“Loyalty Is A Two-Way Thing”, Pang Kin Keong

For the first time, Mr Pang Kin Keong, now Permanent Secretary for Transport, talks about the escape of Mas Selamat during his watch, and the loyalty lessons he learnt.

If there is anyone in the higher ranks of the Public Service who has had a close brush with “career death”, it would have to be Mr Pang Kin Keong, Permanent Secretary (Transport).

Mr Pang was the Director of the Internal Security Department (ISD) in 2008 when the terrorist Mas Selamat bin Kastari escaped.

“To have an incident of this national security magnitude happen under your leadership... that’s an awful feeling,” he told Challenge as he recalled the lowest point of his 20 years in the Service.

“I’ll be honest,” he continued, evoking the public criticism that mounted over the high-profile slip up. “When I read the newspapers or my email, [I felt] like slumping and going back to bed, under the covers.” He stopped and looked away, appearing hesitant during our interview at My Arts Space cafe.


There was also the pressure to rally his staff during that trying period. “This difficulty of keeping up the morale intensified over time... After eight, nine months, and we still have absolutely no trace of him [Mas Selamat], how do you keep on telling them, ‘It’s okay, you need to keep plugging away’?”

Those were 13 months of hell for Mr Pang. His greatest fear then was getting posted out of ISD before his team could recapture the fugitive. “I wanted at least to be able to say, yes, the mistake happened under me, but I rectified it under my watch as well.” Thankfully, his superiors remained confident in his team and Mr Pang was able to announce Mas Selamat’s rearrest in 2009.

What seemed to be the nadir of his career also turned out to be its highest point when he experienced the “incredible teamwork” that the crisis brought out, and the immense satisfaction that he and his staff shared when they finally brought in Mas Selamat.

You can’t expect your officers to be loyal to you unless you’re loyal to them... When they have that confidence in you, they’ll go to the ends of the world for you.

Standing by staff

From that experience, Mr Pang learnt the importance of standing by good staff who have made honest mistakes, as his superiors had.

“Loyalty is a two-way thing. You can’t expect your officers to be loyal to you unless you’re loyal to them... When they have that confidence in you, they’ll go to the ends of the world for you.”

He recalled how ISD’s support division officers, such as IT officers, volunteered to help in the hunt for Mas Selamat. They were paired up with experienced operations officers and willingly volunteered their nights and weekends.

“That is the best example of teamwork... Thinking back about it always brings a lump to my throat,” he said.

The importance of people
These lessons in leadership, loyalty and solidarity have stayed with Mr Pang, who moved from ISD to Ministry of Law in 2010, and then to Ministry of Transport (MOT) in 2012.

When he joined MOT, his biggest concern was the stress his officers were facing. Then, the investigations into train breakdowns were still ongoing and there was intense public pressure to rectify and improve the public transport situation quickly.

Mr Pang made sure that understaffed departments were given additional support and resources because officers who are stretched and unable “to think beyond the immediate email” would only become more unproductive.

To get a pulse on their stress levels, morale and feedback on leadership, Mr Pang emails his staff periodically, urging them to take part in MOT’s half-yearly staff engagement surveys. Each division’s scores are discussed among management and at ministry-wide townhall meetings.

“That’s my way of encouraging the directors to make sure they really spend a lot of time and attention on human resource... and they know that the greatest deliverable is really leadership and how they motivate their teams.”

He has also moved MOT’s Human Resources (HR) division directly under his purview. This, he said, sends a strong signal that while the other divisions are important, HR is the “first among equals”. The other aim is to directly influence HR to change the working culture, values and environment of the ministry.

Flexibility and balance

Greater flexibility and work-life balance are the “values” Mr Pang wants for MOT. For instance, its officers can now arrange with their supervisors to sometimes work from home as long as the work gets done. If he has pressing matters, he gets up at 4am to tackle them instead – his own way of balancing commitments.

Besides explicitly telling staff that he wants them to have dinners with their families, the 47-year-old also walks the talk by making it a point to finish work by 7pm, so he can have dinner with his wife and two teenage daughters.

Changing mindsets cannot be accomplished overnight. Mr Pang admits to a fair amount of “nagging” and leading by example so that the desired culture and values can “sink into the DNA” of MOT.

“You [must] reach out directly to each and every one,” he stressed. “That’s really critical, so that even down to the Division 4 officer, they hear directly [from you].”


Through his periodic emails, Mr Pang shares with his officers his thoughts about work, and even how some major decisions were made. He hopes the transparency would help them to know him better and on where he stands. For example, he writes to remind staff not to take officers in support divisions for granted, but to show appreciation and recognise their contributions.

MOT staff tell Challenge they enjoy receiving his emails (which sometimes include light-hearted YouTube videos) that encourage them to unwind, and to balance their work and personal lives.

Because of Mr Pang’s openness, MOT officers now know well the importance he accords to family life. After all, he explained, it was his own family’s unwavering support for him that helped him pull through the Mas Selamat episode.

“If you’ve got family problems, parents who are ill… go attend to them first! Don’t think about work,” he insisted.“The organisation must be resilient enough to be able to cope without you.”


What is usually in your cuppa?

Local kopi. I’ve always enjoyed that more than the five-dollar ones.

How often do you take it?

One or two cups a day.

    Jan 22, 2014
    Siti Maziah Masramli
    Norman Ng
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