Civil service - new way to climb the ranks

Not a grad? Not a problem

Insight speaks to four senior public servants who are proof that degrees are not everything in the civil service. Although they did not make it to university, they still rose to the top.

Non-graduate high-fliers. Some might see this as a contradictory term in the civil service, traditionally regarded as a place where those who lack paper qualifications do not get promoted as much or as quickly as university graduates.

But the civil service wants to dispel this perception. Its latest step to do so was to stop grouping its officers by their education levels on Jan 1. Civil servants used to be put into four divisions. Division I officers were graduates; Division II, diploma and A-level certificate holders; Division III, secondary education; and Division IV, primary education.

As of 2013, 56 per cent of the 80,000 civil servants were in Division I. About one-third were in Division II, and 7 per cent and 5 per cent in Divisions III and IV respectively. However, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, the minister in charge of the civil service, noted that since 2015, a number of career tracks for graduates and non-graduates have been merged "to provide greater opportunities for career progression and development".

He told Parliament last Thursday: "Once an officer is on the job, it is performance and readiness for bigger job responsibilities that matter. All officers who perform well and show potential for leadership are given the opportunity to participate in development programmes and be considered for higher positions."

Are these moves enough, and will they lead to more non-graduates in higher positions?


The perception for non-graduates in the civil service has been that there is a glass ceiling to how much they can progress without a degree.

Anecdotally, there is talk about graduates who join later but are promoted sooner, while managers are hesitant to promote non-graduates.

Said Quantum Leap Career Consultancy managing director Alvin Ang: "The impression was that if you do not have a degree, you cannot progress to a higher level. This resulted in a generation of paper chasers."

But over the past three years, there has been a sustained call to value deep skills, and to do away with chasing paper for paper's sake. In 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally that more would be done to support the aspirations of non-graduates, while the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review committee called on bosses to go beyond qualifications in developing workers.

The latest SkillsFuture national drive aims to develop deep skills in workers, driven by the growing realisation that a degree may not be enough to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow.

Amid this, the public sector began a concerted push to tweak its human resources policies to boost non-graduate officers' career prospects and pay.

Non-degree holders joining the civil service in management support roles have been hired under the same Management Executive Scheme as university graduates since August 2015. And since October that year, teachers without degrees have been on the same pay scale as their graduate peers.

The Singapore Police Force, too, rolled out a unified rank structure for all officers last July so that non-graduates can rise through the ranks faster.

Superintendent Goh Tat Boon, who heads the Special Investigation Section of the Criminal Investigation Department and got there with O levels, said that career advancement in the force is based on performance rather than paper qualifications.

He added with a laugh: "I think it would be much easier to pursue a degree than to pursue a criminal."

Supt Goh acknowledged that officers without degrees have a "longer runway", but said this is fair.

He said: "The years I took to rise through the ranks are similar to the years they took to pursue a degree qualification. If you look at it that way, there is no disadvantage. You both take the same number of years, but you do different things."

Indeed, Supt Goh and three other senior public servants whom Insight spoke to pointed out that non-graduates like themselves have already been able to rise up the ranks. Their common thread: sheer hard work and the eagerness to take on new challenges. Notably, all four began in operations roles requiring deep mastery of skills, and made their careers in smaller or specialised agencies, rather than ministries seen as the purview of elite officers.

But things may be different now, said Quantum Leap's Mr Ang. Today's non-graduates face stiffer competition from graduates as there are more Singaporean degree-holders now than in the past.

And their success does not mean degrees are not completely unnecessary or will be disregarded by hiring officers. Rather, what ministers are driving at is that after officers are hired, their career progression depends on their performance.

National Environment Agency deputy director Ravindran Nair said that while degrees are not compulsory, there are some things a university education prepares you better for, and added that some may want to take up a degree later. "You can come in without a degree, but if you get a degree along the way, you will be trained to have a broader understanding of today's fast-changing and complex world," he said.

Another value of the public service's move may be in what it signals to the private sector. Said Mr Ang: "Whatever the public service does, the private sector will tend to adapt and follow."

NParks director Lilian Kwok

What Ms Kwok lacks in formal university education, she makes up for with her vast experience in the field and hard work keeping up with innovations. “It is important to enjoy what you do,” she says. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Nurturing plants - and a career

Ask Ms Lilian Kwok, 59, about plants and her eyes light up.

The National Parks Board director takes pride in getting trees and shrubs to flower in the shortest time possible.

The Kranji tree, for instance, typically flowers in the wild after reaching a height of about 20m, which can take 20 years. But specimens in her nursery flowered and formed seeds, while growing in a small bag.

"In under five years, they flowered and fruited, because we took very good care of them," she says.

This was possible due to her expertise developed over 38 years in the agency, which she joined in 1979 after getting a diploma in ornamental horticulture and garden design.

The nursery and horticulture outreach director is roughly four rungs from the top in NParks, and oversees 26 of the organisation's 900 staff, a relatively high position to reach for someone without a degree. She has certifications in arboriculture and horticulture, sponsored by NParks.

Ms Kwok did consider getting a degree in the area of horticulture, but instead decided to spend more time with her daughter and taking care of her in-laws.


A degree would have helped me think in a certain way, but I can learn that on the job.


What Ms Kwok lacks in formal university education, she makes up for with her vast experience in the field and hard work keeping up with innovations like special lights that help plants grow faster."I am always curious about how things work, so I read a lot and get advice from my colleagues," she says.

She has experience in planning and executing a wide range of projects, and the big-picture management skills that come with it. She says: "A degree would have helped me think in a certain way, but I can learn that on the job."

Starting out, Ms Kwok joined the planning and design department, with a team designing ways to plant greenery to beautify the Civic District. And when the plans were approved, on weekends when the area was quiet, she would plant the greenery.

Later, she became involved in developing NParks' nature conservation projects, such as the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

Ms Kwok, who was a key part of that, says: "The challenge was to turn the terrain into a place that attracted even more birds than before.

"Besides plants, we learnt about more than 100 birds, organisms in the soil, prawns, fish, frogs, crabs that came out every morning to sun, and monitor lizards. We learnt what they like and don't like."

In 2008, from that project, she moved on to head the NParks nursery in Pasir Panjang, which supplies greenery for roads and parks.

She disagrees that not having a degree is a disadvantage, saying it is about being keen to spend time in the job.

"If you do anything for a promotion, you will be disappointed. My first promotion was after 10 years - it was that long," says Ms Kwok, who moved up from horticulture assistant to assistant curator.

"My next promotion was eight years later."

Above all, she adds: "It is important to enjoy what you do. With plants, it is easy."

Air traffic services director Rosly Md Saad

Mr Rosly says rigorous on-the-job training and having the right temperament and outlook have enabled him to rise to his position in CAAS – despite holding only O-level certificates. PHOTO: CIVIL AVIATION AUTHORITY OF SINGAPORE

Creating order out of chaos

When Mr Rosly Md Saad was a runway controller in his 20s, he spotted flames shooting out of the engine of a plane that he had just cleared for take-off.

His training kicked in.

"I told myself: Stay calm, communicate with the pilot, assist him. I knew he would want to come back and land," says Mr Rosly, now 59.

"I could hear the tremor in my voice, but I had to use all my experience and wisdom to stay calm and manage the situation. The last thing a pilot wants when he is in trouble is to have a controller freaking out," he recalls, adding that the pilot circled back and had the problem fixed.

Such stressful situations are why air traffic controllers need to be able to keep a cool head under pressure, and why the job includes rigorous on-the-job training.

Mr Rosly says this training and having the right temperament and outlook have enabled him to rise to the position of air traffic services director in the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) - despite holding only O-level certificates.

On training, he says: "This particular job provides opportunities for a person to grow because the kind of skills, knowledge and ability is not something that you can pick up from a college or a university.


Whatever is thrown at me, I try to make a good job out of it. Whenever there is an obstacle, I try to find out how to overcome it.


"Air traffic is so specialised that we provide our own training in-house."

The minimum qualification for applicants today is a diploma, but Mr Rosly firmly believes that diploma holders can rise to the top if they have a can-do spirit, just as he did, and be a team player.

He worked in various areas, including aerodrome control and area surveillance control, and was trained in search and rescue operations. By 2002, he was heading air traffic control operations at Seletar Airport. He went on to head air traffic control centres, and was appointed to his current position in 2013, where he oversees nearly 600 staff in the division.

As director - one of at least 16 in CAAS - he is in charge of the management and provision of air traffic services in Singapore, and also oversees related areas such as aeronautical information services and search and rescue coordination.

He was awarded the Public Administration Medal (Bronze) in 2007, on top of the Long Service National Day Award in 2006 and the National Day Award Efficiency Medal in 1999.

But training is only one part of what got Mr Rosly to where he is - the other part is a willingness to face challenges head-on. He says: "Whatever is thrown at me, I try to make a good job out of it. Whenever there is an obstacle, I try to find out how to overcome it. That mindset was noticed by my superiors, and that is why they had faith in me to give me all those appointments."

A love of the job also kept him going. "It's about you managing this whole mass of confusion up there and arranging it into a logical sequence of aircraft coming in to land and take off. You are creating order out of chaos."

He adds: "If you enjoy the job, there is no envy when someone is moving ahead of you. Instead, you want to learn from him and what he did right that got him ahead."

NEA deputy director Ravindran Nair

Mr Ravindran in his office, with screens to monitor the cleanliness of places around the island. Working in the field has taught him lessons which he passes on to his officers. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Undeterred by rats and rubbish

Mr Ravindran Nair, 59, the deputy director of the National Environment Agency's public cleanliness department, may have a cushy office cubicle these days, but he worked very hard to get there.

He began in 1979 as an officer in the public service's Division III, which at the time was for those whose highest qualification was an A-level certificate. As an assistant public health inspector, he cleared rubbish, destroyed mosquito nests and got rid of rats.

Next came the food control department, where he raided illegal factories. "In one case, there were maggots crawling out of the meat that workers were using to prepare ngoh hiang (minced meat rolls)," he recalls.

The work was seen as unpopular, and even his family members questioned why he did it, but it was one of his top three choices when he applied to the civil service. When the offer came, he took it.


You don't have to start off with a degree, but you must be prepared to improve yourself along the way.


He says: "My family members asked me why I wanted to deal with rubbish and mosquitoes and filth. Illegal hawkers didn't like us and we were always seen as the bad guys."

But working in the field taught him key lessons which he passes on to his officers. Mr Ravindran, whose department is one of three in the environmental public health division, says of the 330 officers he leads: "If they've walked that route, I've walked it many more times. I understand the officers' problems, and they can't 'bluff' me."

He admits there were times he felt disadvantaged as more freshly recruited graduates were placed in supervisory positions ahead of him. Mr Ravindran has two diplomas - a public health inspector diploma from the Royal Society of Health in 1982, and in air pollution control in 1985 - but no degree.

"There was a general feeling among non-graduate officers that we would be left behind without any opportunity to be promoted to supervisory positions," he says.

But his fears were dispelled as he has been promoted five times to his current level of deputy director.

Asked whether a degree is needed for an officer to rise up the ranks, he says while it may be a stepping stone, adaptability and attitude are everything.

On adaptability, he says: "You don't have to start off with a degree, but you must be prepared to improve yourself along the way."

As for attitude, he cites the 2003 Sars outbreak, of cleaning up Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, which was closed when a wholesaler became infected.

"Everyone was running out of there and we were the gung-ho people going in. I could have said no. But someone had to do it. So we went in and took a week to clean up the place," says Mr Ravindran.

Police Superintendent Goh Tat Boon

Supt Goh joined the force as a police constable after his O levels in 1986. His unstinting commitment to the job, willingness to take on challenges, and sheer hard work propelled him up the ranks. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Chasing criminals, not papers

It was 4am when Mr Goh Tat Boon and a team of fellow policemen were sent to Johor Baru, Malaysia, to hunt down the fugitive known as the One-eyed Dragon.

Notorious gangster Tan Chor Jin, who was blind in one eye, had just fled there after gunning down nightclub owner Lim Hock Soon in his Serangoon flat on Feb 15, 2006.

"We were sent in the middle of the night without luggage, and then we got information that he'd gone to Kuala Lumpur," recalls Superintendent Goh, 50, who now heads the Special Investigation Section within the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

Unprepared for this longer trip, he ended up having to buy clothes and a toothbrush in Malaysia. The team got their man after 10 days.

That level of commitment to the job, a willingness to take on challenges, and sheer hard work propelled Supt Goh up the ranks and helped him become a senior officer, a feat he calls "quite amazing".

Says Supt Goh: "Who'd imagine an O-level holder like me can achieve what I have over these past 31 years?"

He joined the force as a police constable after his O levels in 1986. After four years in uniform patrols, he decided to go into investigation work. As a rookie investigating officer, he pulled 24-hour shifts, handling all the cases that came in, from domestic violence to neighbour disputes.


Who'd imagine an O-level holder like me can achieve what I have over these past 31 years?


In the 1990s, closed-circuit television cameras were not ubiquitous and police could not rely on footage for evidence. Says Supt Goh: "Solving the case depends on how much information you can gather, how many people you interview...There's no such thing as luck. You have to talk to many before you can establish a lead."

In 1997, he joined the CID's Major Crime Division, where long hours and late-night calls were the norm.

He says: "You can be sleeping and a call can come at 3am, 4am. Criminals don't operate (during) office hours."

He adds: "When you start on a case, you are prepared that in the first 48 hours, you're not going home or going to get much sleep."

When a stretch of Nicoll Highway collapsed in 2004, Supt Goh camped in a tent on site for five days, interviewing hundreds of witnesses. He would return briefly to his office to shower and nap before resuming interviews and recording statements at dawn.

"As investigators, we can be called any time to any scene, so we keep fresh clothes, a towel and our passport in the office. At times, you feel like giving up... but you have to push yourself."

Supt Goh worked on an average of 10 cases a year over 26 years in investigations. Last year, he was appointed as one of two experts on an expert career track that develops deep skills in the areas of investigation, special operations or intelligence in officers.

All in, he was promoted 11 times, and became the head of the Special Investigation Section in 2015 - a relatively high rank for someone without a degree, or even a diploma.

Supt Goh feels that police officers should focus on serving the public, not chasing promotions or comparing themselves with their colleagues.

"I still feel satisfied each time we solve a case. Be it a minor case or major case, you have a victim of crime or their family to answer to."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 05, 2017, with the headline 'Not a grad? Not a problem'. Subscribe