Serving Singapore: My Journey

By Karen Yap


Singapore’s “miraculous” transformation from a Third world to First world nation is an oft-repeated aphorism, often accompanied by a paen to Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. While his contributions to the nation cannot be overstated, the tireless efforts of policymakers and public servants who served alongside Mr Lee deserve recognition too. Veluthevar Kanaga Rajan, or V K Rajan, is one such pioneer. His passion for serving the nation is clearly evident, not only in his many accomplishments in public service, but in the vivid and detailed recollections captured in his memoir Serving Singapore: My Journey.

In many ways, Rajan’s life story mirrors that of Singapore’s journey. Born to provision shop owners in rural Singapore, Rajan and his family lived in humble circumstances, without electricity, running water, and modern sanitation. Undeterred, Rajan excelled in his studies, eventually working in the Executive Service after obtaining his A-Level certificate. He studied law part-time in the early years of his career, earning a law degree and being admitted to the English Bar. Rajan rose through the ranks of the civil service, taking on such appointments as Private Secretary to the President, Chief of Protocol, and as Singapore’s High Commissioner to New Zealand and Ambassador to Egypt. Over 42 years of dedicated service to Singapore, Rajan bore witness not only to the massive changes and events in Singapore’s early years of independence, but was privy to the closed-door discussions surrounding these events.

It is with this insider’s view that Rajan describes his journey, providing a detailed recounting not only of his time in the civil service, but his own childhood as well, painting a vivid picture of Singapore’s history from the inter-war period, right through to the present day. We learn of how early policies were developed, as he shares his view of the deliberations behind the policies. These recollections are liberally peppered with anecdotes, often endearing and amusing, that provide fresh insight into the character of many of these pivotal characters in Singapore’s history. For example, Rajan illustrated Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s meticulousness and attention to detail by recounting how Mr Lee tested a swivel chair intended for Arnold Smith, then-Secretary General of the Commonwealth, who was a rather large person. It must have been quite a sight to behold – the formidable Prime Minister earnestly swivelling around in an office chair!

Another fascinating anecdote comes from Rajan’s experience in organising the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 1971. Singapore was still developing as a young nation, and did not possess a fleet of luxury cars to transport the visiting heads of government, nor were there car rental companies with the means and resources to provide such a fleet. In a foreshadowing of the type of public-private partnership that came to characterise Singapore’s development, the Government made arrangements with the local manufacturer and agent for Mercedes Benz cars to borrow newly-assembled cars for the duration of the summit.

One of the overarching themes of Rajan’s book is his emphasis on the importance of public service and the values that underpin it. He writes passionately about the need for civil servants to serve the public with integrity, commitment, and a sense of purpose. He also offers practical advice on how to balance the demands of political leadership with the needs of the public and manage a large and diverse workforce.

Rajan’s extensive recounting of Singapore’s history and development also provides valuable insights into the country’s economic policies, education system, and social programs, and explains how these policies were shaped by Singapore’s unique circumstances and challenges.

This book will appeal to a wide range of readers, including those interested in the history and development of Singapore, public service, and leadership. It would be particularly useful for those who are considering a career in the civil service, as it provides a realistic and insightful perspective on the challenges and rewards of working in government.

Overall, Serving Singapore is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding how a small, resource-poor island nation transformed itself into a thriving modern city-state. It is a testament to the power of visionary leadership, strategic thinking, and a commitment to public service.

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