23 May 2017
Walking the Same Ground

For Mr Ravindran Nair of the National Environment Agency (NEA), it's all about meeting his team members on equal terms and helping them achieve their best.

When Mr Ravindran started work as an Assistant Public Health Inspector in 1979, he was simply following in the footsteps of his late father, who’d served as a civilian staff with British administrators in pre-Independence Singapore, and his three elder siblings, who’d found their purpose in the Public Service. He remembers that decision well.

I was offered a position with the Ministry of the Environment in October 1978, three months before my National Service was completed, and I joined in January 1979. I never looked back after that, and as of January this year, I’ve completed 38 years as a public officer.

As a fledgling Assistant Public Health Inspector, Mr Ravindran was tasked to handle a range of public health issues. As he explains, there were challenges aplenty.

My job involved dealing with “dirty” issues like keeping public areas clean, getting rid of mosquitoes and rats, ensuring waste was collected promptly every day, and handling food hygiene matters. Back then, we’d also conduct raids on illegal kitchens, and it was shocking to see how some of the food was prepared.

People also had a negative view of what we did, especially when it came to enforcement. We had to constantly remind ourselves that we were doing an important job – ensuring that we could all enjoy a clean Singapore.

So we worked to win the trust of the public. I believe that the seeds for today’s NEA were planted by the dedication and hard work of that generation of officers.

In 1990, Mr Ravindran was promoted to Public Health Inspector, and then to Environmental Health Officer in 1996 and Senior Environmental Health Officer in 2001. As his responsibilities grew, so did the challenges. One of the most difficult arose in 2003 – SARS. Once again, Mr Ravindran and his fellow officers were in the thick of the action.

In operational work, you have to tackle things straight on; be daring. You can’t shy away from problems or run away from your responsibilities. You have to make bold decisions when the situation warrants it.

During the SARS outbreak, we were tasked with cleaning up Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. This was a place that most people would not have wanted to go into. But we knew our duty, and we went in and cleaned up the place within a week. 

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In 2005, Mr Ravindran was promoted to Senior Manager, overseeing public health in the Central region. His team worked to tackle dengue outbreaks and manage the cleanliness of public areas after large-scale events. He was posted to the newly formed Department of Public Cleanliness (DPC) in 2012 as Head (Performance & Management), and was appointed Deputy Director in 2016.

Overseeing a 330-strong staff at DPC, Mr Ravindran championed an integrated approach to resolving public feedback on cleanliness and helped establish the team tasked with managing outsourced cleaning contractors and in-house cleaning staff. He maintains a keen interest in ground issues, and in sharing his experiences with younger officers.

I’ve always believed in going down to the ground to see how we can do things better; I’m not the type to sit in the office all day. If my officers are facing problems, I make it a point to meet them and assess the situation for myself. After all, I’ve walked the same ground that they’re walking now. I’ve mentored a lot of officers who are in supervisory positions today, and I take pride in having done so.

Asked whether not having a degree affected his career, Mr Ravindran had this to share:

The fact that I’ve been promoted five times from a ground officer to my current Deputy Director position, despite not having a degree – that’s the best argument against the notion that having a degree determines your success.

I believe that there are many other officers in the Public Service who’ve performed well and progressed in their careers. In the end, it’s about having the best person do a job.

My advice to young people starting out today is to stick to these basic principles – hard work, commitment, perseverance, boldness, fairness and impartiality in all your dealings. In today’s context, another key strength is adaptability.

Through hard work and perseverance, each of us can show our worth, regardless of our educational background. 

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