If you like pondering the complexities of the relationship between the world’s major powers, or reflecting deeply on the geopolitical consequences of the most recent international controversy, or even reading thick and tedious books detailing the art of diplomacy, then please do NOT apply for an internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because you won’t have the time to do any of that.
I kid, but my month spent in MFA did shed light on some truths about a career in foreign affairs. For one, it’s a 24/7 job. Nobody has control over when an earthquake may occur, or when a government is overthrown, and therefore the Ministry is one that maintains a constant vigil, ready to react to the worst possible scenario at the worst possible time. Normal office hours aren’t something you should expect when working in the foreign service. Of course, as an intern, I wasn’t held to the same rigorous schedule as my full-time colleagues. I worked 0830 to 1800, with lunch from 1200 to 1300 every day.
The Internship Programme
The interns (there were about 8 of us) were split up into many different directorates. I was allocated to the ASEAN directorate, and fortunately, was put together with three other interns. Within the directorate, I was placed under the ASEAN Chairmanship Task Force (ACTF), a small branch set up just to prepare for Singapore’s incoming chairmanship year. Needless to say, the ACTF was overloaded with work. My mentor, Jonathan, eased me into the job and did his best to ensure I was keeping up. I was mainly issued logistical tasks that included compiling a list of restaurants that were suitable to host the foreign delegations when they ultimately came for the various summits. In addition, I had to make sure the menus offered by the restaurants had halal options, and at the end sum up the total amount each dinner would cost to ensure that the budget was adhered to. Another task I had to do was to comb through the areas of Bishan to Ang Mo Kio and manually assign each traffic light a banner that advertised for the major launch event held at Bishan Park. The banners had to run in a specific order that showcased each of the ten ASEAN countries alphabetically, so it took no small amount of effort and time before the final layout was approved by the ACTF head.
Sounds boring, I know. The reality of being an intern is that the work you receive will more often than not be mind-numbing, dull and feel like a waste of your time. But don’t be mistaken- you are not here for the work. Your main objective as an intern should be to learn as much as possible about the organisation you’re working for. You will not learn much completing mundane task after mundane task. Instead, seize the chance to ask, ask and ask some more. Take every lunch as an opportunity to socialise with your colleagues. Ask about the hours, ask about their worst and best experiences, ask (softly) about the bosses. By the end of the month, you should have a fair idea of the working culture of the Ministry and the highs and lows associated with the job. You should then have a rough idea if working in the foreign service is something you may want to do in the future.
The Human Resources (HR) department was kind enough to organise several dialogue sessions with a few high-ranking officials. I was fortunate to have a session with Ambassador-at-Large Professor Tommy Koh, who is as impressive in person as he is on paper. Personally, I feel that these small sessions were the greatest benefit of the entire internship programme, because it gives you a chance to have a face-to-face conversation with the people who represent the face of our foreign service. These are the men and women who have been there, and done that. My advice would be to note down anything interesting because it may come in handy in the future, whether it be as you pursue International Relations at University, or when you have to write an article not dissimilar to this as a favour to a good friend who happened to be on the Year to Year exco.
The Application Process
Enough about my experiences. I’m sure the reason you’re reading this article is to find out how you can score the internship in the first place, so I’ll cut to the chase.
There were two main components of the application. The first part is simple enough: You just fill out this absurdly long excel sheet detailing your CCAs, grades, achievements etc. Don’t be afraid if you don’t have the typical debate/MUN accolades. They’re nice to have but definitely not necessary. As long as your grades are acceptable and you’re active in your CCAs there should be no problem getting past this stage.
The second part is more challenging. You will be called down to the Ministry for a 3-4 hour process that comprises two tests. The first is a paper test which will first test you on your vocabulary, spelling and grammar through the editing of a resolution, then on your logical reasoning and reading ability through a comprehension passage. You will not need to prepare for this paper test. The second is a group interview held round robin style, where you will be required to give your opinion on recent international events. My best advice would be to not be intimidated by the vocal minority that would definitely try to dominate the discussion. Instead, take your time to consolidate your thoughts on the particular issue at hand, and present them clearly and confidently. I find that interviewers tend to be more receptive to ideas that are well thought out. You don’t have to be loud to be impressive, and you don’t have to be first to leave an impression. This is also the portion of the application process that you can prepare for. In the weeks leading up to the interview, try to familiarise yourself with what’s happening with our neighbours and within the region. Also definitely read up on any developments with the major powers (US/China), and try to understand the rationale behind any decisions and the implications resulting from them. If you have the time, I suggest picking up Bilahari Kausikan’s book “ Singapore is not an Island” to get a basic idea of Singapore’s foreign policy.
Do note that all of this will happen pretty close to your examinations. I was called down for the interview a week before the start of my IB examinations. You have to manage your time well should you choose to apply for the internship.
If you’re even slightly interested in working as a diplomat, I highly encourage you to apply. A month may not be sufficient to develop a full understanding of life in the foreign service, but it would no doubt give you the knowledge adequate to make an informed decision. Personally, I fully enjoyed the month long internship. Perhaps a little too much- I got incredibly drunk at the Christmas party held during my final week. It was a truly memorable end to a memorable month, and I have no doubt that you will have an equally unforgettable experience. I wish you all the best.
Mark Khoo graduated from the class of 2017. His favourite things include cats, thunder, and judging people’s Spotify playlists.