A s a country limited by size and natural resources, Singapore needs to establish a network of friends and allies. This is vital to ensure our place in the world.
Playing a large part in expanding our economic, political, and strategic space is the MFA. It commits itself to being a constructive member of the international community by sharing Singapore’s development experience with other countries. MFA also provides efficient consular assistance to Singaporeans abroad, in times of need.
These aspects of being Singapore’s voice on the world stage appealed to Lau Yee Ler when he considered the Singapore Government (Foreign Service) Scholarship. His scholarship gave him an opportunity to pursue an education overseas – first, at Cambridge University in the UK and then at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Switzerland.
Expanding his Horizons
At Cambridge, Yee Ler read History, which allowed him to develop a deeper understanding of human nature. “It’s quite a paradox – the more you think you know about human beings, the less you actually do. Things become less clear-cut when you delve deeper into the intricacies of human behaviour. Human relations are complex, but not more so than those between countries,” Yee Ler tells us. This understanding has helped him engage in his daily tasks with a more discerning eye.
While his undergraduate journey in the UK was challenging, Yee Ler felt he was still very much within his comfort zone. He wanted to experience living and studying in a country where English was not the native language. This desire to expand his horizons prompted him to pursue his Master’s degree at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, a French-speaking city in Switzerland. He shares, “When someone speaks in a different language, he or she thinks and acts differently too. My time in Geneva was unique. For most of my classmates, English was not their mother tongue. How they expressed themselves and thought about issues were vastly different from the people I met in the UK.”
During his time in Geneva, Yee Ler gained new perspectives from his interaction with friends. He elaborates, “A lot of them were from developing countries in Africa and Latin America, and they took a keen interest in development issues. Everyone brought different ideals to the table, and ideas about how to improve the livelihoods of their people back home. In fact, a few of my classmates have gone on to jobs in international organisations such as the UN, and here I am at the MFA. It is interesting to see how all of us went through the same course, and are doing what we think is contributing to a better world in different ways and in different capacities.”
Lau Yee Ler
Singapore Government Scholar (Foreign Service)
Southeast Asia II Directorate
Delving into Foreign Affairs
His experiences in two universities, as well as his MFA internships in Brussels and Abu Dhabi during his studies, have allowed Yee Ler to be more attuned to how countries relate to each other. This has helped put him in good stead when he started work at MFA.
As a Country Officer in the Southeast Asia II Directorate, Yee Ler handles Singapore’s bilateral relations with and follows domestic developments in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. A mainstay of our relations with these countries is technical cooperation, whether it is in arranging study visits or training courses for foreign government officials. He also assists in the exchange of visits between our leaders and their counterparts from these countries.
There are diverse challenges faced by a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). He tells us, “We deal with foreigners and foreign countries, so there are high standards to meet in our line of work. We have to strive for perfection. Expectations are high because foreigners do not assess your work as an individual, but the work produced by Singapore. You represent our country.”
To ease their transition into the workplace, new FSOs are assigned a mentor when they first join MFA. Yee Ler explains, “Our mentors are the more senior officers in the Ministry, and are usually from outside one’s own Directorate. We are able to approach them on work-related issues or to air our concerns freely. The MFA culture is one that is supportive and constructive. This makes it conducive for learning.”
He also shares that all FSOs are put through a Foreign Service Basic Programme, which typically lasts five to six weeks. Yee Ler explains, “The highlights of the Programme are the sessions conducted by the Directors-General and the senior Ambassadors. They offer us an insight into MFA’s broad spectrum of work and Singapore’s foreign policy interests. To cap off the Programme, we go on a field trip to one of our Missions abroad. My field trip was to Brunei and I got to meet many young Bruneian diplomats and civil servants. It was an opportunity for us to put our communication skills to use, and build good relations for the future.”
Rounding up the interview, Yee Ler shares, “MFA officers need to be open-minded. This goes hand-in-hand with the ability to understand others, which is critical when dealing with people from different backgrounds. Keeping your mind open to the possibilities of how different people react and behave is crucial. Not everyone thinks the way you do, nor do countries conduct their affairs in the way Singapore does. Our job as FSOs is therefore to facilitate interactions with countries that operate very differently from us, and to achieve a positive outcome.”