Even at an early age, Mr Ethan Yee knew that a career in the public service was for him.
Said the 28-year-old, who was awarded the Singapore Government Scholarship (Open) by the Public Service Commission (PSC) in 2009: “It was an opportunity to work on issues that had great impact, and would tangibly affect the lives of others.”
In 2011, the Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College alumnus arrived at Columbia University to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Psychology. After graduating in 2014, he continued his education at Columbia, receiving his Master of Arts in Statistics the year after.
A ROUNDED EDUCATION
Mr Yee first became interested in economics in junior college, as he was fascinated by how it explained the world and human behaviour; he subsequently chose it as a major in university. He also had the opportunity to study psychology during his first-year multidisciplinary curriculum offered by the United States education system. Through his own reading, Mr Yee learnt about the field of behavioural economics, which combines principles from both fields.
He explained its appeal: “Traditional economics assumes that all humans act rationally, but this is not always the case; behavioural economics tries to use psychology to explain, reconcile and quantify this. I thought that studying both economics and psychology would give me a good grounding in behavioural economics.”
Mr Yee decided to major in statistics for his master’s degree, knowing that it would provide the quantitative skills he needed to have a more complete understanding of behavioural economics.
“Behavioural economics allows me to understand how policies can be designed to help citizens make better choices for themselves,” he said. “Studying statistics also allowed me to pick up data analytics and data visualisation skills. These skills are useful for many careers, including policymaking. I can better understand how data should be interpreted and viewed in order to make the best decision.”
HELPING SINGAPOREANS LIVE BETTER
Mr Yee is currently a senior manager in the Policy and Governance Directorate of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office. He works with GovTech on policies that either improve Singapore’s digital infrastructure or benefit citizens.
“For example, we are moving some of the Government’s data and systems to the cloud and building a common platform known as a software stack. This will allow Government agencies to build applications and digital services faster, cheaper and better,” he explained.
“It is not always easy to see how our work in Smart Nation benefits citizens tangibly, because a lot of the benefits are indirect. However, when I can demonstrate the value of our work to citizens, it is immensely rewarding.”
Mr Yee cited the example of a roadshow where he and his team sought feedback from citizens on new initiatives, such as the wireless personal alert buttons for the elderly to call others in an emergency. He and his teammates managed to overcome the initial scepticism of the passers-by, who eventually provided helpful suggestions to improve the product.
Said Mr Yee: “The work that we do is ultimately for the benefit of the citizens, so it was very rewarding to be able to involve them. It was also a good reminder that as policymakers, we do not always know best.”
AUTOMATING EVERYDAY LIFE
“I like to think of Smart Nation as a tech start-up offering new services. If you ask someone whether they would use a new service, they might not think so, but once they have tried it, they won’t be able to do without it,” said Mr Yee. “Smart Nation affects every Singaporean in some way. It is about automating or digitalising mundane or background tasks so that we can live better. The world is going digital. As a nation, we need to reinvent ourselves if we want to remain relevant.”
That is why he believes that while not everyone needs to specialise in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) field, a certain degree of STEM literacy is useful.
“As the world becomes increasingly digitalised, the amount of data generated increases exponentially. Fields like data analytics and statistics are therefore increasingly important in the workplace. Not everyone needs to be an engineer or a developer, but the analytical approach to problem-solving in most STEM fields is a good skill to have not just in the workplace, but also in life,” he said.
For young people who are interested in following in his footsteps, he recommends making the effort to learn more about public sector careers.
Said Mr Yee: “If you believe in serving Singapore and serving Singaporeans, a PSC Scholarship will not only allow you to pursue a meaningful career but also provide opportunities for development, so you can grow as a person and as a policymaker.”
Visit psc.gov.sg/Scholarships/psc-scholarships for more details on PSC Scholarships.