen Singapore grow and progress from the lens of how my family has come. My generation, I believe, is aware of the changes Singapore has gone through and how we have made significant advances in one generation. I grew up living in a rental flat, before my family eventually moving on to a three-room flat. My two younger brothers and I enjoy significantly better lives now. My parents would probably have no qualms saying that their children are doing better than them.

However, my children are born into different times. So while I work towards a better life for them, I do not believe that my children will see that quantum leap in life that I had experienced myself. It is my duty to remind them of the need to moderate their expectations. I can see how they might think that they are ‘stagnant’, ‘not getting on in life’ or ‘not moving with the country’s progress’. We would not be fair to ourselves if we cling onto these thoughts.

The merits of youth and adolescents have not changed. They should be encouraged to direct their energy and creative ideas into their passions as they discover themselves. As we become more developed, even incremental change will naturally become more difficult. Some of their raw ideas may not fly. Both younger and more mature Singaporeans should also accept and expect that achieving seemingly smaller improvements, given our previous quantum leap, may be the norm. If they do not succeed the first time round, they should have the resilience to pick themselves up and try again. Youths must recognise this, in order to not be complacent or take things for granted in the future.

Both Public Servants and Political Office-Holders need to, fundamentally, take an interest in public policy. Not only what the policymaking process is but how it affects the lives of Singaporeans. If you gain satisfaction from making a difference in the lives of others, you just might have a calling to join the Public Service.

The setting of National Policies would also require one to look at issues from many angles. Many deliverables involve inputs from different sources and departments. At times, the process might even involve multiple Ministries. Enhanced collaboration certainly means that the processes for some tasks would be longer as parties fronting various policy objectives come together. You might even feel very strongly about certain causes, but you would still need to remain open and fair to other considerations as well. The ability to work in teams and have broad perspectives on various subject matter, in order to integrate and balance diverging considerations would be critical for the prospective applicant.

On a more practical note, it would be best for students to make good use of internship opportunities. I encourage all interested youth to seek out internships in the Ministries or Statutory Boards to gain the experience of how things run in the Service. This would include learning about how decisions are made. Internship experiences would probably best help our youth discern whether this domain is their cup of tea. The Public Servant should also be open to ideas. Some policies are evergreen, but if the times have changed we cannot remain stagnant. Policies should be reviewed regularly and changed accordingly to best serve Singaporeans.

I will make one more point on values. The Public Service runs on public resources. Accountability in governance is therefore of utmost importance. Integrity and honesty are cornerstones of our Service that have lasted from the time of our early leaders. These happen to be values that are not exclusive to the Public Service, but are especially important in any line of work. There are high expectations both from within government and Singaporeans at large for Public Servants to live by these values, and youth keen on joining us would need to meet these expectations. Accountability, however, does not mean that we pander to every request. We should not be populist. When we do have to say ‘no’ and reject ideas, how do we communicate this to the Public? This need to clarify, convince and garner buy-in is a challenge for the modern Public Servant. The process would involve thorough thinking, consultation and engagement of stakeholders. All of this would then need to be communicated in layman terms to the Public.

I’d like to remind our young today that there is no shortcut to hard work. One common feedback we have is that the typical young employee would not stay in a given job for long. The common interval seems to be 1 or 2 years within a particular position before they move on to other, more seemingly interesting things. I would say that people should have a longer time frame. Young people have long careers ahead of them that are at least 30 or 40 years long. We all need time to gain experience. We should also recognise that our companies take time to invest in us. In the early stages of our careers we are incurring costs for the company. Only when we pass a certain threshold, do employees begin contributing back to their companies and sharing their knowledge with other employees. It would be a pity if young people begin moving on at this stage, just when they are able to contribute to their companies. As young people I think that we must prove that young people can persevere not only in their passions, but also in jobs and tasks that similarly require commitment. Our young today have so much. With the internet, they know so much more. I would say that older people like myself also need to learn how to work with younger people. It certainly is a two-way thing – not too different from a parent-child relationship! How do employers, bosses learn to work with our young? Everyone needs to learn.