‘We do not stick to conventional wisdom’: five minutes with… Singapore’s Ministry of Finance permanent secretary Tan Ching Yee

By on 07/03/2022 | Updated on 07/03/2022

In the first of a new series of interviews where public servants around the world share insights into their lives and career, the permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Finance talks about the importance of not getting too comfortable in one department, the privilege and responsibility of a career in the civil service, and missing her calling as a stand-up comic

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your working life?

“Go run corporate services, you are too comfortable where you are. You need to try something different!”

I was an economist and enjoying myself very much delving into modelling, forecasting and analysing.  Then my supervisor told me to snap out of it. And a few years later, while hitting a tough patch in a new job, I remembered what he said and thought how right he was. Every new assignment is training… for the next job and more.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the civil service?

Take a broad view of learning. Do as many things as you can. The learning you get, the new friends you meet, the new ways of looking at things – all these will help you as you make your way up the organisation.

Do not be overly focused on the immediate and what you think “counts”. The best things are uncountable.

What do you like most about working in the civil service?

It’s a tremendous privilege – to think and do things for others that go beyond the individual, the immediate, and the pecuniary.

It’s also a heavy responsibility. This explains why we analyse so much data, debate so much, go back and forth so much, record and document things so much. There are hardly any Pareto-superior solutions to grasp at – solutions that make everyone better off and no-one worse off. Every decision involves trade-offs.

And what do you dislike about it?

It’s the flip side of what I like. You sometimes wonder if we could just “get on with it”. Often, you cannot because it is not a simple problem.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you and your colleagues?

It is so hard to name just one. I have worked in different domains. If there is one thing we do all the time in Singapore, it is to ask and look at what others are doing, discover why and decide whether we can adopt, adapt or eschew it. By “others”, I do not mean national governments, but also state/provincial authorities, cities, corporates and not-for-profit organisations.

At a broader level, we have been inspired by those who can simultaneously do things for today while dedicating bandwidth and talent to think about tomorrow.

Are there any projects or innovations in your country that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

In Singapore, we always hesitate to offer up our suggestions. Not for false modesty but because of our rather special circumstances – a tiny island that is a city and also a nation.

One lesson I have learnt is that we never accept the limitations of our circumstances and we do not stick to conventional wisdom. We come up with solutions which defy classification or typecasting. This sometimes makes life difficult for me, when we do not fit neatly into international classification for data… on education, healthcare, public finance.

Take healthcare. We have neither a tax-financed NHS-type system nor a social insurance system. We have a hybrid. We have a vibrant private medical industry and a large publicly-funded one. We pay public healthcare professionals competitively but keep costs affordable.

What attributes do you most value in people?

Honesty above all. It does not need to be brutal.

If you weren’t a civil servant, what would you be?

Friends tell me I could try being a stand-up comic. If you can glean any talent through this interview, let me know. Market surveys cost too much.

What is your favourite book?

This is tough. Desert Island Discs gave more choices!

Outside of work stuff, the Rumpole series has given me much joy.

What was your first car?

Toyota Starlet – my father bought it with part of his retirement savings so he could get me to do some of the family driving duties.

Tan Ching Yee: a varied career in the civil service

I started work as a government statistician, then became a government economist, before joining the Singapore Administrative Service – a corps of civil servants who work across ministries. I have worked in the areas of economic policy, IT & telecoms regulation and development, education, health and now, public finance.

I had most of my education in Singapore, but did my tertiary studies in the UK and the US.

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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