Why this police chief spent a year at Lazada

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Tan Chia Han, now the Director of Technology and Industry Policy at Digital Industry Singapore.

“What's the best way to be a good public servant?”, ponders Tan Chia Han, Director of Technology and Industry Policy in the newly set up Digital Industry Singapore (DISG).

To him, one of the ways was to embed himself in the e-commerce industry which he would later create policy on. This involved a radical career shift from commander of the Tanglin Police Division to a yearlong work attachment at e-commerce giant Lazada.

“We do need to understand the space in terms of the strategy, the challenges, where it's moving, and how do we as government need to respond,” Tan tells GovInsider. “I thought that if I could do a one-year work attachment in a company to get exposure in these areas, this will be a lot more value add to the public service.”

The value of ecommerce

A work attachment to the private sector is not a common career option for civil servants. Rather than pursue the conventional route of a master’s degree in public administration, Tan created a new path. “The Public Service Division engaged me about my next move. There was a process of trying to match opportunity with my skill sets and inclinations.”

Lazada is a strong contender in the e-commerce industry: a regional player, majority owned by Alibaba Group - which offered an opportunity to work with counterparts in China, he continues. “This move offers you to be in a very different space, where you can learn very different things. When you bring it back, it will equip you with a different perspective, different skills to the team,” he says.

The digital economy in Southeast Asia is booming - according to projections, it could be worth as much as $240 billion by 2025. In Singapore, small and medium-sized enterprises make up the bulk of the economy, contributing to 65 percent of employment. The government has in recent years moved to help local businesses make full use of digital technologies and opportunities.

Lessons from Lazada

Tan shares several key takeaways from his time at Lazada. The most significant one is customer-centricity: ecommerce companies place immense importance on the customer experience to stay afloat in a highly competitive industry.

Lazada’s parent company Alibaba has local partners whose sole purpose is to help sellers set up an online business. “Maybe you have a shop but you don’t know how to go online. You have no bandwidth for customer relations, delivery, inventory, complaints,” Tan explains. These partners bring local expertise, hire people, deliver products, make the inventory and build flagship stores for these companies. This ultimately enhances customer experience all around.

Tan also observed the way that Lazada rewards performance, championing individuals for their skills, and not necessarily their status or job title. “It really is regardless of age. So you can see very young people in charge of big responsibility, a big team,” he points out.

In Lazada, decision-making is a team effort. Leaders will gather regularly to agree on project agendas and execution, moving more quickly than how public service typically does it, Tan says. “For a smaller, tighter and flatter organisation they do it once a week, and that helps.”

The insider view

This experience was certainly a far cry from investigating crimes, or working with the US Secret Service during the Trump-Kim summit. “I was exposed to almost all facets of the work. Legal, risk management, finance considerations, operational considerations, cultural considerations,” Tan explains. “How Lazada and Alibaba work, the challenges that they face, and underlying thinking behind their strategies.”

This experience has informed his new role at the newly set up Digital Industry Singapore, from where he advises other government agencies on how policies might impact the ecommerce industry. “The whole ecosystem includes payments, logistics, trade, connectivity,” Tan points out.

The unit was set up to “get a sense of how the digital industry is moving, in which direction, what are the challenges”. “Collectively, we look at driving the growth of the digital industry in Singapore,” says Tan. The unit is a collaboration between the Infocomm Media Development Authority, the Economic Development Board and Enterprise Singapore.

Tan’s decision to move from cop to commerce was a bold and uncommon move, but the payoff is clear. Something to keep in mind for your next meeting with HR.