LETTERS TO A YOUNG PUBLIC OFFICER

I Went Where My Passion Took Me, Armed with a Learning Spirit

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Illustration: Mushroomhead


Dr Koh Tat Suan
Director, Lifelong Learning Institute, SkillsFuture Singapore, MOE (2015–present)
Director, Institute for Adult Learning, Workforce Development Agency, MOM (2009–2015)
Deputy Director, Generic Skills Development Division, WDA, MOM (2005–2008)



Dear young officer,

When I started as a technical officer in the Army, fresh out of polytechnic, I never imagined that I would end up at SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), living my passion for cultivating a culture of lifelong learning in Singaporeans.

Besides my own willingness to learn, lessons in resilience, time management, prioritisation, family appreciation, self-encouragement and realistic goal-setting also fuelled my journey in lifelong learning. These were crucial to ensuring I could meet both my work demands and family commitments, while realising my personal aspirations.

As I take stock of my years in the Public Service, I can say that I have stayed faithful to my belief in learning as a lifelong endeavour. As long as one is willing to learn and adapt, one will always be in good stead.

At the outset of my career in the Army, I was on the lookout for opportunities to enhance my credentials. One reason was to increase the areas and roles to which I could be deployed; another was to secure better employability prospects should I leave the Army.

I took my first step when I applied for a study award to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering. It was a natural progression from my electrical and electronic engineering diploma from polytechnic.

That facilitated my vocational upgrading to the Military Engineering Officer scheme with better progression prospects. As Commanding Officer of the Ordnance Engineering Training Institute (OETI), I developed a keen interest in training and education management, so I studied part-time for a diploma in training and development. I acquired better know-how in managing a training institute and improving the quality of training by the OETI instructors, and I am proud to say the OETI won the MINDEF Service Excellence Award in 1999.

In 2000, at age 45, I left the Army to pursue my second career in my area of interest. With my qualifications and work experience, I secured a role in the Human Resource Department of the Ministry of Education.

Unfortunately, it was a stint that lasted only three years as I had to leave to attend to an urgent family matter. Still, I decided to pursue a master’s in educational management on a part-time basis as my career development plan to stay relevant. Having to resolve my family issue and complete my master’s degree simultaneously in those two years added several growth rings to my tree of life.

In 2005, I began my third career with the Workforce Development Agency. My learning in training and education equipped me well for the task of setting up the Institute for Adult Learning in 2008.

In late 2009, I took the opportunity to pursue a PhD at University College London. Juggling work demands and doctoral studies at age 54 was no walk in the park. But the journey to being awarded my doctorate was a priceless experience.

Now, I oversee the management of the Lifelong Learning Institute. I work with the Lifelong Learning Council to promote a lifelong learning mindset and support the SkillsFuture initiatives by SSG and Workforce Singapore. This is the ideal job for me as it aligns with my own personal belief that we should make every day a learning day.

To me, one’s career path has to be defined by oneself, with the daring to try and the will to succeed. Working in the Public Service has been never a dull moment because I never allowed it to be. It was a case of “me against me”, as I tested my limits and boundaries. I went where my passion took me, armed with a learning spirit as I moved from ministry to ministry.

My fulfilling and adventurous 37 years in the Public Service would not have been possible without that learning spirit. As long as I embrace the spirit to learn, whatever route my life takes me, I know the sky’s the limit!

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