Insights on International Affairs

By Natalie Koh

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. 

On 23 June 2020, Advisory organised a Discovery+ online panel on International Affairs (IA). We had the privilege to host Teddy Low, Assistant Director for Training Programmes at the MFA Diplomatic Academy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the moderator for the session; Zhilin Sim, Deputy Director, International Cooperation Branch, in the Ministry of Education; Tan Xuan Rong, Deputy Director (Arts and Heritage) in the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth; and Cindy Eu, Regional Director, International Marketing, in the Singapore Economic Development Board. These professionals come from very diverse backgrounds, and undertake very different jobs within the International Affairs (IA) sector.

Working in IA is not as much about the degree one has than the skills they can bring to the table. Anyone looking to join must be confident enough to have an opinion on matters. To an extent, in fact, everyone has to be somewhat familiar with IA regardless of their job — they must be familiar with thinking from a global perspective. 

Furthermore, you need not necessarily have a background in International Relations before joining the field. Every day on the job can be different, and there are many training opportunities to pick up new skills. Also, IA can be likened to a team sport — you must work with people in many different backgrounds, and sometimes your job will be interdisciplinary in nature. Your fit for the job is thus more important than the academic or work background you have.

It depends on whether you are based in Singapore or based overseas. Prior to COVID-19 disruptions, many of the panellists said that they spent a lot of time travelling, and writing reports on their overseas trips. The purpose of these trips also depends on your segment. For example, trips made by the IA departments of public sector agencies are part of Singapore’s efforts at diplomacy, and can involve things like giving international partners a sense of Singapore’s policy positions and programmes. A key skill involved in this process is thinking on one’s feet as a representative of Singapore.

People in IA are often used to working long hours, possibly due to factors like time difference. It is nevertheless important to achieve harmony between work and life. With the advent of working from home, many people have become much more adept in integrating their work into their schedules.

When studying in a non-English speaking country, the panellists mentioned that they had picked up third languages at different points of time, such as French. Speaking a foreign language also helps on a daily basis, in a job that requires one to be internationally minded.

Nowadays, progression schemes are generally being diversified in the public sector, in order to support multiple “peaks of excellence” — or, in other words, to take talent in from multiple sources in the IA world. In IA, what is important is making the most out of opportunities that are given to you, and seeking out the right mentors. Deep expertise is also valued. Some professionals might be rotated around several ministries, and tend to be generalists in their work, but IA is a field of specialisation because of the sheer depth of what there is to learn on the job. 

If you are looking for opportunities to have your studies sponsored, there are also scholarships now where you can try working first before deciding to stay on in a ministry, or with partial sponsorship of your studies and a shorter bond period that can be extended.