I protested when I was moved

Just two weeks after Mr Heng Swee Keat was voted into Parliament in 2011, he was appointed Minister of Education.

He was already a high flier, having been a Singapore Police Force Overseas scholar and Principal Private Secretary to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who called him one of the "finest minds among the civil servants I have worked with".

Since going into politics, he has been put in charge of national initiatives such as the Our Singapore Conversation national feedback exercise and the recent SG50 celebrations to mark Singapore's Golden Jubilee.

Some have even whispered that he has the makings of a future Prime Minister.

But when asked to describe himself and his leadership style, Mr Heng smiled and said: "I would leave others to describe me. I am what I am."

Despite accolades he has received, Mr Heng has a certain earnestness, with no airs about him.

Shown an old picture of him on the Prime Minister's Office website wearing a classic pair of glasses, he laughed.

"I remember I went with my wife and we tried various pairs. But none of (them) really suited me at that time, except for this one," he said.

The picture was taken when he was chief executive of the Trade Development Board, he added.

During a wide-ranging interview with The New Paper before the Writ of Election was issued, it became apparent that Mr Heng has a penchant for things that represent old-school values such as hard work, community and humility.

Fond of using the word "Gee!" as an exclamation, he touched on the pursuit of degrees, his most trying moments, and whether civil servants are moved around too often.

"I can tell you that when I was a public servant, as a civil servant, I almost always protested every time I was to be posted," he said.

"Because I always felt that 'Gee, I'm just starting to get the hang of this, I'm learning, I'm just beginning to become good at my job and I want to be able to contribute in this particular area a little bit more, so please don't rotate me, don't move me'."

But with hindsight, Mr Heng said it was a positive experience.

"It's because of that variety of things that I was exposed to that it helped me in many ways, in ways I didn't appreciate until I was older, until you have the benefit of it."

Focus on skills and experience, not just qualifications


Don't chase degrees for the sake of it as there are other ways to advance in your career.

This was the message Mr Heng wanted to send to parents and students, urging them to be more discerning when it comes to paper qualifications.

"Qualifications per se do not equate to great performance," he said, adding that there are many factors affecting one's work, including some that cannot be measured by grades or qualifications.

This is why his ministry is improving the provision of career guidance so people can make more informed choices.

While it is good that parents want their children to go as far as possible, a mindset change is needed.

"If (a student's) aspiration is to get into a particular profession, then the question is not about getting the paper qualification in order to do that. The question is how to help (him) avail the skills and the experience in order to reach that goal," he said.

As to how that will happen, Mr Heng admitted it was still work in progress.


Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty, Mr Heng said in response to a question about students who have unrealistic expectations after graduation.

Touching on his own experience, he said he started as a constable in the Singapore Police Force and worked his way to becoming Assistant Commissioner of Police.

He cited the example of entrepreneur Olivia Lum, who founded multi-million dollar water treatment company Hyflux. Among the company's projects is Singapore's largest seawater desalination plant.

When she wanted to start the company in 1989, Ms Lum signed up for plumbing courses at the Vocational and Industrial Training Board, now known as the Institute of Technical Education.

Asked why she had done that, she said that to be in the water business, she had to know how things worked at a basic level.

Mr Heng said: "So you're absolutely right that the way for many people to build a career is to build a pathway towards that progression."


The Sabah earthquake was the most difficult time in his term as Education Minister, but it was also the most moving.

Mr Heng's eyes visibly reddened when speaking about the June 5 quake that killed seven pupils and two teachers from Tanjong Katong Primary School.

A 10th Singaporean - an adventure guide who was with the pupils climbing Mt Kinabalu as part of a leadership expedition - also died in the tragedy.

After a long pause, he spoke about how he keenly felt the loss of young lives.

Yet he was also touched by how some of the parents who lost children told others not to grieve, but rather, to celebrate what their children had managed to achieve.

He also took strength from the fact that Singaporeans banded together to support each other during the very difficult time.

"We cannot overcome the destructive forces of nature in the physical sense.

"But in the spiritual sense, we can overcome all these tragedies with the human spirit. That spirit of fortitude and that spirit of solidarity."


Singaporeans seem to have become kinder and more willing to give back to their community. He made this observation in the time he has been a Member of Parliament for Tampines GRC.

"I get many more residents who come up to say they will be happy to volunteer to do certain things and contribute to the community," he said.

An instance of this is the Neighbours Hub where neighbours prepare breakfast for each other. It was started by a group of senior citizens who do their morning exercises at the void deck.

Mr Heng also introduced a service award for residents who showed good neighbourliness.

Among the stories that emerged was that of a man who worked multiple jobs but always went home at lunchtime to buy food for his elderly neighbour who had problems walking.

"Those for me are very inspiring moments. That's why I put very great emphasis on building this sense of heart and home," Mr Heng added.


Asked if he would be playing a bigger role in the next Cabinet, Mr Heng laughed. "I enjoy what I'm doing so much that I don't want to move," he said, adding that he believes in giving one's best to the task at hand.

But he spoke on succession planning and the importance of finding a successor better than yourself. "That's how we make progress and that's how we want our children to be better than us," he said.

When asked whether he could some day be Deputy Prime Minister, he smiled and said: "My approach to life is a very simple one: Whatever one does, do your best."


This article was first published on August 29, 2015.
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