Building Solidarity And Trust Under The Spotlight

Unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight to become one of Singapore’s most recognisable faces during COVID-19 as a member of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce, Prof Kenneth Mak shares what it was like to adapt with speed to navigate the pandemic.
COVID-19 Multi-Ministry Taskforce advisor and Singapore’s Director-General of Health Prof Kenneth Mak

Prof Kenneth Mak is no stranger to leadership. In fact, he has three teddy bears at home that remind him of various stints.

A gift from his colleagues at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital where he is a Senior Consultant at the Department of Surgery, each little bear wears a different outfit: an army uniform, surgical scrubs, and a shirt and tie – each a nod to his roles past and present as an active National Serviceman, surgeon and administrator.

The three bears that represent Prof Mak’s various roles throughout his career: as doctor and surgeon, as a National Serviceman and in administration and management
The three bears that represent Prof Mak’s various roles throughout his career: as doctor and surgeon, as a National Serviceman and in administration and management

These various roles in his career journey have taught him the value of flexibility, openness and consensus-building in a leader – traits that have served him well, be it in establishing a new surgery department or in commanding a unit in the army.

More recently, Prof Mak landed in the hot seat beside Singapore’s leaders under the gaze of media cameras and the anxious attention of many Singaporeans.

It was January 2020 and the atypical pneumonia in Wuhan City, China, was spreading. Prof Mak – then yet to officially assume the Director-General of Health (DGH) role at the Ministry of Health – thought, like almost everyone else, that the crisis would blow over quickly.

Stepping into the position a week early, he thought he would soon return to the more traditional role behind the scenes as DGH, overseeing the delivery of public healthcare services.

“I approached it with that mindset, only to find that a few weeks became a few months, and a few months have become a few years,” he says.

Video by: Eric Lin / Lau Hon Meng

Setting the Ground for Teamwork

Tackling the pandemic as part of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) was one challenge, and taking on the media in a frontline role was another. With no formal media training, Prof Mak found the initial experience of press conferences and media doorstops “quite frightening” and out of his comfort zone.

But he acknowledges that it is not unusual for circumstances to force leaders to step up.

“I learnt the importance of being in the front as a representative of the healthcare profession, now having to engage the public. Whether it’s one-to-one, to a group or to many in townhall sessions, these were not just exercises in communication, but also in engagement and in building trust.”

Leaning into his natural inclinations, Prof Mak says he took a transparent and rapport-building approach in dealing with the media and many other stakeholders – even if it meant saying “I don’t know, but I will find out”.

Having the willingness to listen and reflect people’s concerns “helped us settle a lot of the uncertainties that people had in the beginning”, he says. This healthy engagement brokered a good mutual relationship that made communication and collaboration much easier.

Building a facilitating and collegial environment is something that Prof Mak cites as critical to the job of bringing people together towards a common goal. He has learnt to recognise when to embrace discussion and when to be decisive, and balance welcoming a diversity of ideas while also finding consensus and a way forward.

So, what happens when difficult decisions ruffle feathers? In a cacophony of voices and differing priorities, this is inevitable, but possible to reconcile as long as the core principles are clear. For him, it is all about the best interests of the population and how to protect their health.

“Those principles have not been compromised through the journey I've had as a leader, whether in the hospital or at the Ministry of Health dealing with COVID-19.”

And when mistakes happen, he says it is important have the humility, courage and openness to admit faults, find solutions and correct the course.

Sights Set on a Healthier Singapore

Having steered Singapore through the pandemic in his forward-facing role within the MTF, Prof Mak is now recalibrating his focus. From the criticality of a pandemic, he is looking towards building the national healthcare landscape from the ground up with the Healthier SG initiative.

Video by: Eric Lin / Lau Hon Meng

This approach prioritises preventive care by realigning and anchoring care from hospitals to the community.

Each person is encouraged to enrol with a primary care provider such as General Practitioners or Family Physicians who will oversee their health, chronic illness, vaccinations and screenings over the long term. This helps improve the management of chronic illness, promote early detection, and empower people to take better charge of their health.

Where more support is needed, primary care providers will also be able to tap on specialists in hospitals for a more seamless care model.

On a more personal level, this shift has marked a change in his own approach and perspective.

“My mindset and what I do in my work has changed quite a bit,” he says. “As a junior doctor, the relationship I had with patients was just one-to-one.”

“Now, I have to learn to grapple with the reality of trying to do as much as we can, for as many people as we can – to promote good health for all – with the limitations of the resources that we have.”

This means that “harsh and hard decisions sometimes have to be made in what we prioritise,” he adds. “It's something that I think will continue to challenge me."

While ambitious, Prof Mak believes that the many lessons learnt over the course of the pandemic will go some way in paving the road ahead.

COVID-19 showed that every individual plays an important part in the healthcare system. Prof Mak is optimistic that the spirit of collaboration will again carry the day.

“We all had to come together for COVID-19, and so similarly for population health, we have to bring everyone together for this journey.”

Video by: Eric Lin / Lau Hon Meng

Part of this journey to better health is encouraging everyone to take the time to pause amid our busy schedules, to rest and to reflect so we can feel energised to tackle the challenges or next strides in life.

He says: “That's something that we need to teach our leaders to do as well – to have that discipline to find that opportunity to refresh themselves.”

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