Conversations with Tham Jun Han

By Gracia Chua and Kagen Lim

Mr. Tham Jun Han (more commonly known as ‘Tham’ among his friends and colleagues) is a Senior Executive at the Learning Futures Group, Civil Service College. He works on innovation in adult learning programmes and experiences for public servants, including the design of serious games for adult learning and policymaking. In this article, Tham shares about his work, how his experiences in tertiary education led him to his career, and his community work in a ground-up initiative called Friendzone

In the Learning Futures Group, we innovate and create learning experiences for the Public Service (i.e., the various Ministries and Statutory Boards). We research and design experiences about adult learning, and we contextualise this to the public service. In general, we explore what different futures of adult learning might look like, and suggest recommendations for the College to adopt. We also identify innovations that we can work on in the present, and contextualise them to the Public Service through think pieces and developing proofs-of-concept. On a day-to-day basis, I perform a range of tasks related to innovation for the College. These activities include consultancy, events, workshops, research, and futures work (which involves looking out for future trends and crafting scenarios to visualise possible futures for adult learning.

Another big bucket of work involves game design. Games can be engaging and impactful experiences which are useful to convey emotions and complexity, or even simulate policy outcomes which can otherwise be hard to achieve. At the moment, we are particularly interested in whether games can provide meaningful data that can inform policy design. At the same time, we also design workshops and conferences to develop capabilities in the wider Public Service to use games and gamification in their work.

Other than this, I have worked on broader innovation work for adult learning such as hackathons or ‘unconferences’. Unconferences do not have invited speakers and feature a participant-oriented agenda. For example, we facilitated an event on the future of adult learning for participants to actively contribute to a large conversation.

Dealing with complexity is a very large challenge. Futures work and innovation work involve many unknown unknowns. It means that we don’t know what we don’t know about, which makes the job very nebulous sometimes, as we constantly explore and talk to people in order to work out a problem statement. For example, the question “What does the future of adult learning look like” is extremely open, which constantly requires me to deal with the anxiety (and excitement) of not knowing that the work might entail.

As a statutory board under the Public Service Division, the Civil Service College functions at the centre of Government. As such, I don’t work with citizens directly, but instead with different parts of the public service, sometimes with different lingo and different practices. We also work with many industry partners as the synergy between the private and public sectors will be important moving forward. However, different practices and expectations of often result in (creative) tension in our conversations, and turning these tensions into constructive conversations is a challenging but important part of my daily work.

Finally, innovation work requires room for failure. There is a need, therefore, to convince our stakeholders to carve out spaces for people to fail safely. Can we have a safe space to fail and make progress at the same time? These two things almost appear to be at odds. We try to find that answer every day in our work.

For futures-related work, success can only be determined many years down the line. However, one way to view our purpose in the organisation is to serve as a challenge to the organisation by asking questions along the boundaries, and one measure of success is when people are considering questions and scenarios that we have posed. In a way, our role requires us to challenge the status quo. Long-term success is when one (or more, or none) of those scenarios play out, and the organisation is prepared to deal with the future because they have prepared for it in the past.

For our game design and experiential design work, success would be for people to have discussions around such complex topics that are often ignored. Games or simulations, and other experiences provide safe spaces for people to have such conversations.

The Civil Service College  is the central learning institution for the Singapore Public Service. CSC builds strategic capacity in governance, leadership, public administration and management. At the forefront of learning and development,  we push the boundaries of learning by experimenting with the latest technologies and ideas to deliver an innovative, impactful and inspiring learning experience

I graduated from Engineering Science in NUS, class of 2018, and also from the University Scholars Programme (USP) in NUS. USP gave me the opportunity to look at problems from new perspectives that are vastly different from my science-based education. I only developed an appreciation for the social sciences while in USP, and that changed a lot of what I wanted to do in the future. I had initially considered an academic path in engineering, but I realised that many of today’s problems are impeded by people, power and politics and not by science and technology.

In the end, I decided to join the public service as I am passionate about working directly with people, facilitating conversations and designing experiences for people to provoke conversation around important issues. Some parts of my university education came together that drove me to that realisation:

  1.  A two-week overseas programme to the Philippines called Builders Connect. We visited two NGOs in the Philippines to study their different methods of alleviating poverty. One NGO used microfinancing strategies for local entrepreneurs to start their own business. Another NGO focused on community building intervention where they rallied together a whole community to identify their assets, and build the community together around these assets. That experience opened my eyes to the world of community development. There were so many things that Singapore could learn from as well! I witnessed the kampung spirit that we always speak of in Singapore. I saw residents really caring for each other, visiting each other’s house openly. That gave me a peek into what that kampung spirit can look like.
  2. I had the opportunity to co-organise a post-Budget youth dialogue in collaboration with a few Youth Executive Committees (YECs). We definitely did not want 200 young people to sit there and listen passively to an MP speak about the Budget—that’s not a dialogue; it’s a monologue, there is no conversation taking place. One of the YEC members then suggested using games to communicate these complexities to people, should we try it? That was how I was introduced to using game design to communicate policies. And this experience eventually led me to my current job.
  3. My experience serving in USP’s student club for three years. I value my leadership experience in student clubs as much as any internship experience. I did not do any internships (apart from a compulsory engineering internship), and that comes as a surprise to people. Somehow, I feel that there is this pressure of having to do internships, in order to find good jobs. But I would like to provide an alternative perspective. I learnt a lot from the time that I served as a student leader; I got to work as a committee member, and towards the end I got to lead a medium sized organisation. Being in these systems gave me an appreciation of how to work with all sorts of people and systems, which is what I do in the workplace now. So don’t feel bad for not having internships, it’s not the end of the world. Look at what you’re already doing now and constantly reflect on what you’re learning from it. As long as you are experiencing life you are always learning something, it’s just whether you notice what you are learning.

A common thread that always comes up is a lack of time or too much work to do. Or sometimes, people might think that whatever they are learning is not immediately related to their work. I think this is not ideal, because a lot of the future is going to be about connecting ideas from both within and outside your field.

There is always much to be learnt from interactions with other people, so much interesting data to be sought out from group dynamics and I can learn a lot from this by reflecting on my interactions with others!

Something else that I do is to be aware of my interests outside of work, and try to link what I learn outside of work to my workplace. There is always something to learn from! If I realise that I have no interests (or stagnating interests) outside of work, then it’s time to push myself out of my comfort zone in order to learn new things.

I think there is a lot of value for teams to spend time harnessing the learning that takes place in day-to-day work. For instance, in team meetings, it might be a good idea to spend some time to reflect on why the meeting went well (or not). These are critical learning points for any team or organisation to learn a lot quicker, and without taking extra time out from their work.

My other suggestion would be to set aside time to have conversations with others in the team. This could be one-on-one, or in small groups. It is important to have conversations about challenges at work or challenges outside of work that someone might be bringing into work. Many of these challenges shape our interaction at work. If I don’t make this known to others, then my colleagues would not know how to respond and support me.

This is a passion project that I work on outside of my primary job. I co-founded a ground-up initiative called Friendzone with some other NUS graduates who have stayed on campus. We aim to connect young adults in their neighbourhoods through meaningful conversations. We are, in some sense, trying to rekindle the kampung spirit we enjoyed when we lived on campus, when people cared for each other, knew each other and would say minimally ‘Hi’ to one another. Importantly, students on campus had social support where they lived, and could seek help from one another. This was very key to the University experience of the co-founders.

When we went back to our neighbourhoods after we graduated, we longed for that feeling of having a close-knit community. It can’t be that no other young adults lived around us, so how can we bring young adults in the community closer? Our work uncovers the assets that young adults have (e.g. passions, stories, skills, networks and resources), and connect them to each other. We enter a community, gather people together, and highlight the assets just within their immediate neighbourhood, while building a sense of belonging. The ultimate goal is to develop communities that sustain themselves.

We do this through a set of interventions. In our large event, we choose a neighbourhood pavilion and beautify the space, and attract young adults who are interested to know their neighbours. There, we facilitate a conversation to uncover their assets, and highlight the diversity that lay undiscovered in the neighbourhood. These conversations sometimes connect people in unexpected ways — some participants have asked how they could manage the tension within their family.

Before the large event, we conduct workshops for the community to envision their ideal neighbourhood. After the event, we also conduct workshops for people who attended, empowering neighbours to come up with their own initiatives for the neighbourhood. For example, they might jio (ask) each other out for supper! These are the day-to-day interactions that really strengthen the community, while the big event is only a kickstarter.

There are synergies with my work. At work, my team and I design learning experiences. In my community work, I design community building interventions. Both initiatives work on designing quality conversations, which I care deeply about. In fact, I think that having quality conversations is critical to the future of Singapore, to build our social capital. If we do not have enough social capital, Singapore might not be resilient enough to tackle the disruptions that are going to come at us more frequently.

I only decided what I wanted to do in my fourth year of university! In fact, I would say that I completely changed my course of life in my final year. I would attribute that to just trying out different things, and talking to new people. I would never have known that some things existed if I didn’t reach out to people, had those late night conversations or simply talked. I learnt many things through these chats, and I really appreciate the environment I had for these chats to happen.

It will be a good idea to take some time out to reflect on what you know and who are the people you are interacting with right now. Find the pattern in the events you are going for, the people you are meeting, or the books or Buzzfeed articles that you like to read. There’s always a underlying pattern in your behaviours and what you like. If you don’t know what this pattern is, your Instagram or Facebook feed will tell you (check out what’s on the Discover Tab on Instagram). Once you find that pattern, find something different. Actively search out things that are outside this pattern, because you don’t know what you don’t know. Push yourself out of your comfort zone.

I could suggest some ways of knowing what you don’t know, and they all involve trying new things. It could be talking to someone you see very often and always wanted to talk to, but is not in your social circle. Reach out and ask about their interests. Maybe share what you care about too. Another way to expose yourself to new things is to attend events. If you don’t know where to start, go to Eventbrite or Facebook Events, and see what’s available. If you care about social issues, subscribe to OpenJio’s Telegram group. There are so many things that we miss out on.

Personally, I know that what I want to do is likely to be an answer that will continue to change. I try to be comfortable with that evolving answer, and that helps me to lower my anxiety about not knowing where I will end up.