The Steady March to the Top of the World

1 Jul 2019

In 2012, when Sim Phei Sunn was applying for the Master in Public Administration (MPA) programme at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), she had declared in one of her application essays that mountaineering was an ambition she was determined to follow through. Seven years later, she has summited the Mount Everest and is one of the 17 Singaporeans to do so till date.

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Phei Sunn summited the Mount Everest on 22 May 2019

Phei Sunn started trekking in university and became interested in running. She ran her first full marathon in 2003, and her first ultra-marathon in 2007. Now she participates in an ultra-event every two months. Her interest in mountaineering got deeper with the Singapore Women’s Everest Team which had put an advertisement in 2004 calling for participants. “They introduced me to technical mountaineering. Though I did not get selected eventually for the team that summited in 2009, I was hooked to the dream to summit the Mt. Everest,” says Phei Sunn.

On 22 May 2019, this public service official who works at Singapore’s Civil Service College made her way to the top of the world’s highest mountain and is one of the only two Singaporean public service officials to do so. “I studied part-time at LKYSPP. After taking out the time needed for office, classes, readings and assignments, my training capacity reduced drastically. While I wouldn’t say that the LKYSPP furthered my interest in mountaineering, those years of hectic schedules reinforced the importance of sports in my life,” she says.

Phei Sunn believes her long runs and climbs recharge her and influence her work as a public service official. For one, they have helped her to be “intentional”. “This idea of intentionality is also influenced by my practice in the field of organisational development, where every intervention in the client system should be thoughtful and purposeful,” she says. Phei Sunn’s endurance mindset, developed as a result of her sporting interests, comes in useful when she strategizes long-term plans. “Going after instant gratification and short-term gains is not an aim for me. My long-term view is reinforced by the fact that we usually do not see instant results in public policy,” she says. Just as in sports, she can either run in a certain timing or not, she either summit or not, there is no cheating on the records. The same way, “integrity is immensely important in the public service, since it’s the basis for trust in the system”, she says.

Like many students in the MPA programme, Phei Sunn joined LKYSPP after spending more than a decade in public service. She wanted to acquire new knowledge, skills, and networks. “The programme boosted my confidence to take on new roles and further my own development. Various aspects of public policy considerations, tools, and insights that I got at LKYSPP helped to contextualise my work even when I am not directly in a policy making role. The leadership modules also deepened my personal growth,” she adds. In fact, one such leadership module by Professor Jonathan Marshall that she had signed up for had a version of the Everest simulation created by Harvard university. “I resonated so much with it that when I went back to my office, I created my own physical game board version of an expedition with different role members, missions, game objectives and facilitated it at one of our management retreats,” she says.

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Phei Sunn at LKYSPP Commencement 2013

For those who attend LKYSPP after a few years in public service, Phei Sunn believes that the time should be used to develop new ways of thinking about old problems and to do something outside your comfort zone. “Use your year at LKYSPP to come away with a refreshed lens. Also, being in a learning environment is the best time to take some risks to stretch yourself -- whether it is practising a new self-management or leadership behaviour, or adopting a new way of approaching an issue,” she advises.

As a climber in 2019, Phei Sunn is aware of all the news around the increasing danger of climbers’ traffic at Mt Everest. She believes this is a multi-faceted policy issue that requires a whole systems approach to understand the inter-linkages between different stakeholders, and to manage the inherent tensions. “Whether you slice it by stakeholder groups, or by levels of the system, everyone has to share the collective responsibility in delivering a safer climbing experience and preserving the sanctity of Everest,” she says.

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Phei Sunn at Everest Basecamp

Having summited six of the Seven Summits (a mountaineering challenge to climb the seven highest summits, one in each continent), Phei Sunn has now set her sights on Mt Vinson in Antarctica. Meanwhile, for LKYSPP alumni and students who want to follow in her footsteps to the top of the world, she has this message: “Deeply internalise your why. It is the anchor to see you through the many ups and downs along the way. Train, train, and train. Respect the mountain, yourself, and fellow climbers by being very well prepared.”