Conversations with Heng Wei Chen

By Adriale Pang and Kelvin Sng

Wei Chen is a Psychologist at the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority’s (ICA) Psychological Services Unit. Her primary role is to support and ensure ICA’s officers’ psychological wellness at work. In this article, Wei Chen shares about her experience at ICA, and other developmental stints and opportunities she has received in the Home Team.

My team and I conduct selection tests as part of the recruitment for new uniformed officers, to ensure that we select officers of the right fit for ICA. One trait which we look out for is interpersonal skills, as our officers need to communicate effectively with travellers from different backgrounds.

I also develop and deliver regular training to support our officers in reaching their fullest potential. For instance, I conduct a 2.5-day leadership course to prepare new recruits for their Team Leader role when they get posted to their frontline units.

Having a good workplace with an engaged workforce is important for ICA. That is why my team also conducts regular organisational-wide surveys, to provide a platform for officers to share how they feel about important areas such as training and work resources, and to provide feedback on any areas of concern. Following the surveys, my team will deep-dive into the responses and provide recommendations on areas that can be improved.

We also conduct counselling sessions to support our officers’ mental well-being in tough situations, such as managing personal challenges at home, or facing difficulties transiting to a new work role.

I have been in the Home Team for about 7 years now, and prior to my current stint, I was a Research Officer with SPS for about 1.5 years. In that role, I was mainly doing programme evaluation where I got to interview inmates to understand their views on drug rehabilitation programmes, and how the programmes had helped them in their rehabilitation journey. My experience at SPS was life changing. Through conversations with inmates, I got to hear about their personal backgrounds and understood how these had shaped their behaviours and actions. Albeit a short stint, it was impactful as it made me realised that everyone has their own story and deserves a second chance and a listening ear.

I would say that all projects are challenging, as it usually takes a long time to see the projects to fruition. For instance, I was involved in the development of a new in-house recruitment test took us 1 – 2 years to trial, create a beta version, develop alternative forms, and eventually, validate the accuracy of these tests to see if they indeed are assessing what we are looking out for. Although this is a long process, the steps are necessary to ensure that the tests we use are of high quality, and it does give us a huge sense of satisfaction when the things that we envisioned about actually works! Maybe that’s why people say, “good things must wait”.   

Most people would associate psychologists with counselling and therapy work. In fact, a career as a psychologist in the Home Team is dynamic, and there are many areas of work which we do. For myself at ICA, other than counselling work, psychologists are also involved in the recruitment of new officers and conduct research to provide recommendations on how to keep officers’ morale high. My psychologist colleagues from other Home Team Departments also work on areas which help to support frontline operations. For example, psychologists in the Singapore Police Force conduct criminal profiling of perpetrators to support Police officers in their investigations. Some psychologists are also part of the Crisis Negotiation Unit Team where they are activated to crime scenes to support an attempted suicide case or a hostage-taking incident.

I would say that Home Team officers whom I’ve interacted with are mission-driven and everything that they do is for the betterment of the organisation and the nation.

The organisation is also very people-oriented, and this can be seen from the setting up of individual psychology units within the Home Team agencies, where officers can reach out for emotional and mental wellness support easily.

One meaningful project that I have done was volunteering at the National CARE Hotline. It is a government initiative to support our citizens’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was personally affected by the pandemic, as I had to return to Singapore from the UK, half-way through my Master’s programme, and had to serve 14-days of Stay Home Notice. I found it difficult to cope as the time zone transition, coupled with the prolonged social isolation, had caused me to become anxious and stressed. Coincidentally, some days later, I read on the news that a National CARE Hotline would be set up and the government was appealing for people with relevant skills to step forward to support this initiative. That was the moment where I thought “I can also do something!”. I realised that the skills I have as a Home Team psychologist can also be used to support fellow Singaporeans who needed help to tide through this tough period. I asked my boss if I could be part of this initiative and was glad that she was supportive of this nationwide cause.

For psychologists, traditionally we have primarily dealt with people, but now we are also leveraging technology and data to enhance our services. For instance, when COVID-19 brought forth severe social restrictions, it heavily impacted our assessment testing for recruitment as it was conducted physically as a paper-and-pen test then. In the span of a few months, we converted it to an online test without comprising on security to ensure that we could continue bringing in the right people for ICA. We are also currently expanding the use of data to objectively guide our work. For instance, we’ve worked with NUS capstone students to develop multiple tableau dashboards to display and string together our counselling and assessment data, which enables us to identify patterns and trends to better guide our interventions.

I was a competitive athlete, before my undergraduate days. I played table tennis competitively and frequently went overseas to play and compete. The reason I chose to study psychology was because I’ve always enjoyed observing people and their behaviours. I applied for many jobs when I graduated from university as I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, and eventually started my career in SPS as I felt that the opportunity to work in a prison setting was hard to come by. Subsequently, I came across the ICA role and was enticed by the opportunity to be part of the pioneer team to help set-up ICA’s psychology department.  Also, it was a chance for me to challenge myself and try out new portfolios in the area of psychology. 

I have benefited immensely from the various opportunities to grow professionally through the years with MHA. I am thankful for good leaders, who are supportive of our learning and growth.

For instance, my postgraduate degree, MSc Organisational Psychology, at the University of Leeds, UK was sponsored by MHA. This course was truly eye-opening as it allowed me to better understand that an organisation is a complex system with many interrelated components, including people, culture, goals, technology, infrastructure, and processes. This understanding helps me to think more broadly, to encompass the different areas of concerns when tackling issues and guides me to be more strategic in my thinking.

As psychologists, the learning doesn’t stop after attaining our Master’s degree. The learning culture in the Home Team Psychologists’ community is very strong and we are constantly encouraged to attend courses which are useful for our role. Most recently, I attended a course to be certified to administer the Hogan assessment, a renowned personality assessment that helps organisations select the right people and develop their employees. Being equipped with this skill allows us to administer this test to officers, helping them better understand their personality and their potential to take on leadership positions.

The Home Team Psychologists community also has cross-learning sessions, where we come together regularly to share our unique experiences and challenges in our roles. One example is the Home Team Care Refresher, where we will share about the challenges that Home Team officers face during the pandemic, and how psychologists in each Home Team Department support their frontline officers.

You need to be comfortable being with people and talking to people from all walks of life, and in different scenarios – from chatting with the coffee shop aunty, discussing issues with colleagues from another unit, consoling an officer who needs emotional support, and presenting to senior management. Also, in our line of work, situations are dynamic – it’s all about being proactive to reach out and seek answers.

As a student, remember that your priority now is to study hard. That being said, don’t forget to experience life and interact with people, as the core skillset of a psychologist is to be comfortable with people! So, do interact with as many people as you can, as the life of a psychologist is enriched not by our grades or achievement, but by the number of people we’ve crossed paths with. 

The Ministry of Home Affairs, also known as the Home Team, consists of 11 agencies which work collectively to keep Singapore safe and secure. For more information about the 11 Home Team agencies and what we do, click here!

Find out more about the MHA Civilian Scholarship if you are keen to be part of this meaningful journey to safeguard the security of our Home as a Psychologist and are looking for a scholarship for your undergraduate studies!