International Women’s Day Edition: The ’90s—Ms. Tan Li San

This is 1 of the 11 interview features as part of our International Women’s Day Special Edition.

By Matthew Ethan Ramli (21S03F)
Photo courtesy of The Business Times

In a one-room HDB flat was a mother fighting to care for her bed-ridden teenage son. He was born with an illness that robbed him of his mobility, but without the means to purchase mobility devices, his mother was his only support in conducting the simplest of tasks. To relieve some of the financial burden, Voluntary Welfare Organisations (now known as Social Service Agencies, or SSAs) supplied the necessary treatments and care. This visit, a part of the weekly Interact Club sessions, was what sparked Ms. Tan Li San’s urge to do her utmost in helping the underprivileged, a personal responsibility that she carries with her till today.

As the CEO of the National Council of Social Services (NCSS), Ms. Tan oversees 480 member organisations that work to improve the daily lives of those in need. Under her leadership, the NCSS organises the planning and execution of social service programmes, such that resources can be allocated in the way that most effectively addresses the needs of the vulnerable.

The NCSS is the main coordinating body of SSAs in Singapore, functioning under the Ministry of Social and Family Development. SSAs can tap on the funds managed by NCSS’ fund-raising arm ComChest, which disbursed $52 million just last year. The Social Service Institute, meanwhile, upgrades social workers’ skills to better help the beneficiaries.

Career choices

The journey towards working in the social services sector, however, meandered more than you might have thought. Physics and Mathematics were the two subjects that she enjoyed most in RJC, and thus a degree in electrical engineering seemed like the natural choice.

Yet, during her time at Cornell, the exposure to diverse fields in the realm of current affairs and government policy in college piqued her curiosity. Readings for classes were no longer a chore but something to look forward to instead. After completing her Bachelors in engineering, Ms. Tan continued on to pursue a Masters of Science in management from Stanford University. What excited her more was that in both colleges, the professors shared many “inside stories” about their work in senior positions of the US government, including White House advisors and the then Defense Secretary.

On the big shift between the two disparate fields, she shares the opinion that “there are more similarities between Engineering and Policy Making than one might think: both require analytical and logical thought processes, which is something that I continue to enjoy.”

After graduating, Ms. Tan held a variety of posts in the civil service. She started at the Ministry of Manpower, then went on to the Infocomm Development Authority (now the Infocomm-Media Development Authority), the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (now the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment), before working at the Ministry of Finance and the Civil Service College. Her most recent position was the Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Communications and Information, one she held right up to January 2020.

These diverse opportunities have seen Ms. Tan work on issues ranging from climate change to the economic regulation of the telecommunications and media sectors. Rotating between the ministries have also equipped her with a holistic skillset, including but not limited to industry development and corporate functions like human resources and finance.

It suffices to say that the task of planning for Singapore’s future is not an easy one. But the process of instrumenting the development of major policies from birth to fruition has yielded great satisfaction for Ms. Tan, especially when being inspired by “people who are committed to making Singapore a better place, and to making lives better for Singaporeans”.

Innovation in the social services

Even while working in other sectors, Ms. Tan’s drive to help the vulnerable did not fade. She took on memberships in the boards of Beyond Social Services and the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled in Singapore (MINDS), the latter championing a cause she had been keenly passionate in since her junior college days.

Serving as the CEO of NCSS since early last year, she has brought over the forward-thinking attitude inculcated in her career experiences to the social services to keep aid provision sailing on the tides of change. “The issues have evolved as our society becomes more affluent”, she explains, drawing comparisons between the rife poverty and malnutrition in the past, and the higher incidence of mental health conditions nowadays.

The government’s philosophy towards social service is also changing. Where previous means-testing focused on “need”, the outlook has evolved to the idea of “empowerment”. Consequently, aid is meted out not only to fulfil survival needs, but also to enable people to fruitfully utilise their strengths to improve their lives and society as a whole. A clear example would be people with mental health conditions—after recovering through treatment, they can themselves become pillars of inspiration and support to others in distress. In line with this new direction, the design of services has taken on a collaborative nature, where beneficiaries are directly involved in the process.

“One silver lining surrounding the cloud of COVID-19 is that it has really nudged agencies to adopt digital technology to improve their productivity and connect better with their users.” Under the vision of Social Service Agency 3.0, Ms. Tan is driving SSAs to expand their research capabilities using data. This is such that organisations can extend their planning horizon to create long-term solutions for future social needs.

How her time in Raffles changed her

Ms. Tan attributes the birth of her spirit of continuous learning to her days in Raffles, holding the institution close to her heart. She cites the freedom of exploring different interests, from service learning to even a university attachment at a nuclear physics laboratory, to be a defining feature of her pre-tertiary education. Lecturer Mr. Jamie Reeves, whom she remembers peppering his classes with humorous football references, has left an especially lasting impression.

Her school days are something most Rafflesians past and present can relate to. “I loved my days in Raffles, and have extremely fond memories of playing carrom in the school cafeteria and cheering my lungs out at inter-school sports events, where you really feel the Rafflesian spirit.”

To all Rafflesians, she offers a few guiding principles to live by. “Keep an open mind, be open to new possibilities instead of being too fixated on a certain pathway or ‘ideal job’. Sometimes, it is in the most unexpected places and doing what might seem like ‘unglamourous’ things that you learn and grow.” Indeed, her career experiences spanning across fields are a testament to relentless learning, and the gifts of serendipity.

On leadership and youthful idealism, Ms. Tan extends some practical advice. “Sometimes, your ideas may not be accepted at that point in time for a variety of reasons. If you stand by what you believe, do your homework and follow through diligently, you can achieve a lot within your sphere of influence, and over time, grow that influence and bring others on board.”

The spirit of service indeed has driven Ms. Tan in her life choices. From its nascency in our Interact Club to its manifestation in her current position, it has helped her to “be the change [she] wants to see”. As a final encouragement, she rallies us to always stay true to ourselves and act on our convictions and dreams.

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