Interview with top HR executive on Singapore Universities

Interview with HR executive

One of the main purposes for pursuing a university education is to gain decent employment.

Do you know if your choice of degree program can really help you secure a bright future? Want to know what are the hirers looking out for ? What can you do during your 3 or 4 years in college to maximize your chances of success in life? Is first class honors important ?

Find out the secrets to all the the above questions as we pick the brain of a top HR executive in Singapore, Mr Lee Jin Hwui.

Lee Jin Hwui
Jin Hwui is a HR professional with more than 15 years of experience, both as a HR Business Partner and a Human Resource Development Specialist.  He is the winner of the HR Leadership Award, Global HR Excellence Awards 2014 and Capita Award for Best HR Manager, HRM Awards 2012. Jin Hwui is also an active member of the Toastmasters movement, culminating with the District Championship for Impromptu Speech in 2011. He graduated from NTU with an honours degree in business, Human Resource Management.

 There you go!


Throughout your career as a HR person, you have hired, trained and worked with many fresh graduates. From your observation, is there a set of characteristics that is distinct of graduates from a certain school .i.e. SMU students being more vocal ?

How a person behaves, the mindset they have, their outlook in life depends very much on many factors other than just the 4 years or 3 years they spent in their alma mater. I do see graduates who defy the stereotypes associated with their alma mater. At the end of the day, a person is not resultant of the university they come from, rather as a culmination of experiences they have had throughout their life.

If you look from the HR perspective, we avoid risk of stereotyping in our selection process. We really look at the individual and assess them on the merits of their performance and of course, the credentials they have presented such as their academic scripts and non-academic achievements.

Does it mean that going to a certain school will not train you to become a certain type of person ?

If you look at the 3 local universities, I do not see their value proposition being so different. All 3 schools would want to train their people to be leaders, train them to be globally oriented, train them to be confident, to be eloquent and so on. I don’t see only a specific university doing that.

SMU used to be the only university offering double degree program but now NTU and NUS are doing that as well. NUS used to be the only university offering medicine, but now NTU has caught up. 3 universities are becoming more and more similar. What I see is the convergence of the offerings of the 3 universities. If there is any distinction, it is arising more from the individual characteristics rather than the school.

If there is any difference between the 3 schools, it would be the values. NTU is the university that came about because the local Chinese community decided to pull their resources together so that they can give their kins a shot at university education. At that point in time, those who wanted to go to university have to go to University of Singapore which is primarily English stream. So they wanted to have an alternative, which is what NTU is all about. That’s why they have this spirit of Zi Qiang Bu Xi , Li Zheng Shang You (Chinese words) which you are reminded of everytime you walk in Yunnan gardens. This is something I always remember. To me, that’s the distinct factor of NTU, its about a group of people who came about because of a strong desire to strive towards a common cause in spite of the odds stacked against them.

Do you think the original values are being passed down to the current generation of NTU students?

Yes. As an example, during my time, there weren’t any toastmasters club. 2 friends and I came together to start a NBS toastmasters club. What were the odds stacked against us ? Toastmasters wasn’t too well-known then, we had to go about selling the idea. We had to articulate the value that toastmasters provide, over and above the communications course that undergraduates have to go through. Students will ask us, why should I join toastmasters even though we have our communications course, but we were convinced of the value that toastmasters offer. For 9 months, we couldn’t get sufficient members. We went to every hostel distributing publicity materials.

Now, there are 4 toastmasters clubs in NTU having a total of more than 200 members. NTU toastmasters club was the original NBS toastmasters club that we set up. I wouldn’t say that this is some significant feat but it is really my small little example of how a group of like-minded people can overcome the odds for a greater cause.

Can I say that students shouldn’t put too much emphasis of the schools they choose ? If they want to go into business, it doesn’t matter if its NTU, SMU or NUS ?

No, it depends. If you look at how they structure their programs , there are some differences. NTU’s  Accountancy and Business degree programmes allow u to earn a direct honours within 3 years, which is something not offered by NUS and SMU. If you want to start work early, then NTU is the choice to consider.

If you are looking at global rankings, this is where NUS comes in. If you are looking at the opportunity to experience the best of campus and city life, this is something SMU can provide. Individuals have to look at other variables rather than just the course of study for them to decide where they want to go.

What would you advise students to do during university to make themselves stand out and be more competitive ?

To be more assertive without being offensive. It is an art that needs perfection through practice.

The person needs to avoid having any entitlement mentality. Reason being is that Singapore is a very globalised economy because of our size and trade agreements we have signed. The opportunities available to us are also available to others. If we choose to be protective and close our doors, MNCs can easily uproot and move away, taking our jobs with them. Singaporeans have to guard ourselves against this entitlement mentality.

We also have to spend certain amount of time to perfect our craft. We need to be clear about what we want to do. For example, in my first job, I ask myself: am I an officer working in HR department of the company or am I a HR professional working in the company? The answer to that question would lead to the various life choices that I make. Obviously my answer is the 2nd one. That led me to make calibrated career moves that add value to the companies I work for. This will go back to investing enough time to hone your craft.

Are there specific activities that students can do ?

Start volunteering your time to perfect your craft. I still volunteer my time and services. Gain as much practice time as possible, which can be manifested in the form of stage time or volunteering work.

Next, network with people and seek mentors. Ask yourself, how to make yourself likeable so that people will help you unconditionally. How can you establish the value that you can provide in the network? It is not just about what you can get out of the relationship. What can you provide to the relationship so that it becomes a sustainable cycle instead of a one-way street?

Lastly, always remain grounded. Always challenge yourself to go beyond your comfort zone. Singapore is the top choice to work at for people from developing countries. I have a lot of colleagues there who are relished at the opportunity to come to Singapore. You need to have a strong sense of adventure and venture beyond the shores of Singapore when appropriate opportunities present themselves.

Are we in a precarious situation now where competition in the job market is very stiff ? we are competing with talents from everywhere in the world ?

Singaporeans are no less talented. We must have the ability to step out of our comfort zone, in a heartbeat.  I guess it is a case whereby our government is doing a fantastic job of taking care of the people. The question is, how can we learn to take care of ourselves in another environment where things we used to take for granted are not available?

Is there something you would have done in university that u didn’t do ?

Probably spend more time studying, I spent too much time on CCA. My saturdays and sundays were all spent on toastmasters. I got a second lower class honors , had I spent more time on studies, I may have graduated with a higher class of degree.

Does it have an impact on your career ?

The starting pay will be lesser. Initially yes. Mid-career, No.

Do you recommend students to strive for first class honors?

Yes. Do their best. It is not so much about striving for paper qualifications; it is about doing the best in everything you set out to do.  Notwithstanding the fact that I state that to strive for 1st class honors, it does not mean that you use your degree as a proxy to determine one’s self worth. It is not easy but it is very important that you do not let material achievements be a benchmark for your own sense of self-importance. Taking a leaf from my favorite philosopher, Alain de button’s talk, “A kinder, gentler philosophy to success.” So you got to be very clear, when you want all these things, whether its first class honors or a Ferrari, are we really looking for the adulation that is associated with these achievements or are we just simply doing our best.

So ultimately we have to be true to ourselves, as to why we want what we want.
From a HR perspective, what do you look for when you hire fresh grads?

First thing, I would hire based on attitude. You can gauge their attitude from cues such as the initial contact through email, phone conversation, the way the CV is written. If the CV is not well structured, it is too generic and doesn’t address the specific needs of your organisation and its filled with grammatical errors, you know that there are some issues with the candidate’s attitude.

This individual has simply made a choice not to spend enough time doing this. Many a times, people try to attribute results to circumstances, but I think it arises more from choices.  For example, if a person has made some errors, the first reaction will be ”I was very busy” but you are busy because you chose to spend your time doing something else rather than the CV.

Those who impressed us would meet us at the face-to-face interview which provides the platform for us to assess their experience and expertise.

Is attitude more important than skills & experiences?

Yes. If you have the right attitude, you will be able to learn anything. If you have someone who is highly skilled and experienced but does not have the right attitude, this person may well be a liability.

What is your final piece of advice for undergraduates ?

A quote by Steve Jobs- Stay hungry, Stay foolish.

Stay hungry, never be satisfied with status quo and always strive to improve. We evolve because we improve. Look for opportunities to improve. Don’t have to wait for the next big leap, Just do simple small continuous improvements and it will accumulate over time into something significant.

Stay foolish.

It’s a huge world out there. Even within HR, there are many things that I still do not know. Do not, for a moment, settle for the idea that I think I know enough and it is now time for me to take a back seat. Always strive to learn. There are several ways to learn.  No.1, giving of knowledge- seek to share information with others, not impose on them. Second, learn through application. Knowledge is just a concept;  how we can apply each concept and optimize its benefits in a variety of situations is the real challenge.  We need to know that knowledge is only useful when you can apply it under different circumstances.

Knowing something is easy, just read a book or watch a video but applying it successfully in a sustained way is the real challenge. Anybody can know, its just recitation, application will test your understanding and your tenacity.

What other advice besides being hungry about our domain knowledge and skills ? 

Besides those clubs related to career where the focus is more on functionality, join a club that will help in your character development such as welfare service club. This will make you a more complete and balanced person. As you move up the corporate ladder, you will encounter many intelligent people and they can see through you easily. Having functional expertise itself is insufficient. Its really about going into the heart of things and being able to build relationship & trust while being authentic. Some people may have neglected it because it is not an examinable subject and its not shown on resume. However, if you want to get good references from referees, your character plays a big part. On top of that, people will call up your past employers and organisations to ask about you when you apply for jobs. Its not recorded in the resume but people give endorsements because of your character.

Is it too far fetched for a student to start thinking about all these futuristic stuff like getting references or being good in what you do in your career ?

It is always good to think ahead. It shows that you know what you want and you have a dream. You could live in reality now but it also mean that you have no dreams and just live by the day.


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