Conversations with Woo Wee Meng

By Caleb Thien and Maple Ee

As Deputy Director for the Commercial Arrangements team in the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) Policy and Planning Group, Woo Wee Meng is a dedicated civil servant who has played different roles in the Ministry of National Development (MND) and LTA. Inspired by his peers during his Master in Public Policy at Oxford University, Wee Meng sheds light on his motivations and shares advice for youths looking to join the public sector.

I am the Deputy Director for the Non-Fare Arrangements Team which is part of the Policy and Planning Group in LTA. We look at improving the vibrancy of transport nodes through commercial activities such as retail and advertising, and community placemaking initiatives that improve commuter experience in our MRT stations, bus interchanges, etc. I am currently on secondment to LTA from my parent organisation (MND), following my graduation from my Masters in September 2020. In terms of educational background, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from NUS and a Master in Public Policy from Oxford School of Government.

My time in MND has been very interesting and I was blessed to have worked on different issues with diverse stakeholders. As a fresh graduate, I questioned how my degree would contribute to my work in civil service as the nature of my degree was not directly relevant to the topics I worked on. Over time, I came to realise that the value of my Bachelor’s in Sociology was that it allowed me to better frame issues and deconstruct them to come up with meaningful approaches and solutions. It also offered a frame of reference to understand the world and helped me empathise better with my stakeholders.

While technical skillsets are important in the field of infrastructure and environment, policy making goes beyond the technical aspects. At the core of policy making, it is to speak to people on the ground and really understand the issues and challenges so that we can navigate them together. Hence, although having technical expertise is important, it is just as important to have diversity in our teams so as to bring different perspectives and ideas to the table. From my very first portfolio in MND where I worked with the National Parks Board (NParks) on parks and greenery policies, it became clear to me that all of us can have something to contribute to the policy-making process, regardless of our background and training. What is important is having a strong belief in the things we are working on and working for, and the passion and willingness to go the extra mile to find that optimum outcome.

For my Masters programme, I intentionally chose the Master in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government because it had the biggest cohort (around 120 people), and I knew I would meet likeminded individuals who want to make things better in the world. Having worked more than 6 years in MND at that juncture, I wanted to recharge and be reinspired in an inspiring community. I was very fortunate to meet inspirational classmates who had such a deep understanding of their countries’ history, cultures, and challenges, and had the passion to make a positive difference. All their stories and experiences reminded me why I had joined the civil service in the first place. When Covid-19 struck halfway through my Masters programme and I had to return to Singapore prematurely, I decided to go back to work and be part of the MND team that oversaw COVID-19 related work, while completing my programme virtually. It was the silver lining from having to cut my UK experience short – that I managed to get the opportunity to participate in tackling the challenge of our generation rather than having to watch the Government’s response from afar.  

The work in MND is much more upstream and so we are exposed to a greater diversity of issues and have more opportunities to be involved in strategic discussions among senior management. MND also works with a wide range of stakeholders, from MND family statutory boards like HDB, URA, NParks, BCA, etc.; to NGOs and civil society groups who are our partners in crafting policies and navigating challenges. On the other hand, working in a Statutory Board like LTA offers the opportunity to dive much deeper into specific issues. We have a responsibility to be the conduit to the ground and understand the deeper nuances of the issues we are dealing with. Personally, I felt that I learnt a great deal from both organisations that I have been with, and I have been blessed with good bosses who trusted my work and gave me the autonomy to push boundaries with my team.  

I think communication skills are extremely important – being genuinely willing to listen to everyone you work with so that you understand what they are going through and putting in effort to help people understand what you are trying to do. We need to let them know that you understand the bigger picture and are here to help. I train my team to always give as much context as they can when seeking input from others because then our counterparts can understand why we are asking for help. There is plenty of basic principles in communications that people sometimes overlook, that I feel are paramount to relationship building. And a large part of our work depends on positive relationships with all our stakeholders.

Our public service core values are integrity, service, and excellence, and I think they are spot on. At the core, you need to have a heart for service of others, the integrity to always do what is right, and possess the drive for an endless pursuit of excellence to always want to make things better. I think when the going gets tough and pressure builds up, these values become even more important for each of us to hold on to. They will keep you grounded and ensure that you are constantly looking out for more opportunities to contribute and value-add.

The industry that I am currently working most closely with is the retail and out-of-home advertising industries. I would say like most businesses, they have suffered from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic but are now in the process of recovery. These industries rely heavily on footfall in the spaces they operate, so naturally, they suffered the most during the lockdowns and various restrictions over the past 2 years. Do take the trains and buses more often and support them where you can. 

I am not sure where exactly I will be, but I am quite sure it will still be here in the Government, in this infra and environment sector. I enjoy the work very much and know that I can contribute meaningfully to it. A lot of the work we do in this sector takes time to come to fruition, but it is all the more rewarding when you see that you have made a slight difference to this place that we call home. As our society evolves, the relationships we build with our stakeholders also become even more important, as it would require mutual trust and a strong partnership between the Government and our partners to keep making Singapore better. So, it makes sense to stay on in this sector and keep making a difference where I can.

Someone who feels motivated to advocate for change would be suitable for my role. I think it is also important to find good bosses who will empower you and push boundaries with you. If your heart is in the right place, your bosses are likely to support you and you will be recognised for your efforts.

Be clear of your motivation and what you are in for. Roles in the public service can be as big as you want them to be and as small as you let it be, depending on the effort you place in your role. It is possible to keep strictly to the job scope you have been given and do absolutely nothing more, but that would not be keeping to the core values of service, integrity, and excellence. For the willing and able, there will always be opportunities to be involved in additional areas of work and learn from these new projects.