Hong Kong’s handover back to China in 1997 was a landmark event in this region’s political history.

Ms Catherine Wong, an officer with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), was one of the lucky people at the handover ceremony, witnessing a significant moment in history. She was also present at Macau’s handover ceremony to China two years later.

“I was glad that I could be present to experience these two historically significant events,” says Ms Wong, who attended both events in her then capacity as the Consul of the Singapore Consulate-General in Hong Kong.

Memorable time

Some 14 years after she joined MFA as a fresh graduate, Ms Wong, 37, still enjoys an enriching and varied career that takes her to places like Washington DC in the United States, where she had a stint as Counsellor (Political) at the Singapore Embassy in Washington.

She also had memorable experiences as a Singapore delegate to the United Nations both during the UN General Assembly in 1999 as well as during Singapore’s term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2002.

Ms Wong is now a Deputy Director, China, with the ministry’s Northeast Asia Directorate. She oversees eight desk officers, covering not just China, but also Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

Her team monitors developments in this region. They also handle all aspects of bilateral relations with these different regions. “We also provide policy inputs to other ministries or agencies on the conduct of their relations with China,” says Ms Wong.

For her, a key measure of how well she and her team are doing is the “deft handling of all major outstanding bilateral issues so that bilateral relations between Singapore and China and other regions remain good”.

Ms Wong sees her work as critical. “China’s rise is inexorable and it will be the next major power not just in Asia, but also globally. As a small country, Singapore must engage all the major powers, including China,” she says.

Not just work

Ms Wong’s career with MFA, which includes a one-and-a-half year stint as Special Assistant to Foreign Minister George Yeo, has not been all work.

Between 2002 and 2003, she studied at Columbia University in the United States for her master’s degree in political science, adding to her degree in mass communications from the National University of Singapore.

She says her studies in the US gave her a different perspective and was a good complement to her undergraduate studies.

“Rather than just learning the ‘theory’ as I did when I was an undergraduate, my work experience in MFA enabled me to inject a practical dimension into the discussions in class at Columbia from the perspective of a practitioner of foreign policy,” she says.

“Particular emphasis was placed on class participation. Students were encouraged to speak up and articulate their views, argue and debate in class. Independent and original thought was encouraged.”

Coping with pressure

Being a successful MFA officer is more than just book smarts and independent thinking, she says.

The ministry can be a high-pressure work environment, she adds. Not only do the officers have to deal with cross-border matters, these issues are also often time-sensitive.

MFA officers need to be constantly aware of things happening around them, from the broadest international trends to the smallest details.

They also need to be able to think on their feet and make sound decisions quickly, she says.

“This is a key challenge of working in MFA — officers need to learn to achieve a good work-life balance and cope with the constant work pressure,” says Ms Wong.

She also wants to dispel the perception that MFA officers lead a glamorous life, jetting around the world, attending parties, functions and rubbing shoulders with other diplomats.

“What others don’t always see are the hard work and the long hours of toil that go into executing successful incoming or outgoing VIP visits, or negotiations at a multilateral conference,” she says.

“That said, the job of a foreign service officer certainly offers very wide and varied exposure. I dare say that very few other professions can offer something similar.”