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Be a Willing Learner by Ridzwan Dzafir

18 January 2011

Ambassador-At-Large (2005-2008), Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Ambassador-At-Large (2005-2008), Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Dear Young Officer,

I am now 83 and retired. The better part of my life was spent as a civil servant, and if there are any words of advice I can bequeath to young officers, they would be “to be a willing learner”.

This attitude helped me rise through the ranks from a customs officer to Director-General of the Trade Development Board (TDB).

From the start, I was ready to take on any job given to me, and to do it well.

As a junior customs officer, I did all sorts of things, from arguing with senior lawyers like David Marshall in court as we were the prosecutors, to bashing into the jungles to flush out those who were illegally distilling samsu, or Chinese wine, to pursuing smugglers in Singapore’s waters in dangerously fast speedboats.

I was very willing to take on any job as they made for interesting experiences. Of course, apart from my attitude, luck played a role in my career progression. I consider it a turning point when the Government decided to promote me into the elite Administrative Service in 1961, as an official of the Trade Division, of the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

I did not have the required second upper class honours degree, but I benefited from a policy decision to absorb some senior Malay civil servants who had performed well in their roles, into the Admin Service.

Still, to get in, I had to be willing to learn to speak Hokkien! I was assigned the language, as I would have to work with the Chinese community on business matters.

I had a private tutor who coached me twice a week, and passed the test within three years.

Then, I had to work with the mostly Chinese business community, which I felt some degree of nervousness about. That I knew Hokkien gave me an advantage and in the end I earned their respect.

Even after I became Director-General of TDB, I was always willing to listen to other experts. Whenever I went overseas for negotiations, I made it a point to always have a team of expert advisors with me because I do not know everything.

The same attitude prevailed when I was asked to be the president of MUIS (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) while I was CEO of MENDAKI, the Malay self-help organisation. I was hesitant. I followed the basics of being a Muslim but I was not an expert in religious issues.

Then I was told that my job was to restructure the organisations into a corporate entity.

I took on the task, I am a civil servant, after all. But being willing does not mean being a “yes” man!

Take the opportunity to express your point of view, but if things do not go your way, accept it graciously and be civil about it.

And because the civil service is huge with numerous departments, while it is good to gain breadth in learning, it is also important to build up depth of expertise in one area.

I was fortunate that, from the first day of my appointment to the Admin Service, I remained in trade and became an expert in this area, from negotiating with Chinese businessmen to conducting trade talks with ASEAN countries, Europe and the Americas.

I helped establish the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, then the Singapore Embassy in Jakarta. Later, I was roving ambassador to Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Panama.

I was lucky. In my lifetime, I was given a job, I enjoyed it and did well at it.


Ridzwan Dfazir: From Pondok Boy to Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’ (S$42.05 excl GST) is sold at all leading bookstores.

Editor's note: Mr Ridzwan passed away at the age of 84 on September 28, 2011.

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