Conversations with Esther Peh

By Caleb Thien

Esther Peh is an External and Regulatory Officer at AT&T and Warner Media, which involves strategy and advocacy on policy issues in Asia Pacific. In this article, Esther shares the responsibilities of her role and what it takes for others to join her profession.

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In my current role as an external and regulatory affairs officer, I represent and advise AT&T on legislative, regulatory matters, and advocate our public policy positions here in the Asia Pacific region. This involves stakeholder and issues management both internally and externally. 

A large part of what I do is analysing existing policies, laws, and regulations, as well as monitoring the development of measures. It is my responsibility to understand the implications of emerging policies on the business.  As part of the role, I also meet with relevant external stakeholders, which often includes government officials and policymakers, to discuss the thinking behind policies.

I also devote time to AT&T’s efforts to contribute back to communities in markets in which we serve and operate.

One area that is of interest to us is intellectual property and content protection. It is important to ensure that the IP generated around the world is well protected across all markets. Increasingly, online piracy is an issue area that we are trying to combat in the Asia Pacific region. We have been working with our industry associations, including the Asia Video Industry Association (AVIA) and Motion Picture Association (MPA), to advocate our interests in this area.  

In April, I had the privilege of moderating a session on content protection at an event co-organised by the MPA and the Vietnam Film Development Agency (VFDA). The discussion was lively, involving domestic and international participants, and was a great illustration of the different viewpoints around how to better protect content.

I am not sure if my workday is typical at all because I joined the company during COVID times! What I would describe is my usual routine now. When I wake up the first thing I do – which I think is not atypical to what other people do – is to catch up on emails. As we are US-headquartered, there is email activity that takes place when we are asleep in our part of the world, so I catch up on that.

Another thing that I do is read up on news that has developed overnight. Starting my day reading the news helps me to frame what is important and prioritise tasks for the day. 

I spend a good share of the day on virtual calls and face-to-face meetings. These virtual calls could be with external stakeholders, such as industry associations that we work through for advocacy, as well as internal stakeholders. These interactions allow me to engage with others, which I thoroughly enjoy. Some of these calls extend to the evening, because colleagues are situated all across the globe.

I also spend time reading through different resource materials, articles etc. This is what I would characterize as distillation because a large part of what I do is trying to make sense of what’s happening on the ground – what policymakers are considering, and what this means for the markets that we serve.

It is important to carve out the time to decompress during the workday. Otherwise, there is a tendency to keep going – almost like an unmonitored pressure cooker!

A good head on your shoulders, not unlike any other job. In addition, this role requires stakeholder management skills. A large part of the work is people-facing, so there is a need for good stakeholder management and strong people skills. Another important skill would be effective communication, both verbal and written, because advocacy is essentially communication.

One needs to also have a keen sense of curiosity and question what you observe. Curiosity will serve any individual well in both a professional role and personal capacity.

Discipline and time management is crucial.

A direct answer to that question would be no. In a previous role, I used to joke that if you can read and write, you are set. Joke aside, what is extremely valuable in public policy — although not a technical pre-requisite per se — is to have a sensitivity to language. This aids in effective comprehension and communication.

However, the soft skills that I mentioned earlier would be a good mind-set that would allow anyone to grow and thrive in the role.

For me, what was helpful was my experience working in the Singapore Public Service prior to taking on this role. I was with the Ministry of Trade and Industry for ten years before taking on my current role. I was a trade negotiator and a former diplomat, so I think those experiences helped. I cannot stress enough the importance of being able to manage different viewpoints using stakeholder management and people management. My job is about taking different viewpoints, making sense of them and finding a common ground with varied stakeholders and their varied perspectives.

There is a lot of on-the-job learning. Before joining, I was no more knowledgeable on the rules and regulations impacting telecommunications and media than the average consumer. Having curiosity and being unafraid to ask questions and be diligent about clarifying your understanding of topics you are unfamiliar with definitely helped in deepening my understanding.

I looked at it from the perspective of ‘why not the shift’? Having spent a decade in the public sector, I reflected on how I’d like my forward career path to look in the next decade. I knew I was seeking a fresh experience which allowed me to continue to do what I enjoy doing – to work with people and apply my mind to specific technical domains. Being clear about what I wanted in the next phase of my career, I was then open to opportunities both within the public sector, as well as the private sector.

I had a smooth transition. I am grateful to my manager, team, and colleagues for being very generous with their time and experience. One of the biggest challenges I faced is in understanding the business. Business operations are complex; product offerings are vast and wide. The business also innovates and evolves quickly, so we have to constantly keep ourselves updated on new developments. In my role, understanding the business is paramount as it allows me to understand impact. 

I think my most valuable takeaway has been that the skills that one develops and hones. Past experiences can often be transferable to the next. In my case, these are skills such as stakeholder management skills, the rigour of thinking and engaging of different stakeholders are certainly transferable to where I am now also.

While my activities during school were not directly related to the work I am doing now, the broader life skills I learned have contributed greatly to my current work habits. Going back to the notion of transferrable skills, my time in the Symphonic Band, for example, taught me to be disciplined in my preparation; it was always practise, practise, practise, especially as you’re gearing up for a competition. I think the experience helped me develop qualities such as excellence, discipline, perseverance, and even grit. I was also in charge of welfare in the executive committee, so I guess you can see a consistent pattern that I am inclined to take on roles with a strong people-orientation and focus.

Then my internship during university was in advertising, so again, no direct link to what I am doing now or what I did with the Ministry of Trade. But, it was from there that I picked up project and stakeholder management skills, and honed effective communication skills.

There is a convergence of digital and traditional, and this is reshaping global supply chains, research and development, consumer behaviour and everything in between. The over the top (OTT) services sector is a case in point as broadcast television shifts towards digital. On our networks, we have seen first-hand an acceleration towards digital transformation in the last year and a half. On an average day now, about 468 petabytes of data crosses our network, up 40% year-over-year. Digital transformation issues will likely be front and centre for the TMT industry and a focal point for economic recovery policies of governments here in the region. I think many in industry will continue to advocate for policies that promote the flow of data across borders, which is acritical component in facilitating growth and innovation in today’s digital economy.

We are also seeing increasing regulatory activity in the region related to privacy. Unlike Europe, however, Asia Pacific is a more fragmented regulatory landscape because each country implements its own privacy regulations and policies.

An aspect of digital transformation is the merging of the physical world with the digital. An example I like to think about when I think about this is the automobile industry. In automobile manufacturing, many manufacturers serve global markets and have facilities in multiple markets. With IoT technology, sensors or devices embedded in manufacturing assets, and even automobiles themselves, can capture data on the entire life cycle of the automobile – from its manufacture to after-sales care. Connected sensors can identify the location of a faulty manufacturing asset, and it triggers a service request for an in-market engineer, and it can also trigger a command to shift production to another factory in-market or even to a nearby market – it really opens up options to the manufacturer.

I am currently enjoying my role with AT&T and plan to continue to grow and learn in this newer position. Moreover, in 5 years, I hope I hope to be continuing doing what I enjoy and deepening my knowledge in areas of interest in, such as international trade and public policy. It would also be a huge bonus if the work allows me to continue working closely with people, perhaps in a strategy-related role.

There are different seniorities to the role. One’s seniority affects the type and level of advocacy they engage in. For example, a more senior person could be a board member of the industry association, which comes with it responsibilities, access etc.

It is also useful to make a distinction between career progression and career development; both are not mutually exclusive in my view. Developing one’s career need not always translate into being promoted or having progressed to a more senior role. Career development can take many forms; it can be developing new skills or growing into the role. I would caution against the idea that one’s career has only developed when he has progressed up the ranks.

Here’s my take –strong values and work ethic to anchor his/her work performance, and cultivate diligence and achieve competence in the role. It’s important to understand what the role entails, the people with whom you are working, and the business. Being new has its perks! Ask questions, and be unafraid to ask questions. Over time, shift your focus to application. Apply what you have learned, which will set you up well for developing your career. Set yourself up in a manner which would enable you to thrive – sustainably and with good grounding.

Read widely and expose yourself to things that you may not be able to get exposure to in school, e.g., internships, a passion project. In these things, you will learn more about yourself and your career options, which sets you up for entering the workforce.

And always, humility, curiosity, and a good head on your shoulders.