Elitists need not apply

Elitists need not apply
Social service veteran Ang Bee Lian.

SINGAPORE - The most senior social worker in Singapore, Ms Ang Bee Lian, 58, started as a child protection worker more than 35 years ago and worked her way up through many job postings, most recently running the National Council of Social Service.

Last week, Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said that Singapore needs to train up "many, many more Ang Bee Lians", and announced that to do so, a new central body will oversee the recruitment and deployment of about 200 to 300 social service professionals.

Ms Ang, who is now the Ministry for Social and Family Development's director of social welfare, tells Insight why the new talent scheme to develop social service leaders won't be elitist.

Q: How does the new talent scheme for social workers take the sector forward?

A: It will add another very important pipeline of leaders who choose to be there, who have been developed and are prepared to be there, and who enjoy the position.

We must be very mindful of the selection of the people. We must select based on values and principles. We must select them rigorously and patiently.

Q: How would you distil who these people are?

A: Through good interviews, if you know how to ask the right questions.

So, together with three to four other elements of the interview, you can select the right people.

But the new work group may do it differently. If you don't interview well, you can let in a few black sheep. With only one test, people know how to do certain things.

But if you take a more collective observation approach and different types of people give comments, it's harder; you see the person for who he is.

Q: With a career track planned out for them, would there be a danger of having the "God's gift to mankind" mentality?

A: What the applicants present in their portfolio will tell you a lot about them. Those who are very solid don't need to tell you so many things. If you are put in an interview with me, I cannot get conned.

Q: Their compassion comes through in things they've been doing?

The way they express it, when they recount the story... For example, so often people do things to put on Facebook for show, or just for the CV. Don't come and think you're God's gift to the world. I really cannot stand people who think they're God's gift. It runs counter to social work and values.

Q: Do you feel the new scheme might be elitist? Some VWOs (voluntary welfare organisations) are worried about this centralised body.

A: It's good that feedback has surfaced early. It's being designed, taking into consideration these views. It'd be different if the Minister had cooked the scheme already and served it. They're going to form a work group.

It boils down to how you design the leadership. People respect leaders who understand and are able to empathise by being on the ground. There is a call to say, if you're a leader, can I expect you to be empathetic, values-based, fair, understanding of what I'm going through, and also smart?

I know of someone who's an A-grader with an outstanding academic record. But while studying overseas, of her own accord, she volunteered at the homeless shelter because she wanted to be connected to the ground to understand, and in the process, her empathy level just went so much higher.

So I don't think we're against people with good academic records but we need to be mindful that to lead, one needs to win the respect of people and be humble.

And to be prepared to be unprepared sometimes, and to be vulnerable and to learn.

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