Insights on Government Relations & Public Affairs

By Isabella Tian

The Discovery+ Series is a series of events, delivered through online digital solutions, which give students the chance to speak directly with working professionals, and learn about careers they aspire to enter. Given the developments in the COVID-19 situation, Advisory is keen to provide support to the many students who are experiencing woes in this time of disruptions, by digitalising professional mentorship.

The Discover+ Panel on Government Relations & Public Affairs, held on 2 June 2020, was graced by Ravi Alfreds (Moderator), Vice-President (External Affairs) at the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore; Jonathan Law, Government Relations Manager at ExxonMobil Asia Pacific Pte Ltd; Matin Mohdari, Government Affairs Manager (Singapore) at Grab; and Rachel Teo, Government Affairs & Public Policy Lead (Singapore) at Google. Attendees included students at various levels of education with a desire to know the different career paths in government relations and public affairs, and how to best position themselves for such roles.

A career in this field involves “government” or “public service” work within the private sector. It involves shaping policies on emerging issues, being involved in legislative consultations, as well as increasing the importance of a nation or market in the eyes of a large, global organisation and vice versa. As a government relations and public affairs professional, you activate the resources of the private sector for the public good.

The government relations and public affairs team can be quite small, with each member specialising in a particular area, such as community affairs, media and communications, and public finance. While your primary responsibilities may lie only in one area, if you are acting as a single point-of-contact for your company’s relations with certain countries, the projects that you work on often involves the multitude of topics that concern those countries. Hence, you will need to have a general understanding of many different topics outside of your specialisation. You may also choose to bring a team member with the relevant specialisation or colleagues from other departments into a project, forming different taskforces and subcommittees and harnessing the cognitive diversity of a collective team of individuals with different backgrounds. Thus, teamwork is very important.

There is no one average day in this role—at any one point in time, you’ll be working on projects involving different topics, with a mix of longer range and shorter range targets. Sometimes, you will be subject to the “tyranny of the urgent” whereby something urgent crops up and you’ll need to drop everything else and focus your attention on the urgent issue at hand.

Nothing happens in isolation. The government relations role should be looked at in the context of what the public affairs team does—communicating effectively to the stakeholders, understanding how they think, and hopefully helping them understand how your company thinks. As a professional in this field, you’ll need to negotiate the tensions between your company’s priorities and the government’s priorities. Maintaining good relations with the government is a tool for ensuring business effectiveness and maintaining the company’s reputation.

It’s natural for organisations to source for their next government affairs manager from the pool of civil servants as they understand the intricacies of the Singapore government and the dynamics of key personalities in the relevant sectors. Yhey are able to activate the relationships they have forged within the government. They are also used to balancing multiple stakeholder interests and working with people from a wide range of backgrounds. That said, while it is helpful to have government experience, it is definitely not a prerequisite that precludes you from the running if you do not. Knowing how the government functions may not require civil service experience, but you must be able to put yourself in the government’s shoes in order to operate effectively as a partner to them. Additionally, the government relations and public affairs team usually tackles complex issues that require different viewpoints provided by people with different work backgrounds. Thus, having professionals with different backgrounds on the team is also important.

It is important to be earnest, have integrity and truly understand what they key issues are. At times, you have to be the honest broker or bearer of bad news, because you are considered the eyes of the company, looking in from the outside. You are able to see emerging issues and challenges that other departments cannot see. You need to be steadfast enough to take a stand on difficult issues and areas of tension between the government and your organisation. By doing so, the government relations team earns its seat at the table—the team does not automatically have that in every company.

Another beneficial trait is to remain curious about all things, whether they are related or not to your line of work. Think broadly and read widely, try to identify the interdependencies of different factors in issues. One can never know when a specific issue will suddenly become pertinent to the organisation’s interests, especially in unforeseen crises. Thus, it is essential to explore an array of topics and build knowledge in these areas, such that one is able to provide the necessary counsel and advice to one’s organisation when a crisis hits. Such knowledge is also useful in identifying emerging issues that could act as a roadblock to the company’s success in the future.

Instead of pivoting too much to the west, learn a Southeast Asian language such as Bahasa Indonesia, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian etcetera. For an exchange, live in the Southeast Asian countries and understand the lived experiences and challenges the locals face. Singapore is the regional headquarters for a lot of companies. Thus, having the relevant language mastery and local experience is critical to helping your company overcome regulatory issues specific to those nations.

Secondly, train your communication skills. Effective employees listen well and read between the lines, have high emotional intelligence and actively build rapport with people, forming strong informal networks which can help them get things done.

Whatever the government relations and public relations team does has an impact on various aspects of Singaporeans’ lives. If you truly believe in how your work has benefited so many different people, you will wake up every day knowing that your work is crucial to the world. The process of solving complex, multi-dimensional problems with no clear answer, in a way that makes sense for the government, communities and the company, can also be very fulfilling. A final motivation would be the ability afforded by a government relations and public affairs role to hold companies accountable and responsible to their customers.