Julie Ho Chow Lai served as a civil servant for close to 44 years. From manually sorting papers behind a desk, to working behind the bright display of her computer, Julie was there to witness the many changes in the way civil servants worked, and how various policies introduced by the Government affected her scope of work.
In this day and age when the answer to virtually any question is a Google search away, it’s hard to imagine that when Julie Ho, now 61, was job-hunting in the early 1970s, the main source of information she had to rely on was the newspaper.
“It was very difficult to find jobs back then, because Singapore was still developing and trying to find its place in the world,” she explained. “The only way to look for a job was through the newspaper. So I’d look at the newspaper, but sometimes there was no telephone number [accompanying the advertisement]. I had to bring the newspaper along and search for the address from the ad.”
Luckily, for Julie, she didn’t have to spend long traipsing around Singapore in search of work. Although she had initially planned to get work in a factory, she decided to also apply to the civil service – the first step in what turned out to a dedicated career in the public service, spanning over 40 years.
In 1973, when she was 17 and fresh out of secondary school, Julie landed her first official job as a General Clerical Assistant with the Marine Department of Singapore, now known as the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).
Julie’s letter of appointment from her first job at the Marine Department of Singapore in 1973. Her basic monthly salary was only $175, but “after adding this and that, I took home about $500.” Photo courtesy of Julie Ho Chow Lai
Julie spent four happy years at the Marine Department, where her job sometimes took her out from behind her desk and onto ships docked at the port. “I loved working in the Marine Department. Not only did we work in the office, we sometimes also went onboard ships to conduct signings of seamen articles, because the seamen couldn’t leave to go onshore. So we had to go out [of the office], onto the ships.”
She subsequently transferred to the Ministry of Labour, now known as the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), in April 1977.
“I asked for a transfer because I heard that they [the Marine Department] were going to become the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore. I was naïve lah, and I thought I was going to lose my job, so I asked for a transfer.” Her move to the MOM would prove to be her last; Julie continues to work there till this very day.
“When I signed the contract with them, I thought I signed a “卖身契” (“life contract”). That’s why I’ve worked so faithfully, until today,” said Julie with a laugh.
Over her many years at the MOM, Julie assisted with the implementation of different labour policies – and, in the process, got a first-hand look at the real-life effects these policies had on the public.
For example, Julie worked at what was known as the “Marriage Department” in the 1970s, around the time of the introduction of the ‘Stop At Two’ policy and other population control measures. While she was there, the Marriage Restriction Policy – which still exists today – was rolled out; it decreed that current and former Work Permit holders who wished to marry a Singapore citizen or Permanent Resident (PR) had to apply for approval from the MOM before marrying.
At that time, Julie worked for the department tasked with enforcing the policy.
“I was one of the interviewers. We saw many cases of transnational marriages where couples had had children out of wedlock, or were already cohabiting, without obtaining approval. However, [as] they wanted to legalise their marriage to obtain formal recognition that their child was born in Singapore, they would come forward,” explained Julie.
“We would counsel these couples, [letting them know that] if they were willing to stop at two [children], we would approve their marriage, and let them legalise their relationship in Singapore. It was an interesting time, now that I think about it,” she mused.
Julie’s original posting memo from her transfer to MOM, dated April 1977. Photo courtesy of Julie Ho Chow Lai
The power of her decisions to change people’s lives – for better or worse – was not lost on Julie. One particular applicant, a Malaysian man whose case she had handled, still stands out after all these years.
“He was the law-abiding type. He signed the Stop At Two agreement, and got his marriage legalised. I remembered him so well because he was so anxious about getting our approval.”
“One day, some time after his case had been settled, I happened to meet him, so I asked him how his children were doing just out of curiosity,” she continued. “He grew concerned and went home and asked his wife, “Have you been taking good care of our children?” Then he came back to tell me how his children were, because he thought I was investigating him!”
After leaving the Marriage Department, Julie was transferred to various departments within the MOM. She went on to the Issue and Renewal section, tasked with distributing physical identity cards to immigrants, and then to a telephone enquiries team which operated like a call centre. Having worked across all these different departments kept things interesting, and as a result, Julie never felt like she needed to switch careers. “I felt like I “changed” jobs a lot because of all my transfers,” she said.
Julie is currently in the customer responsiveness department, where she handles enquiries from both employees, especially migrant workers, and employers. “I get more foreign workers with problems coming in, with issues like injuries and salary claims. Employers who don’t understand the information on our website or need further assistance also come forward to seek help.”
Technological advancement over the last few decades also made Julie’s work much easier. “In the past, we only worked manually. Everything was based on paperwork and filing, and there were a lot of things you had to rely on [your] memory,” said Julie. “Now, with computerisation, everyone has their own laptops and PCs, so work is easier and less tedious.”
As the years passed, Julie started a family of her own after getting married in 1981. In 1987, after her third pregnancy, she applied for two years’ unpaid leave to take care of her newborn twins and two older children. Upon returning to work, she threw herself into her job, but juggling motherhood with full-time work was sometimes tough, and made more difficult by restrictive employment policies with regard to childcare.
“At that time, we didn’t really have things like childcare leave. Childcare leave then was called “child sick leave” – if you took child sick leave, you would have to produce your child’s MC (medical certificate). I tried not to take childcare leave then because applying for one meant that your child was sick.”
Ironically, as her family grew, Julie found herself penalised by the Stop At Two policy that had once been her job to reinforce. “Maternity leave back then was reserved for the first two offspring, so sometimes, I had to use my own leave to care for my children when they needed me. Looking back, it was a bit unfair to us,” she sighed.
Julie (second from the right) and her colleagues from the MOM, with a poster from the “Stop at Two” campaign in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Julie Ho Chow Lai
Today, Julie is the proud mother of five children, all of whom are university graduates, grown up and working themselves. As she looked back on her long career, and prepares to retire within the next year or so, she allowed herself a moment of pride in looking at how far she had come.
“I came from a Chinese-medium school, and my English was not very good when I started working,” she admitted. “But I’ve earned the respect of my colleagues because I’ve been through quite a fair bit, and it’s as though I have all the information at the back of my hand. Like I’m a website!” she said, with a laugh.
“I’ve received a lot of compliments from members of the public over the years. I feel like I need to help these people wholeheartedly and give them good guidance on what they need to do”, she went on. “They come to us when they have problems, and it’s my job to hear them out and see how I can help them solve those problems. When I am able to give them an answer or present their options, I feel good, and they feel better too.”
Julie’s story is emblematic of what one can achieve through hard, honest work. Even if it wasn’t always glamorous, the job allowed her to build a life she could be proud of – rewarding in its simplicity, and at the same time, remarkable for the depth and sincerity of her loyal service.
“Being a civil servant for so long – well, although the work wasn’t always exciting, it was stable, and it provided me with a regular income. Helping people to adhere to government policies….it wasn’t a bad thing,” she reflected.
“I’m honoured to have been a civil servant for such a long time, and have raised all five of my children along the way. I’m proud of what I have achieved in my life.”
 The “Stop At Two” policy was a cornerstone of population control measures implemented in the 1970s. Couples were disincentivised from having more than two children through a range of measures, such as de-prioritising large families when it came to applying for public housing, and limiting income tax credits to the couple’s first two children.
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign