Exclusive Interview with Managing Director of GovTech Singapore, Kok Ping Soon
Ping Soon shares his advice for ambitious civil servants – including why it’s important not to assume the boss has all the answers, lessons from Singapore’s national identity system and his rediscovery of Singapore’s food and hiking trails. the city-state
What attracted you to a career in public service?
Civil service was not my first choice after earning a degree in economics. I joined a foreign bank and ended up in merchant banking serving large clients to get new loans for the bank. For a graduate fresh out of school, it was a good job that paid well, but I wanted more because I felt the job should mean more than good pay.
This led me to look for an organization in the civil service where I could do somewhat similar work but for the greater good, and I ended up at the Economic Development Board (EDB) which is the agency that attracts investments in Singapore. From EDB, I had the good fortune to change jobs every few years across agencies and even geographies. The nature of the work naturally varies between appointments, but the one thing that has remained constant for me over the years is purpose. I always felt connected to work because I could see how it somehow helped to make Singapore a better place.
As cliché as it may sound, the public service is a career with endless possibilities for me!
What advice would you give to someone starting out in public service?
Be curious and don’t assume the boss always has the answer! Although the public service remains largely hierarchical, the issues we face today are so complex that we need the collective contributions of all team members, even the youngest officer. Learn to question and contribute. Don’t blend into the background!
Another tip is to be open to trying new things and new assignments. The great thing about public service is the breadth of opportunity. You need to take charge of your career, be clear about the skills you want to learn and the strengths you have that can be leveraged. At the same time, be open to accepting assignments that aren’t necessarily what you want. There are no bad assignments, only missed opportunities.
What do you enjoy most about working in the public service?
Have the opportunity to work with like-minded people with vastly different backgrounds and skills who share a belief in serving the public good. I am now at GovTech Singapore and there are so many talented GovTechies who could easily find a job in a private sector technology company, but they chose to be at GovTech to apply their skills – software development, data analysis, user interface/ UX, cybersecurity, etc. – and experience to create better digital services for our citizens and businesses.
And what don’t you like about it?
Excessive meetings! Naturally, given the challenges we face in government, meetings are essential to enable collaboration, as we need the expertise and support of different groups. In a way, I see meetings as a “cultural tax” that we pay for the inclusive learning environment we want to foster. But time is zero-sum; every minute spent in a pointless meeting eats away time for solo work that is equally essential for creativity and efficiency.
Which country’s civil service or government agency inspires you the most and why?
We draw inspiration from both the public service and the private sector around the world for different issues. And it is not possible to adopt basically any program because the context is always different. A term is used to describe our approach: Strategic Pragmatism, which means avoiding any dogmatism and being ready to correct trajectories as soon as dysfunctions are perceptible.
In the area of building digital government, we examine the policies, practices and structure of the UK which has been at the forefront of digitalisation in government. The UK Government Digital Service (GDS) was established over a decade ago at the center of government to focus on the digitization of high volume transactional services and the creation of ‘wholesale’ technology platforms. This effort has certainly paid off for the UK government with over 2,000 websites migrated to a single publishing platform under Gov.UK. Over the years, it has also evolved its role as a central digital unit as departments and agencies have built digital teams of similar quality and many of the most important departments have been created.
Are there any projects or innovations in Singapore that could be useful to your peers overseas?
We realize that each country has its own operating context, so what has worked for us may not work for other countries. Singapore is blessed with a stable political environment, with supportive leaders who believe in the value and benefits of digitalization.
Allow me to share Singpass (www.singpass.gov.sg), Singapore’s national digital identity system. Singpass was first launched in 2003 as a gateway to government-provided electronic services. It builds on our national identity system to make it simple for residents to log in to these services, and has been further streamlined and made easier to use over the years following a mandate for all government services to use Singpass. as the only login ID. Now, Singpass, together with Myinfo – a “Tell Us Once” service that allows citizens to pre-populate their personal data drawn from government sources – makes the eKYC process easy and simple to use for citizens and businesses.
To date, Singpass enables approximately 350 million personal and business transactions per year, across more than 2,000 services offered by more than 700 government agencies and private sector organizations. We have further enhanced Singpass by introducing new APIs, such as biometric authentication and the “Sign with Singpass” service to digitally sign documents.
As more and more countries establish their digital ID system, we look forward to the day when a country’s digital ID can interact across jurisdictions – it would bring so much convenience to citizens!
What attributes do you value most in people?
Integrity – always being sincere and honest in all areas of life. It is the foundation upon which relationships and trust can be built. Say what you do and do what you say.
Empathy – always put yourself in other people’s shoes. It requires a person to practice active listening and take a human-centered view of issues.
Positivity – it doesn’t mean being happy or being okay all the time. Work and the world around us are already plagued with so many problems. What we need are people who can bring energy and enthusiasm to their work and support others to bring out the best in the people around you and in yourself!
If you weren’t a civil servant, what would you be?
Probably a banker going through the first job I got after college. Maybe if I was less idealistic when I was younger and stuck it out long enough, I might have found purpose and done well in the financial industry too!
What is your most valuable asset?
The collection of annual photo books that I started after my marriage over two decades ago. Before the days of digital photography and print-ready photo books, I used to take time towards the end of the year to review the year, compile the photos taken and put them in an album with captions and notes for memory. The publishing process is so much easier today with photo books and it’s become a yearly tradition for me. Today where everything is digital, I find these paper albums and photo books invaluable.
What is your favorite weekend activity?
Nature trail and gastronomy. With international travel having been drastically curtailed over the past two years due to COVID-19, my wife and I rediscovered Singapore over the weekends. It is amazing that even in a bustling urban jungle like Singapore, there is an abundance of nature parks and hiking trails of varying difficulty levels easily accessible. It’s also no secret that Singaporeans are foodies and go to great lengths to find good food. What better way to couple finding the best Satay Bee Hoon at a hawker center with a reward after climbing nearby Bukit Timah Hill!
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