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“Focus on people … & you won’t go wrong”

10 January 2011

New Head of Civil Service, Peter Ong, says his priority is to focus on building the capabilities of every public officer. This, coupled with closer inter-agency collaboration, will build a high capability Public Service that can navigate effectively in a fast-changing, increasingly complex, and competitive world. - by Wong Sher Maine

At the Botanic Gardens on Saturday mornings, you might bump into Mr Peter Ong, 49, strolling around the swan lake with his wife.

This treasured weekend routine survived his work upheaval last September, when he became Singapore’s highest-ranking public officer.

When Challenge meets him three months on, the new Head of Civil Service is relaxed even though his typical day is packed with meetings back to back. Once home, he has dinner with his family, then checks his email.

His predecessor, Mr Peter Ho, sent him a note before vacating the hot seat. “He advised me on particular areas I should watch out for, and said, Good luck! Most issues have to do with where to place our priorities, because there’s just so much happening.”

Mr Ong sees the operating environment for the Public Service getting more complex, where “volatility and hyper-competition is the norm”. Singaporeans’ expectations will also “grow exponentially”.

“Increasingly our issues are not single-agency issues,” he said, “so they’ll require us to work across agencies. The issues are more multi-faceted, like growing our bilateral relations with big countries like China or planning for land use to balance economic development and liveability.”

Managing the increasingly diverse Public Service workforce will also be challenging, as different generations of public officers will have different perspectives, life experiences, work ethics and ethos. Mr Ong thinks the best way to address these challenges is to be firmly focused on people.

The priority: Help every officer become even more capable.

“From the most junior staff to the most senior, we want to see an uplift in capability.”

“My key message to all leaders and managers – focus on building the capabilities of your people and you won’t go wrong.”

To achieve this, Mr Ong expects greater ownership from the over 120,000 public officers here. “It will engender a greater sense of pride and professionalism in the ranks and create a stronger sense of fulfilment in our officers. They’ll feel more enabled to do their job and to do it well. We hope that it’ll also foster a conducive environment that’ll draw strong talent into the Public Service.”

For individual public officers, this means making the best use of training programmes and learning on-the-job.

For agencies, it means more inter-agency collaboration and integration of capabilities such as working against white-collar crime. “This is where you need professionals who understand financial markets, tax intricacies, IT forensics and more, working closely.”

He also wants more Communities of Practice, self-organised groups gathering to share experience in areas like Organisational Development and Futures Thinking.

To him, technology will also be a key enabler. A Public Service-wide Intranet, he revealed, will be rolled out in the second half of 2011, for officers to collaborate and work together more than before. “This will hopefully bring the Public Service closer together and bring the barriers down across agencies.”

The Public Service’s highest rung was something Mr Ong never imagined. The former Raffles Institution debating team first speaker said: “I’ve always liked to engage in discussion and debate, and thought I could be a lawyer.”

But life took a turn when Mr Ong was awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship to study at the University of Adelaide. “I had no choice. I had to depend on the Government for a scholarship if I wanted to study overseas,” he revealed. “They told me to study economics, I said OK, I went. I never regretted it though.”

Since graduating, he has worked in six ministries, from Communications, Home Affairs to Defence, Transport and Trade & Industry. Mr Ong feels he is “still learning, even at this stage of his career,” and he urges aspiring public officers to

“Always develop a deep curiosity to learn in every situation so as to help you in the next challenge”.

What keeps him going is the meaning in his work. Once, as a 25-year-old who had just started work, he had to verify a payment for $270 million, part of the cost of building Singapore’s first MRT line. “I had to count the number of zeroes from left to right and right to left a few times, to make sure not one zero was missing or too many. These are the little things that stay with you and impress upon you that what you do has a profound impact on Singaporeans.”

When asked if he had ever considered other job options, Mr Ong shares that he often advises younger colleagues: “When you know you have attractive options, and then decide to stay, you know you’re truly convicted about contributing for the long haul.”

Asked to describe his career highs and lows, he dwells instead on Singapore’s high and low points. One anecdote is particularly close to heart. “During the Sars crisis, I was at Changi Airport doing a late-night inspection with my Minister,” said Mr Ong, visibly moved. “There were so few people that we only switched on half the lights. I had a deep sinking feeling. How will Singapore survive if this went on for a prolonged period of time? Sars had the potential to wipe out all the progress, gains and growth we had made over decades. Thankfully, we fought the scourge and overcame it.”

A high point? The recent Youth Olympic Games opening ceremony. “As I saw the Olympic torch being lit and the fireworks over Marina Bay and the CBD, I asked myself: Wow, what did it take to build all this? We were able to operate on the world stage. It was a very proud moment for me as a Singaporean and as a civil servant.”

Day-to-day, what keeps him bright-eyed is, no, not coffee. “I haven’t drunk more than five cups of coffee in my life!”

Instead, every week for the past few years, he does Pilates with his wife to recharge. “We try to stick to our regimen of Pilates so our bodies can be flexible even as we grow old. I used to have a bad back from computer work, but now it’s much better.”

He also steals 15 minutes for himself in the mornings at his office, gazing upon the Singapore River and reading. “I try to have some moments of calm and peace. It helps to de-stress and gives you your bearings for the day.”

What’s usually in your cuppa?

Water. But on the frequent late night flights, it’s warm milk.

What’s your favourite type of tea?

Earl grey in the day, and camomile with honey at night.

Your favourite Challenge section?

I like Letters to a Young Public Officer. It’s always interesting to see how senior officers share their experiences, how they pitch to younger officers. The column does a good job of bridging the gap.

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