Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Career advice for civil service farmers


I'm fairly used to getting questions I'm totally unqualified to answer during course previews. 

Last night, after hearing my story on how I performed a career-limiting manoeuvre in the public sector, someone asked me to give him advice on whether he should join the government in spite of not being a scholar. I think there are a lot of successful officers who are non-scholars who are in a better position to answer the question, but I try my best in every Q&A. 

I told him that the advice I failed to follow from my government senpais, which is this very simple act.

The secret to succeeding in government work for non-scholars is to swallow.

Swallow what, you might ask? Swallow your pride. Accept that the best assignments will be given to those with the highest CEP. Some officers will be blue-eyed boys. Those who swallow can expect generous bonuses and a better work-life balance than the private sector. I failed because I refuse to swallow.

That's a simple answer that might earn me a "B" in SMU Law School.

For an "A" answer, I would recommend Lim Hwee Hwa's Government in Business which explains painstakingly why private and public sector work is very different and why some of the best attitudes in the private sector will never translate to government work. If I read it before I took the leap, I may not have left the private sector. This would have saved me a lot of pain. 

My favourite idea is Lim Hwee Hwa's assertion that innovation is all about exploiting the lacuna of the law. Grab is essentially exploiting the fact that you can get an army of contactor drivers without trying to give them the perks of employees, resulting in a more competitive company. Here's another example - what is an ICO but an attempt to avoid prospectus requirements?

Here's the rub. If you want to exploit the lacuna of the law, there is a lot of money that will follow you to the ends of the earth. VCs have a lot of liquidity and they want to be onboard your innovation train. 

But if you are on the opposite end and functioning as a regulator, you will scant support from the tax-payer to plug these loopholes. Guys like me spend weeks using every tax-deductible there is to reduce the money I give to my former bosses, why should I pay top dollar to someone who would plug my next big innovative idea?

So no matter how good a government is, the government will lag the private sector and is perpetually in the process of playing catch up. In fact, if the government needs to compete for top talent to plug up these regulatory lacunae, they need to get the best brains (scholars) to predict where future regulatory challenges are, possibly bonding the scholars, giving them a high CEP and, hopefully, ruining their ability to join the private sector after they become really good at what they do. 

It is quite clear that Lim Hwee Hwa is not using this book to explain why she lost the 2011 elections in Aljunied. I find her examples very clear and she does not apologise for some of the more dramatic failures when private-public sector cooperation failed (particularly in SMRT). In her defence, the opposition parties who clamoured for SMRT to be nationalised after 2011 did not make any noise when PWD was privatised to become a leaner CPG years ago. Sadly, every good government would need to keep eliminating pockets of inefficiency by privatization every now and then. This ensures the best services for the people. 

There are some insights I picked up from the book. At the end of the day, term limits before an election drastically reduce the ability for governments to make tough decisions that pay off over the long-term for the people. In this case, the median voter theory is incomplete. The median voter today may contradict the median voter tomorrow. 

When Low Thia Khiang invited me to join the Workers party more than a decade ago, I told him that I want to be a man of economic means and not political means. Money managed well is a power source of its own. 

I think I made the right choice. 

If I have a time machine, I will tell my younger self not to leave the private sector. Just stay on, and get retrenched when it happens, and go start a business if necessary. My personality is to RED to play catch-up with the private sector - I should be leading the disruption instead. 

If I won't touch a China SOE with a ten-foot pole, I should never have entertained joining a statutory board. 

Those entertaining a stint in the government should put this on your reading list. 


  1. When I was in the civil service the daily mantra was "Suck it up". Likely still is.

    Believe it or not, junior scholars also have to live by that mantra. Till they put some "crabs" on their shoulders.

    For the non-scholars the reward, if you don't mess it up & can endure, is probably a good shot at coasting at 80th-90th percentile earnings eventually.

  2. 80th-90th percentile should be around Deputy Director level right? That's not an easy target to achieve for a farmer but it's not impossible.

    1. Yup.
      The majority of DD's and a good % of D's aren't scholars (esp in stat boards).