THIS year, of the 15,000 A-level and International Baccalaureate (IB) students in Singapore schools, more than 2,500 applied for Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarships. To arrive at a manageable number to interview, the PSC took into account their teachers' assessments, academic results and records of their co-curricular activities and community involvement programme. Eventually, some 350 applicants were picked for the interview.
Before the PSC interview, every applicant sat for psychometric tests and was interviewed by trained psychologists. The tests are meant to assess the candidate's general, verbal and numerical reasoning abilities and to give a rounded view of his psychological profile. Every candidate who sits for the psychological profile interview will be seen by PSC. The candidates themselves write a short essay on their own values. The PSC panel reads all these background papers and reports before meeting the applicants. After the interviews, which stretched over five months, the PSC eventually awarded 84 scholarships.
The 84 scholarships were awarded on merit, regardless of the background of the candidates. PSC scholarships are not bursaries given out to the less privileged. The number of scholarships given out each year depends on the number of deserving and suitable candidates, not on the economic situation.
While the outcome of the selection exercise leaves the chosen happy, more than 2,400 other students would be disappointed. A few schools would also be puzzled as to why not all their top students were selected. The PSC owes all these people an explanation.
How are scholars selected?
PSC members all share a strong sense of responsibility in ensuring that the high standards of Singapore's public service are maintained and the long-term needs of the service are met. We realise that the decisions we make will determine what kind of public sector leaders Singapore will have in 15 to 20 years' time.
If the selection of scholars is done well, many, but not all, of our Permanent Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries will be scholars. Scholar public servants can be derailed in their future careers for many reasons. Some may have poor supervisors while others may be in a bad job fit. But the PSC must share responsibility if we miss a fatal character flaw or are misled by false pretences.
First and foremost, we look at integrity. Integrity is vital because while pragmatism may be a key concept for governance in Singapore, it is dangerous to have Singapore governed by public servants who are unprincipled pragmatists.
A person's integrity is best assessed through his behaviour over a period of time. It is too complex a trait to assess through interview alone, and we depend on the schools and psychologists to give us a first cut of their reading of the candidate's integrity.
Teachers play a very important role. Their impressions matter because they have first-hand experience of the student. The PSC takes their assessments, both negative and positive, very seriously. However, they should not exaggerate the strong qualities they see in their favourite students as it could be counter- productive, raising our expectations of the candidate when the reality does not fit the hype. Nor should teachers be over-critical just because a student is a bit of a maverick. As long as they have integrity, these are talented outliers whom our system must be flexible enough to fish out eventually.
The psychologists are trained to look for signs and indicators that suggest whether or not a candidate has integrity. They can determine whether the candidate has strong values which he is not afraid to express or uphold even against peer pressure. Maintaining one's values is not the same as following rules. The person with integrity will challenge the rules if they go against his values and principles. But how he challenges the rules is also important, for it reveals how shrewd and street-savvy he is.
During the interview, we judge if what the teachers, psychologists and military officers (in case of national servicemen) say about the candidates is accurate and fair. We try to balance the different perspectives, bearing in mind that people behave and perform differently in different circumstances. We hope that our overall view is a more rounded and balanced one. The interview also gives the candidate a final chance to redeem himself if the assessments are off the mark.
The second most important quality is commitment. An 18-year-old can have an interest in a public service career, but it is almost impossible to get a fix on his commitment to the public service or loyalty to Singapore. In any case, most 18-year-olds know what they don't want, rather than what they want.
The candidate's level of commitment in serving the community serves as a proxy indicator for his commitment to the public service. How committed is he to his community involvement programme? What is his reason or motive for taking part in it? Does he truly enjoy serving the less fortunate or is he doing it primarily to make his CV look good? What reasons does he give for wanting to join the public service? Do they ring true or is he saying what he thinks we want to hear? Given his character and personality, is he likely to break his bond or stay overseas?
Some candidates think that they can demonstrate how committed they are by giving 'politically correct' answers and appearing to be pro-government. They fear that being critical of, or sceptical about, government policies or decisions will make them lose points with the PSC. Unfortunately, in attempting to second- guess the panel and seeking to give the 'correct' answer, they often end up giving the impression that they have no integrity.
There is, of course, nothing wrong about agreeing with and supporting government policy, but some candidates go to the extent of suppressing their own views in order to impress the panel. It is all right to be critical, even sceptical. Being critical means you care about our nation and want to improve things and correct what you think is wrong. Being sceptical means you are not naive and do not accept everything you read or hear.
The public service is not looking for conformists and 'yes men'. It is looking for people who have a personal point of view, regardless of current policy. Even a few mavericks - people with unconventional viewpoints who are willing to challenge assumptions - will be useful because they will add vitality and diversity to the service. We are looking for people who dare to think and question because innovation within Government is possible only when there are public servants who are willing and able to debate existing rules and policies.
The PSC is of course looking also for high quality. A person of integrity and commitment will make only a limited contribution if he does not have innate ability: the ability to analyse issues, to come up with creative ideas, to perceive opportunities, to solve problems, to motivate others, and to get things done.
But ability is not measured only by academic results. While we do select from students who are at the top in terms of academic performance, our experience shows that above a certain cut-off point, academic results cannot help us differentiate between candidates. We need to look for other qualities, such as leadership skills and ability to work with others.
When assessing a candidate's leadership skills, we are not interested only in the leadership roles he held but also what kind of a leader he is. His school record will give us an idea of what leadership posts he held. The psychologists will then probe to find out what kind of a leader the candidate is. Is he a consultative and nurturing leader or is he an assertive and task-focused one? We favour no single leadership model because the public service is looking for a diversity of leaders.
Our psychometric tests measure IQ and various facets of the candidate's personality. While IQ is generally not a bad predictor of success in life, it is not the only relevant factor, which is why some people with very high IQ do not make it in life. To assess whether a candidate has the potential to make it to the top of the public service, we need to look for non-cognitive skills as well.
EQ - the ability to understand yourself and to interact well with your environment - is increasingly recognised as a vital ingredient for successful leaders and managers. Studies have shown that successful corporate CEOs do not need to have the highest IQ, or even relevant experience, to reach the top and be successful. But without EQ, they often fail.
Why recruitment is an art
NO CANDIDATE is likely to have all the desirable traits in equal abundance. All candidates will excel in some areas and not others. It is a given that all the candidates we interview excel academically. But because candidates will vary in everything else, the PSC will have to exercise judgment in making trade-offs. This is why recruitment is an art, not a science.
The PSC must distinguish between core traits such as integrity and commitment, and traits which can be acquired over time, such as communication skills. The PSC will need to be mindful of the fact that women generally perform better in interviews; they are generally more mature (at 18 years old) and confident, and they often speak better than the men.
Candidates who come from humbler backgrounds may lack the polished exterior of their more privileged colleagues. We must look beyond appearances to determine the substance.
While we may ask tough questions in the interviews, we have no intention to deliberately trip you up. The better candidates must expect harder questions. If you walk out of the interview room thinking it is a breeze, it could well mean you have failed. We need to ask difficult questions because we are less interested in ascertaining what you know than in finding out how you think and what kind of person you are.
There is no point mugging for the interview. Appearing before the PSC is not like taking an exam. You only have half an hour and a long-winded answer is not going to help. But it is always good to show you are aware of, and have an interest in, what is going on in Singapore and in the world. Hence, please read the daily paper because invariably someone will ask you what caught your attention in that day's newspaper.
It helps if you seem to know what you want in applying to join the public service. Those who are more focused and have had internships in ministries they are interested in, have a distinct advantage over those who come before the panel and say they have no clue what the public service is all about.
You only need to be yourself, relax and feel free to express your views. We are not looking for the right answer because many of our questions have no single right answer. If you do not know something, it is better to admit your ignorance than to try to fabricate an answer. Being yourself means not attempting to be what you are not. If you fake your personality, you will tie yourself up in knots and will very soon be found out.
We are looking for an interesting conversation with you. We will begin to take notice when we hear something genuine and spontaneous being said which reflects your personality.
This article was first published in the Straits Times.