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The Importance of Knowing Your Life Mission by Tan Gee Paw

08 September 2011

PUB Chairman since 2001

Dear Young Officer,

When I was invited to say a few words in this edition of Challenge, I was a bit apprehensive. There is today a proliferation of sound advice to young people on how to develop their full potential and how to manage difficult periods in their career, often peppered with personal anecdotes, and I certainly don’t wish to add another line to this.

Rather, I feel there is an urgent need to challenge you to examine something more fundamental in your working life that perhaps you may have overlooked.

Have you ever taken a day off to quieten down and ask yourself what do you really want to do in life? I’m not suggesting that you should ask yourself what you should do to increase the prospects of a top career. Nor am I suggesting that you set yourself a target of what position you should hold in 10 years. The answers to such questions will change as circumstances change, and so they can’t be the fundamental issues. This is because thoughts along these lines revolve around you yourself.

So I suggest you take time to think outside of yourself and believe me, you will be drawn to a life mission (not a job or a career or a target position) that will challenge you and bring out the best in you. In fact you will be surprised to find that you are actually cut out for it. The key word is ‘drawn to a life mission’!

I reached a cross road early in my career in the Civil Service: Should I stay or find my fortune in the private sector where many of my peers have successfully ventured into?

I found the answer, not in myself, but in people and water. Somehow rivers, lakes and the sea have always had a peculiar attraction, and I painted many of them during my spare time. I saw squatters living in squalid conditions next to rivers and I knew how deprived they were. I was drawn to a life mission to bring a clean living environment and water to fellow Singaporeans. So I stayed on in the Service, dealing with water most of the time in one form or another.

In 1967, I had joined as a civil engineer in the then Public Works Department hoping to build bridges and high-rise buildings. So I was deeply disappointed to be posted to the Drainage Department to maintain drains. But still I remained in the water and environmental sector of the Service ever since.

When it became apparent in the late 1990s that water will become a key issue, the Government grouped all water agencies into a reformed Public Utilities Board (PUB). They left me in charge to meet the water challenge of ensuring adequate water resources for all Singaporeans.

My early years in the Drainage Department allowed me to have intimate knowledge of every drain and canal in Singapore which was exactly what I needed in my new posting some 25 years later, when it helped me to understand how runoffs could best be collected and diverted to reservoirs.

How would I have ever known this!

So never detest your postings but give your very best to the work on the table, and you could find yourself “drawn to a life mission” that is outside of yourself.

So my challenge to you is simple. Do not worry yourself trying to increase your career prospects and your chances of good positions. Rather, take time off and identify a life mission in the Service, and your career and positions will take care of themselves.

Am I too idealistic? No, you owe this to yourself. May you be drawn to a life mission in the Service, a mission that is outside of yourself and there find fulfillment in your retirement.

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