Distinction and Daring

The National Day Awards are given in recognition of various forms of merit and service to Singapore. This year, 3,959 individuals received National Day honours, and among them was Mr Peter Ho, Chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and former Head, Civil Service (2005–2010). The only 2016 recipient of the prestigious Distinguished Service Order, he shares his thoughts on the qualities that will see Singapore through the next 50 years.
Distinction and Daring

Over the course of his career, Mr Ho has served with distinction in many different roles. Trained as an infantry officer, he was posted in 1976 to the Republic of Singapore Navy, where his experiences – including a stint as Commanding Officer of the RSSDaring, a B-Class patrol craft – helped strengthen his commitment to tackling seemingly intractable problems.

After holding various command and staff appointments in the Singapore Armed Forces, Mr Ho transferred to the Singapore Administrative Service in 1982. He was appointed Deputy Secretary (Policy) of the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) in 1989 before becoming Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1990.

During his career, Mr Ho worked to ensure that public agencies collaborated more closely to address “wicked” problems – highly complex issues with no immediate or obvious solutions. In 1995, he was appointed Permanent Secretary (Defence Development) of Mindef before becoming Permanent Secretary (Defence) in 2000. Mr Ho was appointed Permanent Secretary (Foreign Affairs) in 2004 and, that same year, also became Permanent Secretary (National Security and Intelligence Coordination) in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Known for his focus on preparing for the future by managing complexity and change, Mr Ho was appointed Head, Civil Service, and Permanent Secretary (Special Duties) in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2005.

After a career in the Public Service of over 34 years, Mr Ho retired from the Singapore Administrative Service in 2010. Appointed Chairman of URA in 2012, he also serves as Senior Advisor to the Centre for Strategic Futures (CSF, which he established in 2009) and Senior Fellow at the Civil Service College (CSC). Mr Ho maintains an avid interest in how Singapore can succeed in an uncertain future.

How did you feel when you heard that you’d received the Distinguished Service Order?
It was a total surprise to me. But it is obviously a great honour, and I feel very humbled to receive something like this. As I told several friends, an award of this nature goes not just to the individual, but also to the team. And it isn’t just one team; there are many teams I’ve worked with, over many years. So this award acknowledges the contributions that each of these teams has made to the country.

All the teams I’ve worked with have been quite excellent; very committed. So when you think about it, it speaks well for the Civil Service; that we continue to produce people who’re able to make a contribution.

Distinction and Daring

Was there one moment when you felt especially proud of what your team had been able to accomplish?
The newspapers have been asking me questions like that: “What are the three biggest moments for you?” and “Name your biggest achievement.”

I’ve never looked at my career in terms of high points and low points. I look back and judge in aggregate – did I make a difference? Do I feel positive about my work in the Civil Service, and in the various jobs I’ve held?

And the answer is, “Yes.” In every job, there’ll be low points, and in my case, at least, I think that I had a good career – 34 years; long enough to do things that have made an impact.

Your roles now – with URA, CSF and CSC, for example – are more diverse. What’s a typical week for you?
It varies. At URA, I chair board meetings on a regular basis. I also have a weekly meeting with the team at CSF. Otherwise, I do quite a lot of lecturing at CSC and various universities in Singapore as well as overseas. From time to time, I also share my experiences at public agencies that ask me to speak.

Distinction and Daring

You have many areas of expertise, from urban development and scenario planning to strategic futures. Is there a field that’s especially important to you now?
One of the things I’ve learnt over the years is that no matter what position you have in the Service, it’s very important that, besides getting the job done well, you do it in a way that makes it interesting and exciting for you. Given my background and experience, I find I can do more in terms of good governance, scenario planning and looking to the future. These are things that I’ve always been interested in. Whether it’s at URA or CSF, these areas allow me to tap on things I feel I’m competent at; things I’m interested in; and things I feel are contributions in a small way to developing the Civil Service, the Government and, hopefully, the country.

What are your thoughts on Singapore’s prospects as we move past SG50?
We’ve had a very good run in our first 50 years. The kind of achievements that Singapore has had is nothing short of astonishing. Every macro indicator will tell you that our achievements have been almost without comparison. I’m not just talking about the obvious ones like Gross Domestic Product, home ownership and all those kinds of measures. Even things like life expectancy, infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate – we’re right at the top, and all these were achieved within less than two generations. That’s a huge and amazing achievement.

You could say that in our first 50 years, we’ve plucked all the low-hanging fruit; we’re a successful, developed nation, so now the question is, in the next 50 years, what will things be like?

We’re no longer at the bottom of the heap; we’re competing right at the top. So in some ways, the challenges are more difficult. These are compounded by the fact that I believe we’ve entered a period of great uncertainty and very rapid change. That means that, as a country, we need nimbleness to be able to move very fast, to take advantage of opportunities as and when they arise, and to avoid obstacles, challenges and roadblocks.

This means not just having a good government, but also a people who’re very responsive. It means the people and the Government have to find a way of working together. The most critical thing to have is a common sense of what our future challenges are, and also a determination to work together to deal with them. This requires some kind of conversation to go on, between the Government and the people.

Distinction and Daring

Are you optimistic that we have the ability and tools to overcome these challenges?
I think that among civil servants, the basics are all there. But one of the critical things is that when you’re in a period of great uncertainty and very rapid change, there’s no right or wrong answer. You make your best judgment, and then you move, and you manage the risks.

This also requires a mindset of experimentation – not being satisfied with what worked well for us in the past, and being able to put aside these practices and to try new approaches.

All of these things are going to define how successful we’ll be in the next 50 years.

I’m basically optimistic, and there’s no good reason not to be. We’ve put in place a good system and basic infrastructure – by that I mean our social, educational and psychological infrastructure. All of these are solid bases. So we should capitalise on them, not agonise too much or start to grumble. We didn’t get to where we are by sitting on our hands.

    Nov 7, 2016
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