This is an exclusive interview with Professor Ho Peng Kee, former Senior Minister of State in the Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore on the importance of core values in leadership.
Can you share with us what are your key principles as a leader working across various ministries and sectors?
Well I will just say, in terms of this privilege that has been given to me to lead in different capacities in the government ministries, charitable sector, sports associations, and WOs I would like to believe that “4As” have been key basis or platforms for me as a leader:
- Ability: to be a good leader, you need to be able to do things, to help people, to get things done, to make life better. Let say in the constituency, you have to be able to “join the dots” and bring people together to tap their professional expertise. So people will trust you and see that you can add value to people’s lives.
- Accessibility: if a leader is too detached – people who want to meet him cannot find him, and people who meet him find him aloof – then he is not accessible. So the second tenet of leadership is accessibility; that he is really with the people, he is really one of the guys.
- Affability: when people get to see you, are people put off by your demeanour? You might be very good, you might be a professor, an MP, a minister, but if they can’t relate to you, to talk to you as a person with their problems and concerns, how do you manage these problems and concerns? How do you interact with them? Better still, smile a lot. Be one of them.
- Affirming Attitude: when people come to you; they are already in trouble and are anxious, you may solve their problem in the head but what about their hearts? Do they feel assured that you have really listened? So communication and listening, making the impression that you sincerely care and that they can trust you, not just to solve their problems, but that you will do your best to help, are very important.
How do you see yourself as a Christian serving in the government or in the marketplace?
Firstly, in government, both in the ministry and constituency as an MP, and in the Singapore context, whatever religion you adhere to, the first point is that you must be serving, working with all Singaporeans. People must trust you as being fair; people must trust you to have a heart to look after their welfare regardless of their religion or race.
Secondly, as a committed Christian, the key principle is to be infused with the values that the Bible teaches us, so that it becomes part of us even in our thought process, even without bringing in religion per se. All the values and virtues the Bible teaches us are there, and those values inform you as you think through policies and appeals, as you think through how to make Singapore better, how to help the constituency more effectively. That is something we all need to cultivate, and doesn’t come naturally.
Can you share some of those values that guide you in your service?
In my profession, I would say that Micah 6:8 has been a key verse for me. That is “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.” That was a key starting point, to act justly, to be fair in what you do. To try to infuse as much fairness and justice in the policies of government. To love mercy, especially in the context of the many appeals I have handled in the home affairs and other ministries, to exercise compassion.
Certain cases are hard cases; no matter how hard you try, they do not fall within the guidelines, and that means they are out. But there are also certain cases which are marginal, and there may be extenuating circumstances that warrant a deeper look, that’s where I think I can add some values. And that’s influenced by my desire to be merciful and compassionate. And of course, walking humbly is important for every leader, because I (as Christian) am really accountable to God ultimately. Even in terms of being a public leader in Singapore, it’s something that has come through very clearly, even the PM has said, that we should be a servant leader. We lead, at the same time we are also serving, and to me, working together.
In a fast-moving world, one of the hardest questions face every leader is what to change and what not to change. How do you keep critical values and embrace the change that needs to take place?
I think there are certain core values in Singapore that do not change – the imperatives. For example, we are multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-lingual. So we have to be mindful that there is a need for us to always turn to them, to ensure that we are one united and cohesive people. Also our stance against corruption, to me that’s a very important core value which is also in accord with the bible. That we should look at a person for who he is, not for who his father is, or how rich he is. The basic worth of a person.
And if he succeeds, it is due to his hard work, what he can put on the table in terms of the value he adds to the collective work. So some values are really core values, although many things are changing in terms of the practices and in terms of the manifestation. Regardless of those changes, I believe we must always go back to the core values.
Another unchanging core value is the leader’s sense of sincerity because if a leader is plastic, put on, people can see through. Maybe 20-30 years ago, if people saw you as a leader, not just politically, but any kind of leader, they would start off respecting your position first, and you could lose the respect later because of what you do. But nowadays, when you have been given the mantle, they look closely to see what kind of leader you are. “Do you warrant my respect?”. You have to be someone who can add value and differentiate yourself from those you are leading, because if you’re just another one of them, then why should they follow you? But how to do that, at the same time, deliver the goods is the key point to leadership, that finesse and that balance.
Then we must also be mindful of the young people. What do we change? I think we have to change certain things in relating to the young people, what appeals to them and what works for them.
In the Singapore’s story, we are in an ever-changing environment and we are a small country that needs space; indeed we have been creating spaces in so many ways. The challenge we constantly face is how to we remain relevant to the world, to our neighbours, to other people, yet maintain strong economy; that’s important because there is no pie to share if we don’t produce enough. At the same time, we have to be very mindful of the society’s concerns – how to ensure fairness and justice in a society; so that people can feel it is worthwhile to chip in.
How have you, as a leader, changed to adapt to changing environments and changing demands? How do you think Singapore should change?
In the context of Singapore, I think this question of consultation is a key point – we have an electorate that is more sophisticated, definitely more educated and definitely wanting more consultation in policies- not just in the implementation but in putting together the policies.
Secondly, even the modus operandi of consultation, which is not just face to face, talk around a table, but also online, the forms of communication are changing, especially among the young people. So the opinions multiply, changing in terms of the methods. Any leader has to be mindful of that.
What is your advice to young people today? What is one wisdom that helps you through the years?
To young people, I just want to say this: we actually live our lives in phases. Every phase, whether its schooling, NS, university, working life, and you may work in 4 or 5 different settings, really, it is always a learning process in terms of being a good leader, being a good follower and being a good team player. Opportunities will come along when you learn to wear different hats. I don’t think we lead all the time, and I don’t think we start leading even from a young age, sometimes we learn along the way. When we are open to learning, to being a good team person, we are at a good starting point because to be a leader, we must learn to work in a team. Otherwise how can you lead a pact?
Looking back, I am thankful, that even from primary school, and then on to secondary school, somehow my love for sports has thrown me into working in groups, whether its rugby or football or being part of a relay team. Those exposures in my early years really taught me precious lessons in life, which was imperceptibly translated into my leadership style.
I must really confess that I never went to school to study leadership and I know that there are lots of learning opportunities out there, which I take to heart, and I think they are very useful and young people can start from there. But ultimately, it is how to translate all that learning into your own application, in your own circumstances. And I think it starts with a humble, sincere heart that wants to do the best for the team. And later on you’ll be given opportunities to lead.