Conversations with Matthias Chew

By Daphne Yow and Sherry Tan

Matthias Chew, Assistant Director (Immigration & Registration) at the Policy Development Division (PDD), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) formulates immigration policies relating to permanent residency and citizenship matters. As a civilian officer on the Generalist track, he has the opportunity to take on roles across different divisions at MHA. Prior to his current posting, he was in the Joint Operations Group (JOG), where he worked on investigation and enforcement policies, as well as the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA). In this article, Matthias shares about his experiences at MHA, the projects he has been involved in, and his advice to youths who aspire to join the Home Team.

My work focuses on policy reviews and development. However, I do not work alone on this. Due to the wide-ranging impact of government policy, I regularly engage in conversations with Home Team colleagues, and counterparts from other government agencies, to ensure that the full range of issues and implications are considered before policy recommendations are made. Besides consulting important stakeholders, I also spend time researching issues, analysing data, and writing briefs or proposals to put forth recommendations to decision-makers.

At JOG, I was part of the project team dealing with our policy responses to hostile information campaigns (HICs), which are covert, coordinated, and sophisticated attempts by bad actors to manipulate public opinion (particularly on social media), in order to weaken or harm the target country. This project culminated in the development of a new law to deal with HICs alongside other forms of foreign interference, known as the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA), which was passed in October 2021.

During the course of developing FICA, we studied the evolving nature of the HIC threat and briefed our political office holders and senior management regularly on our findings. We reviewed existing laws, identified areas which needed to be strengthened, and consulted extensively with other agencies and the industry to ensure that our plans were feasible.

This experience was meaningful for me as I was able to be involved in a significant initiative that put in place new legal levers to deal with an emerging threat with a potentially grave impact on our national security and sovereignty. It is satisfying to know that my work has a direct impact on the safety and security of our Home.

This assignment has also provided me with the opportunity to lead and guide colleagues who were newer to the project, which I felt to be fulfilling. It involved developing a different set of competencies, as I’ve had to think about how best to harness the team’s collective talents, and not just my own individual contribution.

In my current role, I work on immigration policy. With our ageing population and low birth rates, our population will shrink without immigration. The overriding policy question is how to help Singapore sustain a stable citizen population that keeps our society cohesive and our economy vibrant. Our policies need to be regularly reviewed, so we can continue to identify individuals who not only can contribute to Singapore, but who are also committed to sinking roots and integrating well.

The nature of immigration policy is such that not all questions have an “objective” right or wrong answer. For example, there is no simple metric for quantifying how “integrated” a PR or citizenship applicant is, or how strong his ties to Singapore are. At the same time, our selection parameters need to be implementable at scale, as we receive many PR and citizenship applications each year. Dealing with such policy questions, which often involve difficult trade-offs, is something that I find both challenging and interesting

As a civilian officer who has not worked at the frontlines, I strongly rely on my colleagues in the Home Team Departments to provide feedback on the feasibility of a policy developed at the Ministry Headquarters. Their input allows us to take better account of the operational constraints they face. Our colleagues at the Home Team Departments will also suggest policy changes that could improve their operational effectiveness.

For example, while I was at the JOG, some of our policy reviews pertaining to the investigation powers of Home Team officers were prompted by experiences of the Home Team Departments’ investigation units with specific cases. We then work on the solutions together. At the Ministry-level, we also look at whether some of these challenges and solutions are applicable across other Home Team Departments and to other enforcement agencies. This way, good ideas from one department could potentially have a wider positive impact.

I started my career in the public sector at the Ministry of Education, teaching in a secondary school, after being awarded the Overseas Merit Scholarship (Teaching). Being emplaced on the Public Service Leadership Programme (PSLP), I could be part of posting exercises to explore opportunities in other Ministries.

I applied for the JOG role at the posting exercise in late 2017, as it stood out as a meaningful job, given the opportunity to review law enforcement practices and processes. I was delighted to be accepted and have since been with MHA for about four years, with no regrets.

In my early days with MHA, I was fortunate to be provided with opportunities to be exposed to areas beyond my immediate duties. One of these opportunities was drafting speeches for the political office holders, which allowed me to gain familiarity with issues beyond my core responsibilities. That piqued my interest in the wide range of safety and security issues MHA deals with, many of which have no easy answers. This interest has only deepened over time. I’ve also found myself enjoying the action-oriented work culture. Hence, I made the decision to stay with MHA in the Security sector.

I have a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Cambridge and a Master’s in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS University of London. Studying History has taught me how to process and synthesise information, deal with ambiguity, identify the crux of an issue, and present an argument in a compelling way. This skillset is essential in my daily submissions to bosses as this allows them to better digest the issues put forth.

With each job, I have found there are always transferable skills that you can bring to the next. For instance, being a secondary school teacher has helped me become a better facilitator of discussions, while my time at MOE HQ helped me better understand how to win buy-in from stakeholders in a large organisation.

When it comes to adapting well to a new role, there are several factors:  

My bosses from both postings have believed in not throwing new officers into the deep end without a float. New officers are progressively bedded in and given new challenges at an appropriate pace.

The support of colleagues also makes a big difference! There is a collegial work culture and I have found my colleagues to be a helpful resource. The best learning often comes from these informal exchanges.

I also believe that it is important to take charge of your own learning and adaptation – such as proactively seek out the counsel of experienced officers and counterparts, or to read widely on your subject matter.

A strong learning culture, where senior management are supportive of officers’ personal and professional development, is important. At MHA, we have dedicated time and resources to pursue formal courses that we have identified, in discussion with our bosses, to be helpful for our development. We also have informal learning opportunities – such as the leadership community of Home Team officers, which has allowed officers from different parts of the Home Team to network and learn from each other. 

I did not know much about MHA when I first joined. I count my blessings for colleagues who have helped me to get better at my job. I’ve had colleagues who are experienced uniformed officers (seconded from the Home Team Departments) with strong operational experience, as well as civilian colleagues with many years of experience in MHA. They were always ready to share their ‘stories’ with me over meetings and meals.

I find MHA to be mission-focused, and many officers whom I have worked with have a strong sense of purpose and commitment to their job. During my stint at the JOG, there was an issue which needed to be resolved quickly. However, at that time, there was no single government agency clearly in charge of the issue. One of my colleagues recognised the urgency and took the lead in resolving the issue, and my bosses were supportive of his actions. To me, this was a fantastic example of what it means to have a strong sense of purpose and to adopt a whole-of-government perspective in our work.

I also appreciate the culture of trust in MHA. We adopted telecommuting work arrangements even before the pandemic started. Bosses trust us to get the job done and officers can work remotely if they are not required at the office. This allows me the flexibility to tailor my work schedule and be more productive. I personally work best from home, especially when the work involves researching, writing briefs or submissions. However, when there is a collaborative element involved, a discussion in the office is often more productive.

Earlier in my career, when I first started teaching, I would spend a lot of time working, and thinking about work in my free time. I wanted to do my best for my students, so the instinct was to push myself harder and harder. Consequently, I would often find myself close to burning out. It is a common problem for many young professionals; much has been written about it and yet it was something that I was unable to avoid.

It was only with some experience that I’ve managed to find a sustainable pace of work and learnt to set aside time for loved ones and downtime for myself. I’ve also found that working less “hard” has actually made me more effective, because it helps me to recharge and be more productive.         

Do give it a shot, particularly if you are keen to work on thought-provoking policy issues with an impact on the safety and security of our Home.

Do not worry if you have yet to figure out exactly what you would like to do in the future. At MHA, there are a wide range of roles available, and you will be able to take your career in different directions as your interests evolve, as you get exposed to different issues.

Personally, besides having the opportunity to work on interesting issues, it is just as important to join an organisation that has values and a culture you can identify with. It is also important to look for an organisation that gives you opportunities to learn and grow.  

If you have a strong desire to make Singapore a better, safer place, and if you have the drive to do your best, take on new challenges, learn constantly – and in the process take the odd setback on the chin — then I think you will do well in the Home Team!

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 Civilian Generalist and are looking for a scholarship for your undergraduate studies!