Its in Your Hands by Peter Ho

In this series, public sector leaders and veterans share their insights into life in Public Service. The series is inspired by Letters to a Young Poet, a compilation of letters written by poet and art critic Rainer Maria Rilke to a student at the Military Academy of Vienna in the early 1900s.

It’s in Your Hands by Peter Ho

Dear young officer,

I am often asked what shaped my outlook in life. Family and friends, teachers and schoolmates, undoubtedly played a large part. But looking back, one event affected me more profoundly than most.

It was on my birthday, August 9, 1965, when I saw Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew announcing Singapore’s separation from Malaysia. As an 11-year-old, I could not understand the implications. But through Mr Lee’s anguish, I could dimly see that the world that I had known was going to change, and I could not be certain that it would change for the better.

That event and the emotions of that day have stayed with me all these years. From them I drew one important lesson – that life is full of uncertainties, and that we cannot take things for granted.

Our future is what we make of it. If we wish for a good future, then we must work hard to maximise the chances that it will be so. I have held this conviction throughout my career in the Public Service. I hope that young officers like you will also grow to share this same conviction.

I always felt that I had enough leeway to act in the best interests of the organisation. From the day I started work as a junior officer in the Navy, I have always asked myself how I could make things interesting for myself, helpful to my organisation, and hopefully useful for the nation. I never felt that I needed to be told what to do. So I just did it. And it became a habit that I acquired in the days before PS21.

I remember being worried when I was first posted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1990. I had not asked for the posting. But I had been parachuted in as an outsider without any diplomatic experience to do policy work. I had no track record. As someone who had spent many years in the Navy and MINDEF , I felt like a fish out of water. What did I do? If I did not understand foreign policy, I knew a lot about defence and security. So I involved myself in this area, and had the privilege of helping to create the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is now into its 17th year.

So if you feel that you are out of depth in your work right now, you should stop focusing on the negative, but instead focus on your strengths and leverage on them.

When I size up our young officers these days, one quality I look for is tenacity. If you are convinced of something, you should not give up after the first “No”. Re-group, refresh and re-emerge to fight another day – and I say this from experience.

I began my career in the Public Service in the Navy more years ago than I care to say. Eventually, I became responsible for planning the Navy of the future. But with a tight defence budget, MINDEF decided that priority should go to the Air Force. I now accept that it was the right decision. But it was quite demoralising then to be told that the Navy would get the crumbs, and that the defence dollar would be invested in F-16s rather than on missile gunboats.

Young officers today are probably no different from what I was like then – impatient and easily frustrated when things do not go your way.

But the story did not end there. Instead of giving up in frustration, I persisted as I believed then, as now, that Singapore needed an effective Navy – not for egotistical reasons but for sound strategic reasons.

In the end, MINDEF was persuaded. When I look at the Navy today, I see in it many of the plans that I helped to prepare in those days. It required persistence, but it also required an open mind on the part of the MINDEF leadership.

I believe that openness continues to define the Public Service to this day. It does not mean that everything will be accepted. But it does mean that those who are prepared to persevere, those who can marshal compelling arguments, will get a fair hearing.

To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, “reasonable men adapt, unreasonable men change the world”. We have been fortunate to have had many “unreasonable men” in our midst. Otherwise the Singapore Story would have been very different.

In the Public Service, we are driven by rules and process. These are not unimportant. But it is more important that we are guided by a conviction that we are empowered to create a better Singapore, and that we feel that we can just do it.

If the pioneer generation of public officers had given up in the face of the enormous challenges that we faced then, if they had not persevered despite the uncertainties after Separation in 1965, I do not think I would be writing this letter to you.

So don’t wait to be told what to do. Create your own reality.

    May 12, 2010
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