Conversations with Jared Poon

By Shao Xinning

Jared Poon is Assistant Director of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. After attaining his PhD from University of California, he worked as a Senior and Lead Strategist in the Centre for Strategic Futures. Currently, he works at building capabilities in engagement for officers across the Public Service.

It varies. Some days are very much about doing independent work at my desk. Most days, however, involve more interaction with other people – I might be in a meeting brainstorming with another agency, discussing the merits and challenges of a new programme with colleagues, or running a workshop. I’m not sure there’s ever a “typical” day!

The work I do is very much focused on building up competencies in engagement, for officers across the Public Service, and so a lot of workshops I organise or run are for public servants. The main idea is about helping the Public Service to be better at engaging people and creating spaces for people to talk to one another. At the heart of that is building understanding with one another and having these authentic conversations.


So, the workshops are about “engagements”. That’s a big word, but the core idea is simple: we, as a government, want to be better at working with people, not just for people. Working together in this way is something the Public Service is continuously learning and refining, so we can do better. As the nation develops, people, and especially young people, may want to be more than just recipients and consumers of policy. They want to be involved and have a say. This is great news, but it does mean that we in the Public Sector will need to shift away from being mere service providers, away from treating citizens as mere customers and clients, and towards being partners. For that, we need greater openness and the authenticity to build deeper, non-transactional relationships with people.

To be honest, it is both the people and the work. The team I have is amazing – there are a lot of quirky and passionate people who are genuinely interested in making Singapore better. It’s nice to have people on the same wavelength as you and to be able to go to work with colleagues who are also friends. I also find my work interesting and, more importantly, meaningful – the fact that what we’re doing is to make people’s lives better, that’s something I could wake up every morning for.

I have been quite pleasantly surprised because when I came to Public Service, friends told me that it was going to be very bureaucratic. I think the public sector today is more open to experimenting, to challenging ourselves, and we are not as the horror stories may make it out to be.

This is going to be an “unpopular” opinion (laughs). I like days with a lot of meetings. There is something magical being involved in a meeting – when you are not dealing with emails but seeing people face to face, discussing something and figuring things out. When we come across a solution and go ‘Oh my goodness this is a really great solution’, we realise that nobody could have come up with that solution individually, and it was all because everyone was in the room and contributed.

It does involve problem solving, but sometimes it’s also about building relationships. When we have two or more agencies, we need to know how to work together, with our different strengths and constraints, to do the work we want to do for Singapore and Singaporeans. It’s really nice to meet people who are also very passionate about their work, especially when it’s different from mine, and find that special connection.

I don’t know if I can be proud of something I wasn’t directly responsible for, but I am incredibly proud of my team, because they are really awesome people! I didn’t make them that way (laughs) but when I came in and saw how strong the team is, I was just blown away. The people around me really are spectacular.

Sometimes work is quite intense and you have a lot to do. The timeline can also be quite tight, perhaps because we are hoping to implement something quickly. So that can be exhausting. I wouldn’t call them terrible days, but just days where you would want to ‘stone’ at the end of it all.

 I have help from my friends and family. I come home and my cat curls up on me, and that makes everything better (laugh). Another thing that helps is the work-life balance possible with my team at MCCY – the fact that we care very little about “showing face” in the office, and so we can work from home (or anywhere, really) so long as the work gets done and we stay contactable. That really helps with growing that balance in my life. For example, my cat is very appreciative of the extra petting she gets sometimes.

I’ll still be in the Public Service (laughs). We do have some movement, so in five years, if things work out, I won’t be at exactly the same position. But who knows? I don’t know what might happen next. It’s all very flexible and very fluid, which for me is quite exciting.

Oh no, not at all (laughs). When I went to university, I wanted to be a psychologist. I majored in psychology, and I still like it. I wanted to become a clinical psychologist and do counselling, so I can help people through their problems and lead happier lives. Then I took my first philosophy class and I fell in love with it, so I thought I wanted to be a philosopher for the rest of my life. In the end, I doubled majored in philosophy and psychology. Then I went to graduate school and did philosophy for many years.

Towards the end of graduate school, I got in contact, quite randomly, with an old friend from secondary school and chatted about working in the Public Service. I felt that it was a really wonderful job, at least as meaningful as academia, but with the added bonus that I could be back in Singapore with family and friends.

Before joining the public sector, I was in graduate school and worked while I studied. I taught ethics and critical thinking and logic to undergrads, and also taught Mathematics and writing to people who wanted to take the Graduate Records Examinations (GRE). My first job in Singapore, after graduation, was in the Public Service.

I liked it a lot, which is why I found a job where I got to do a bit of teaching too. Much of my job today is about building capabilities – it’s not entirely teaching, but still very much about working with people and helping them develop certain mindsets and skills. The topics I cover are, perhaps surprisingly, similar too. When I used to do philosophy, I was an ethicist – I tried to understand what makes a good life, how people come to hold certain values, and how pro-social norms develop in groups. These may sound really academic, but are fundamentally the sorts of issues MCCY works on.

I wish someone had told me two things: Firstly, work will eat up your life if you let it, so it takes real discipline to set boundaries and recognise where work ends, and to set time aside to be with family, friends, and with yourself.

Secondly – it is hard to remember this – but your colleagues and bosses are people like you and me. They live and cry and eat like us, so we have to treat them with care and love but not with any more respect than is due any other human being. This goes especially for the big bosses, who it’s very easy and tempting to treat as demigods. They are not, and we are all made better when we treat each other as human persons, not as roles or ranks.

In my opinion, innovation, communication, building partnerships, building successful teams, and facilitating change.

These are all important, but innovation is one that may have become a bit of an empty catchphrase. I think there are two aspects to innovation. One is innovation in the micro sense, in the sense of innovating on small processes. Because we have so much work, it is extremely important for us to know how to streamline. It is also critical for us to figure out how to be more efficient. One example might be cutting out a layer of red tape, and empowering some officer to email another officer directly instead of going through several layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy, as they may have had to do in the past. This may seem like a very small thing, but when the culture and the network allow for this sort of interconnectedness, things can move a lot more smoothly.

Then the bigger innovations are the revolutionary ones. For example, some of the work we do is in supporting the government’s move towards greater partnership with the people in Singapore. This sort of mindset shift requires innovation because it’s new, uncharted ground, and there are no “tried and true” methods we can fall back on. To transform not just incrementally but in a revolutionary way, we just have to be willing and able to try really new things, and that’s a skillset (and mindset!) young officers can really bring to the table.

The Public Service is a huge sector in Singapore, so I think we have room for all sorts of different people, with all sorts of different inclinations and skills. It’s really broad, and I don’t think it’s a matter of going to good schools.

The Civil Service, as I understand it, has stopped grouping officers entirely by education levels, because we believe that career progression should not be determined by paper qualifications. So whether you are a diploma holder, or a degree holder, it shouldn’t matter – your career progression would be based on job performance and readiness to take on greater responsibilities. We are taking the lead to be the role models for other local industries, so we’re moving away from hard qualifications for advancement here.

I think so! I used to be in the fencing club, the visual arts club, and the drama club. I like the arts and sports, and now I’m in MCCY – the Ministry that works on the arts and sports. So I guess this is a very good fit!

If we’re talking about choosing majors and planning for the future in terms of jobs and careers… the idea of “ikigai” was quite popular a few years ago. I think it is a little overused, but I still like that idea. I think it’s important that you don’t do something just because of the social status, because of your parents, or because of the money. Each of these are important, but so is meaning, and passion, and your personal strengths. Find a job where there is space to make money, to make your parents happy, to use your strengths, to become your passion, and you’ll be doing alright.

Experiment with different things, but remember that you’re a person and not just a student or a worker. Plan for your major and your job, but think also about the kind of life you want to lead, the kind of relationships you want to have, and the kind of person you want to be. These are things we don’t spend as much time thinking about, but at the end of the day, those are the more important questions, aren’t they?

Picture from: https://medium.com/org-hacking/when-do-you-feel-ikigai-35e310269cb9