‘Don’t fade into the background’: five minutes with GovTech Singapore’s chief executive, Kok Ping Soon

By on 19/06/2022 | Updated on 21/06/2022

Ping Soon shares his advice for ambitious public servants – including why it’s important not to assume the boss has all the answers, the lessons from Singapore’s national identity system, and his rediscovery of the city-state’s food and hiking trails  

What drew you to a career in the public service?

Public service was not my first choice after graduating with an economics degree. I joined a foreign bank and ended up in corporate banking to service major clients to secure 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 that work must mean more than a good pay.

That led me to look for an organisation in the public service where I could do a somewhat similar job but for the greater good, and I ended up at the Economic Development Board (EDB) which is the agency that attracts investments into Singapore. From EDB, I was fortunate to change jobs every few years across agencies and even geographies. The nature of work naturally varies across the appointments, but the one thing that has stayed constant for me through the years is purpose. I have always felt connected to the work because I could see how it has somehow helped to make Singapore a better place.

Cliché as it may sound, the public service turns out to be one career with infinite possibilities for me!

What advice would you give someone starting out in the public service?

Be curious and don’t assume that the boss always has the answer! While the public service remains largely hierarchical, the issues we are dealing with today are so complex that we need the collective contributions of everyone on the team, even the most junior officer. Learn to question and contribute. Don’t fade into the background!

Another piece of advice is to be open to trying new things and postings. The good thing about the public service is the breadth of opportunities. You should take charge of your career, be clear with the skills you want to acquire and the strengths you have that can be leveraged. At the same time, be open to take on assignments that may not necessarily be what you want. There are no bad postings, only missed opportunities.

What do you like most about working in the public service?

Having the opportunity to work with like-minded people with very different background and skills, who share the belief in serving the public good. I’m now at GovTech Singapore and there are so many talented GovTechies who could easily find a job in a tech company in the private sector, but they have chosen to be at GovTech to apply their skills – software development, data analytics, UI/UX, cybersecurity etc – and experience to build better digital services to serve our citizens and businesses.

And what do you dislike about it?

Excessive meetings! Understandably, given the issues we deal with in government, meetings are essential for enabling collaboration because we need expertise and support from different groups. In a way I see meetings as a ’cultural tax’ that we pay for the inclusive, learning environment that we want to foster. But time is zero-sum; every minute spent in a wasteful meeting eats into time for solo work that is equally essential for creativity and efficiency.

Which country’s public service or government agency are you most inspired by and why?

We draw inspirations from both the public service and private sector across the world for different issues. And it’s not possible to adopt wholesale any one programme because the context is always different. There’s a term used to describe our approach – Strategic Pragmatism, which means eschewing dogmatism of any kind and being ready to correct courses as soon as dysfunctions are recognisable.

In the area of building a digital government, we look to the policies, practices and structure in the UK which has been at the forefront in driving digitalisation in government. The UK Government Digital Service (GDS) was set up more than a decade ago at the centre of government to focus on digitising high-volume transactional services and building ’wholesale’ technology platforms. That effort has certainly paid off for the UK government with more than 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 similar quality digital teams, and many of the most important services have been built.

Are there any projects or innovations in Singapore that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

We are cognisant that each country has its own operating context, so what’s worked for us may not work for other countries. Singapore is fortunate to have a stable political environment, with supportive leaders who believe in the value and benefits of digitalisation.

Let me share Singpass (www.singpass.gov.sg), Singapore’s national digital identity system. Singpass was first launched in 2003 as a gateway to e-services provided by the government. It leverages our national identity system to simplify login to these services for residents, and has been further streamlined and made simpler to use over the years following a mandate for all government services to use Singpass as the only login identification. Now Singpass, together with Myinfo – a ‘Tell Us Once’ service that enables citizens to pre-fill their personal data drawn from government sources – makes the eKYC process easy and simple for citizens and businesses to use.

To date, Singpass enables about 350m personal and corporate transactions a year, across more than 2,000 services offered by over 700 government agencies and private sector organisations. We have further improved Singpass by introducing new APIs, such as biometric authentication and the ‘Sign with Singpass’ service to digitally sign documents.

As more countries establish their digital ID system, we look forward to the day where a country’s digital ID can interoperate across jurisdictions – this would bring so much convenience to citizens!

What attributes do you most value in people?

Integrity – always being truthful and honest in all areas of life. This is the foundation on which relationships and trust can be built. Say what you do and do what you say.

Empathy – always put yourselves in the shoes of others. It requires a person to practise active listening and take a human-centric view on issues.

Positivity – this doesn’t mean being happy or agreeing all the time. The work and world around us are beset with so many problems already. What we need are people that can bring energy and enthusiasm to their work and be supportive of others in order to bring out the best in the people around you and yourself!

If you weren’t a public servant, what would you be?

Probably a banker going by the first job that I landed out of university. Maybe if I were less idealistic when I was younger and stuck it out long enough, I might have also found the purpose and did well in the financial industry!

What is your most treasured possession?

The collection of annual photobooks that I started after getting married over two decades ago. Before the days of digital photography and ready-to-print photobooks, I would devote time around the end of year to take stock of the year, compile the photos taken and put them into a scrap book with captions and notes for memory’s sake. The publication process is so much easier today with photobooks and this has become an annual tradition for me. Today where everything is digital, I find these hardcopy albums and photobooks priceless.

What is your favourite thing to do at the weekends?

Going on nature and food trails. With international travel severely curtailed over the last two years because of COVID-19, my spouse and I have been re-discovering Singapore during 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 various difficulty levels that are easily within reach. It’s also no secret that Singaporeans are foodies and go to great lengths to find great food. What better way to couple the search for the best Satay Bee Hoon in a hawker centre with a reward after scaling Bukit Timah Hill nearby!

More from the ‘Five minutes with…’ series:

‘Characters of all types abound in the Public Service’: five minutes with… The Bahamas’ deputy director of transformation and digitisation, Carol Roach

‘Ask yourself where you want to be three jobs from now’: five minutes with… Ontario’s deputy minister of finance, Greg Orencsak

‘The best leaders focus on inspiring and enabling their staff to give their best’: five minutes with… Ireland’s CIO Barry Lowry

‘We do not stick to conventional wisdom’: five minutes with… Singapore’s Ministry of Finance permanent secretary Tan Ching Yee

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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