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First-hand lessons from Singapore's ambassador

03 June 2013

Prof Chan (right) with moderator Mr Viswa Sadasivan, Chairman of the U@live organising committee

The captivated capacity crowd at the forum

Creativity, initiative, the ability of looking at things with a different eye, and a flair for identifying opportunities as well as making things happen - these are some of the key attributes of an ambassador. And who better to provide such first-hand tips than Professor Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large who spent 16 years rubbing shoulders with political bigwigs in Washington DC. Prof Chan was sharing her insights of being a diplomat at the U@live forum on 29 May at NUS.

The political science alumnus from the then University of Singapore, who is currently a member of NUS' Board of Trustees, drew from her own personal experience on developing such qualities: try different things when young and take risk, practices which help prepare one to be creative and build up leadership to take action.

Prof Chan noted that even though training was provided to a diplomat, the best way to learn was by observing and gaining the necessary exposure on the job. She thanked her diverse interests and background as the best preparation when she became an ambassador.

For instance, working at the newspaper when young made her media-savvy. She was active in literary, theatre and drama groups; this wide-ranging passion for the arts helped her communicate with people of diverse backgrounds on multiple topics and growing relationships, crucial aspects in diplomatic engagement.

In an increasingly competitive and connected world, countries can leapfrog with knowledge easily available on the Internet. What will distinguish Singapore from the rest of the countries? Prof Chan observed that Singapore students perform well academically, but she expressed concern about their reticence in being vocal. She regarded speaking out or "selling" - be it an idea or project - as critical in the art of persuasion and to achieve buy-in.

An NUS undergraduate attending the talk wondered at the kind of careers a political science student could pursue. Prof Chan highlighted that a political science student is equipped with a broad knowledge base, which comes in handy during job interviews. "Nobody is going to ask you about King Lear," she quipped, evoking laughter from the audience.

She continued on a more serious note: "Political science is extremely versatile because it prepares you to deal with the world as it is, in issues out there internationally, domestically and regionally." This means a graduate in the subject can opt to be a banker, journalist, risk analyst, trader, diplomat, teacher - essentially any job, she pointed out. She encouraged more young people to take up PhDs in the discipline as she noticed a dearth of such skills locally.

Other questions from the capacity audience included what she observed in the US during her posting and if curiosity should be cultivated in students from the primary level.

U@live, a monthly forum that showcases the outstanding members of the NUS community, is spearheaded by the NUS Alumni Advisory Board and the Office of Alumni Relations.