Reflections with Dr Lal Nelson

By Teow Junhao and Brendan Loon

Dr Lal Nelson, Director for Research at the Ministry of Home Affairs, has been in the public service for about 30 years. The earlier half of this time was spent in the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), before he left to finish his PhD. He then returned to the security sector again, taking up a role in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). Today, as he nears retirement, he reflects on the changes he experienced during his many years in service. His advice to young people? Have a ‘CEO Mentality’, regardless of the position that you hold in the organisation.

I’ve been in the public service for about 30 years. When I started my career in the public service, I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, there was a recession then and there weren’t a lot of opportunities available for us. So I took the first job that was offered to me, which was from MINDEF. I have been in the public service for most of my career, barring the four years away while I was doing my PhD. I have no regrets being a career civil servant. My job in MINDEF allowed me to really understand the important roles public servants played in serving all Singaporeans. At that point in time in the 1980s, we were still very concerned about the threat of war. My job in MINDEF was to research external threats that we faced in the defence of our nation. As a public servant, I was in a unique position. The need to do our jobs well set in very early in my career.

Anyone who is a public servant and is doing his or her job properly will tell you that it’s really about putting people at the centre of our work. That’s my main takeaway and I think you have to take the view that it’s not about your own careers. It’s not about your own progression. These things will be there in the background. But there is a larger purpose to our jobs, and if we do our jobs well then we have served our citizens well.

I consider it a privilege to be a leader in my Ministry. It is a privilege because it is an acknowledgement of your ability and reflects the trust that the senior management has in me. In the public service, we are put through multiple rigorous assessments. You would have to be tested at different stages in your career in order to be able to move towards a higher-level position.

The public service also gives its employees many opportunities for training. I have definitely benefited from the assistance and guidance provided. I recognise the privileged position I am in, so when I work on improving policies I take my work very seriously. One other thing I would add is that one thing that has helped me throughout my career is “luck”. When I say ‘luck’, I mean I was and still am fortunate to have very good bosses and supervisors. From the time I joined MINDEF and then subsequently MHA, all my bosses have guided me well. They would take you under their wing, show you how to do things, guide you, give you opportunities to stretch your potential, give you exposure, and use failure as a learning point. I have learnt much from them and in turn I try to do this with my own team.

You can say that I had two ‘separate’ public service careers. One in MINDEF and the other in MHA. I enjoyed my work tremendously in MINDEF and I guess it took me 15 years to sit back and say, “Oh, maybe I should now try something different rather than just carry on in this particular field of work”. There was no clear push factor for me to leave MINDEF. My work in MINDEF was highly specialised. I realised that if I continued in the job, I might be limiting myself, so I thought I should try something different. I left MINDEF to pursue a PhD in Criminology in Australia. So after I came back to Singapore, an opportunity for me to join MHA presented itself and I have been here since then. My work at MHA is very different from work at MINDEF. The scope is much broader. As Director of Research and Statistics, my portfolio covers several domains, including policing, crime prevention, drug abuse and trafficking, emergency preparedness, immigration and citizenship, traffic policing, civil disorder and community cohesion, etc. There is also much diversity within each domain. For example, you need to understand things at the strategic level like public attitudes towards safety and security and at the offence level like why some people are prone to falling prey to scams. From a specialised and narrow focus of research in MINDEF, I moved to a job in MHA which is so wide that it could be overwhelming at times.

When I left MINDEF, I wasn’t sure about what I was going to do. I just knew that it was time for me to embark on something different. I considered the option of going into academia so I also went to Australia to do my PhD. While I was doing my PhD fieldwork in Singapore, I set up my own security and risk-management consultancy to explore if this could be a career option. Then I realised that the consultancy work that I was doing was even more specialised work than what I was doing at MINDEF. After 6 months, I knew that this was not what I wanted to do for the long term.

So when the opportunity came to join MHA, I did so without hesitation. Again, I found the work very meaningful, because you can actually see the difference that you make. For instance, when we see certain trends like an increase in outrage of modesty cases or commercial crime, we work together with Police to do in-depth studies to understand what we need to do address these trends. We provide research support to our colleagues from the policy when they review criminal justice policies and to our colleagues from the joint operations division for programmes like SGSecure which prepares all Singapore residents to be ready to deal with a terrorist incident.

I have definitely changed as a person. University coursework alone didn’t prepare me for work. This could range from the small stuff like how to take minutes or set up meetings to much larger issues like how to manage a team and how to lead. My academic background as a philosophy major equipped me with critical thinking skills and stood me well as I started my career in MINDEF. But I soon realised that applying these skills at the workplace was quite different from its use in an academic setting. As a young officer, I was initially very blunt in my critique of ideas. Every time I saw something that didn’t make sense I would let them know right away, and propose an alternative for how the process should be. This gets you results because your colleagues will see the logic in your propositions. I suspect that my bosses were also happy with my performance since I progressed quite quickly in the early stages of my career. Within two years of MINDEF, I was given charge of a team. Then things changed. I realised that getting results by being blunt and clinical was at the expense of team unity and creating an environment where people feel secure about providing their inputs. In fact, after a few years, one of my former colleagues came back and told me, “when I heard that you were going to be my boss, I was really scared.”

Fortunately, two things helped me to change my management style. The first was the sharing by my wife, who is an avid reader of books on organisational development and leadership. She was also my colleague in MINDEF, and from her feedback I realised that my approach to leading needed to change. The second was the opportunity that I had when I went away to do my Master’s degree, to reflect on how I needed to change in the way I led and managed my team I came back with a paradigm shift in my management philosophy. I resisted the temptation to say what I had in mind when I am immediately confronted with an issue, made a conscious effort to ask for views first, listen to ideas and suggestions, and make it safe for my team members to speak. That worked much better as people were a lot more confident around me. People who never used to come to me about non-work related issues were opening up and seeking my views. I took this as an indication of trust and confidence in my leadership.

Yes. The public service has certainly changed over the course of my career. This change has been accelerated by technological advances. When I first started work, we were still using typewriters. Very few computers, no internet and no email. Today, many of the things that we do with much ease could not have been done back then. For example, it would take a long time just to organise a meeting. The only way to organise meetings was through telephone calls, and if the meeting had a large number of members, setting up meeting could take weeks. But in today’s context, it’s easy and you just need to send out a template and schedule and things work out fairly quickly. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons why we have more meetings today!

While technology has made things much more convenient for us, it has also created greater capacity for individuals to take on more work. In the old days, if you wanted to send a query to someone in another department, you would have to type it in hard-copy, send the document to your clerk who would open a temporary file, and go to the registry to send it. It might take 2 days for the document to reach the intended recipient, and another two days for you to receive a reply (if it is a simple query). In today’s context, you could send the same query and have an answer in a matter of minutes. However, we also need to manage these new efficiencies intelligently. Because we are able to do things quickly, we tend to expect faster responses and may become impatient when we don’t get instant answers. If we are not careful, we might end up putting undue pressure on our colleagues and on ourselves. So advancements in technology has certainly changed the way we do our work.

One other change in the public service that I have observed over the years is the shift away from working as individual agencies to taking a Whole-of-Government (WOG) approach to addressing issues. In the past, there was less understanding of what other agencies did and hence a greater reluctance to share information that help each other do their work better. Today, the WOG approach has brought different public agencies together to improve our understanding of each other’s roles and hence there is much more sharing and collaboration. There are so many forums where people from different agencies come together to share ideas, resolve issues and share data. And as we put more administrative data in the public domain, we are also seeing a shift towards a Whole-of-Society (WOS) approach to address challenges. Both the WOG and WOS approaches are transformational changes in the public service which have helped public servants to their jobs better.

That is a very difficult question. Personally, I think that the main driver of change in the future for the public sector will be limited manpower. With an aging population, both the public and private sector will compete for the same limited pool of talent. I envisage two developments that that will shape the public service. First, we already see a push to make greater use of technology to reduce some of the constraints that emerge from our limited manpower. In the future, we are very likely to rely on automation, robotics, data analytics, sensors, AI, etc. to help relieve our manpower constraints. For instance, we may in the future see driverless police patrol cars equipped with sensors and sensing-making capabilities on the streets, reducing the need to have more boots on the ground. While we now invest heavily in technology, we are likely to invest even more in people in the future. Apart from equipping them with the necessary skills and knowledge to function effectively in their future roles, we would also need to create a workforce which is both nimble and resilient. A workforce that can respond quickly to change, the pace of which, I suspect, would be far greater in the future than now.

While there may be new competencies in terms of understanding how to use data more and greater familiarity with new technologies, the traits of a good public servant would not fundamentally change. The Public Service is about serving the public. The qualities you need to deliver good public service is independent of time: you need integrity – and you can never compromise your integrity because the public will suffer. You need empathy. To run a bureaucracy efficiently you will always need rules. However, good public servants understand that there can never be a one size fit all rule. So you need empathy – to find space within your rules to make exceptions and to know when to make these exceptions. Finally, you need to put people at the centre of your work, so that your efforts are in the best interest of the public.

When I start on a piece of work, I try to make sure that it is completed to the highest standard possible. This I would describe as a sense of commitment. Just as much as I am committed to my work, I am committed to family. When I started my career in the public service, I was single. Then my commitment was to provide the necessary support to my mother and siblings who had looked after me when I was growing up. When we got married, both my wife and I made a commitment to have enough family time with the kids and to always be there when they need us. When the kids were growing up, every Friday we would go out as a family for dinner. We did this so that we could ensure an extra family meal in addition to the weekend meals. So I would say having a sense of commitment to see through your responsibilities is what I would value most.

When you join the workforce, you will quickly realise that you can’t do your best if you function just as an individual. This might be a big change for you, coming from the university where you are very independent, are taught and encouraged to be independent, and that’s very much the preferred way. At work, in most situations, it’s all about be part of a team.

The advice I would give any youth – and I tell my own children this – when you join any company, you need to have a ‘Chief Executive Officer (CEO) mentality’. When you start off in your career, you might the smallest digit in your organisation. But you need to think of yourself as the CEO – as if you own the entire organisation. If you are the CEO, you won’t think and say, ‘I’m only doing this part’ or ‘this is only part that I am required to do’. If you are thinking like the CEO, you will be asking ‘so what must I do to benefit the whole company?’ If you do this, you will become a great asset to the organisation and more likely to progress well in your career.