The Call of Diplomacy
An effective Foreign Service starts from home. Two MFA officers share just what it means to serve from the heart and safeguard Singapore’s interests in foreign lands.
By Winifred Tan
“Being in the Foreign Service gave me a newfound appreciation for what Singapore has achieved within such a short span of time,” reflects Larry Tay, a Foreign Service Administration Specialist (FSAS) with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).
“I came to gradually realise that we are only as strong as we are united, bound together by our common ideal of wanting to defend and advance Singapore’s and Singaporeans’ interests.”
Indeed, that is precisely the MFA’s mission: to safeguard our nation’s interest through the formulation and execution of effective foreign policies, and to promote good bilateral and multilateral relations with other countries. MFA’s overseas consulates also stand ever-ready to provide consular assistance to any Singaporeans at home and abroad.
The key to its success lies in a team of dedicated and well-honed officers, a third of whom serve in MFA’s 49 overseas missions.
Larry, who has been with the Ministry for over 12 years, says, “When I first joined the Ministry, I was surprised to see that formality does not always take precedence over practicality. The atmosphere at work is often relaxed and informal but serious when called for.”
It is also a “close-knit” environment, adds fellow FSAS Lim Zhong Hui, “where help will always be offered when needed. This support has been especially important to me when adapting to new postings overseas.”
The diplomatic duties
So what exactly do Larry and Zhong Hui do in the daily course of their work?
Zhong Hui, who is on his first overseas posting as Attache (Admin & Consular) at the Singapore Embassy in Washington, explains, “Essentially, my role as Attache is to assist the Counsellor (Admin & Consular) in the smooth and efficient daily operations of the Embassy. This involves procurement, finance, local staff management and organizing major events such as National Day Receptions.
Apart from providing consular assistance to our countrymen in need, I am also responsible for the protocol arrangements, such as courtesies of port, hotel accommodation and transport, for the official visits of dignitaries and delegations from Singapore.”
Similarly, Larry faces an equally diverse and challenging role in his third overseas posting as Vice-Consul (Admin & Consular) at the Singapore Consulate in Medan, Indonesia.
Concurring that the spectrum of work is “wide and varied”, he notes, “While summarizing our job is easy, defining a typical day is not. Routine operational matters like office administration and finance aside, everything else is unpredictable. Many issues which we deal with are reactionary in nature and are therefore difficult, if not impossible, to forecast.”
With a wry grin, he adds, “A fully-scheduled day can be abandoned completely for a consular case or even a strategically-placed busted water pipe.”
To that end, Larry acknowledges the importance of good time management and organisational skills as the cornerstone of working in the Foreign Service: “Planning and proper prioritising helps us keep things under control and juggle all our responsibilities efficiently.”
Engage, excel, advance
To ensure officers are well-equipped to excel in their duties and represent Singapore on the international front, MFA puts all newly-recruited FSASs through a three-week long milestone programme, called the Administration Specialist Basic Programme. Apart from picking up useful skill sets, such as customer service etiquette and transactional analysis, officers are also offered a practical glimpse of working life in a foreign country through a field trip to an Overseas Mission.
More than the rigorous training received, it is the first-hand experience of living and working overseas that has left the deepest impression on both Larry and Zhong Hui.
Nodding thoughtfully, Zhong Hui muses, “Working in the Foreign Service has allowed me to grow as an individual in many different ways that are unlikely to happen had I chosen a different career path.
One highlight I will always remember was helping to facilitate the visit of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the United States. Seeing the Singapore flag raised over Blair House – the US President’s Guest House – brought out a sense of national pride and achievement that I had played a part, however small, in ensuring the success of the visit.”
For Larry, it is the people he met and the close friendships forged that have made his overseas postings so memorable.
“Relocating to a different country where people, culture and habits are markedly different from that at home is tough,” he acknowledges. “Ironically, it was also during those difficult times that I met some truly remarkable people whom my wife and I are now proud to call friends.
It may seem trivial to someone reading this that I am listing ‘making new friends’ as a memorable highlight but I beg to differ. I sincerely found it unforgettable when a friend drove, by herself, without any concern for her own safety, for an hour through the streets of South Africa to keep my wife company when I had to leave the city suddenly for work.
Living overseas has definitely opened my eyes to the simple and often overlooked things in life. This has helped me recognise the true value of what we have in Singapore and to cherish them more.”
All roads lead to home
At the end of the day, what keeps Larry and Zhong Hui going is, quite simply, home.
As Larry affirms, “As MFA officers, we believe that Singapore is a worthwhile cause to fight for and that our roles are invaluable in keeping Singapore safe and secure in an uncertain world.”
To graduates looking to follow in their footsteps, the duo have these candid words to share: “The work in MFA demands a high level of commitment, perseverance and some personal sacrifices. However, if you have a sense of adventure and are looking for work that challenges yet rewards you, MFA would be the right fit.”