SINGAPORE: Professor Ho Peng Kee was an unlikely politician. He says he was not hard-nosed and had no prior links with the People’s Action Party (PAP) or grassroots bodies. He was “just a happy university professor”, even if he was one with experience in various voluntary welfare organisations and consumer associations.
In 1991, however, he joined the PAP’s ranks after being approached by the party.
He thinks what the PAP saw in him was a person who wanted to serve Singapore, who was compassionate, who gave a softer edge to politics and who could hopefully make an impact on the ground.
The former senior minister of state in the Ministry of Law and Home Affairs recently released his memoirs, My Journey in Politics: Practical Lessons in Leadership, where he talks about his journey from 1991 to 2011, tackling issues such as drug addiction, juvenile delinquency and promoting alternative dispute resolution processes.
He went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about politics then and now, and the low and high points of his journey in politics.
Ho Peng Kee: I must say that I was privileged to have a good run for 20 years. I wore many hats. Of course, essentially on the ground, you need to be a very good MP. That is how you continue your service as an office-holder. Without a good constituency backing you, you would have no opportunities to hold office.
One high point was my reaching out to the many, many residents of Nee Soon East for over 20 years. I was fortunate because I was serving the same constituency for 20 years. 10 of those years as part of a bigger GRC, and the last 10 years, and I must say those were very fulfilling years, as MP in a Single Member Constituency.
So essentially, the residents have voted for you, and you are the only person representing them in Parliament. Over the years, I have interacted with thousands of residents in many settings, some of whom have literally grown up before my eyes. When I left office, some of these young people stepped forward and said: “Hey, I am 20-something now. You carried me as a young baby.”
In a way you made an impact in what you did, what you shared. That is one high point. Other high points were opportunities to rally a lot of good-hearted, sincere Singaporeans and many inter-ministry committees that I was privileged to have.
Those were early days, in terms of whole-of-government approach. Younger ministers talk about the need for the ministries to work together, but by no design, it so happened I was given so many opportunities – whether it was countering drug abuse, or fighting youth crime, or looking after the welfare of offenders that are mentally handicapped, introducing community mediation centres. I worked across the board with different ministries, and also outside of government, drawing in halfway houses, drawing in groups like the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, other groups fighting youth crime, religious organisations of different faiths.
To me it was a great journey where we saw we could make a difference to the lives of young people, lives of the needy and vulnerable. I daresay we did it because we believed in the various causes that we were serving, so that was something really great.
THE 2001 GE: A DISAPPOINTMENT ON A PERSONAL LEVEL
Bharati: Let’s talk about low points in your career. What was a particularly low point?
Ho: Well, I suppose one defining point in my political career would be when I was fielded to fight in a Single Member Constituency. This was in Nee Soon East in 2001. It was a great privilege to have been chosen because actually, I had not fought in an election before that.
Bharati: You had walkovers.
Ho: I had walkovers because I had very strong teams with Dr Tony Tan who helmed Sembawang GRC. Here I was selected by the leaders who have faith in me and I was fighting my first election. What turned out was a disappointment from a human point of view, although I said in my book that ultimately I am very glad with how it turned out because it enabled me to continue in Nee Soon East. It enabled me to be a very strong member in both ministries and to finish strong in 2011. At that point in time, it was an opportunity to shine. Ultimately, the results were very pleasing, I had 73.8 per cent, or thereabouts.
Bharati: Why was it “a disappointment on a personal level”?
Ho: Whilst I was happy with the result, the campaign was not a smooth one. I would have much preferred to have campaigned on my own steam. Now, some people speculate that I would not have won, or would not have won with the same high margin if (then) Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew had not intervened.
Bharati: Let’s give our listeners some context. Several things happened during that election. First of all, during the election, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had asked you to tell your voters that if they didn’t vote for you, their constituency would be rundown. You had said to him you would rather not do that. Tell us why, first of all, you felt his suggestion was inappropriate.
Ho: I think that it was intuitive and instinctive. It happened when he called me on the telephone and he spoke to me. I was then campaigning. He suggested I should do that. I paused for about 15 seconds and I just felt there was no need to do that because, to me, it could sound as a threat to my residents.
Bharati: But people do that in elections, and not just in Singapore.
Ho: Correct, but in terms of what I had been doing for 10 years with my residents, I had been with them, I was a part of them, I had interacted with them, I managed to connect with them in a way that I was family and they were family. I was very sure I could win based on my track record and all of a sudden to remind them – if you don’t vote for me this is what the ward would look like. I felt it wasn’t necessary.
Bharati: But Nee Soon East was a hot seat. Perhaps that’s why Mr Lee felt it was necessary. And the opposition was pouring a lot of resources into it as well.
Ho: Because they were disqualified from competing in Aljunied GRC, so they all came to fight in Nee Soon East. But I still felt that with my track record with my constituents, there was no need to use that as a threat.
Bharati: Mr Lee did eventually say to you to do it your way. But Mr Lee Hsien Loong who spoke at your rally later actually raised the issue.
Ho: That was then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. I suppose they felt that that reminder should be made.
Bharati: How did it feel when you heard him say that, during the rally?
Ho: He worded it like a reminder, so it was quite different because it came from him. If it had come from me, I guess it would have come across negatively, in terms of the connectivity between me and the residents.
Bharati: The fact that you were unwilling to raise certain issues that other politicians see as being par for the course – to what extent do you think that might indicate that you were not really a political animal? Or were you? Because you also knew that a threat like that wouldn’t go down well with your constituents and might backfire?
Ho: I think there is a tinge of truth there. I just wanted to serve. I do what I need to do. And when I had made the effort to reach out to my constituents in other ways, I felt the threat was not necessary. I preferred to win them over without threats that indeed could backfire. When I need to be tough, I can be tough. When I was in Parliament – and in answering so many questions in Parliament, sometimes I had to put down people who made points I felt did not make sense. In the context of the election, in the context of what I was asked to do however, I felt it was not necessary.
THE TEMPLE ISSUE: LEE KUAN YEW SHOULD NOT HAVE INTERVENED
Bharati: Let’s talk about the other issue that made headlines during that election – the temple issue. I think one media outlet dubbed it “the temple tempest”. There were some misunderstandings between you and the organisers of the seventh month dinners in the constituency, some of them from the temple, some of them from the HDB blocks in the area.
Ho: It happened this way. First of all, the odds were very much in my favour in the beginning. But somewhere near the midpoint of the campaigning period, it became 50-50. I think the party leaders were rightly concerned because the odds had dropped and from their own assessment, part of the problem was the unhappiness of some of these people who ran the seventh month dinners including the temple folks.
It was related to the new procedures that were introduced in my ward relating to how applications were granted, because various applications were made by various agencies to hold the dinner. The traditional way is for them to bring it to my meet-the-people session once a week. If I am there I would sign it straightaway. But to do that, they have to come and meet me.
So my people at the constituency secretariat felt that it would be more convenient for them to drop it anytime of the day at the community centre (CC).
Bharati: But they saw it differently.
Ho: Yes, they felt they would have to wait for the form to come to me and my office, for me to sign, and be brought back to the CC again. So what I thought was well-meaning actually backfired.
Bharati: There were also questions about whether they were pressured into donating to community causes.
Ho: That is another aspect. The objective of the meeting before the whole festival season was again well-meaning – people come together, say hello, get to know one another, clarify doubts. A piece of paper was passed around to facilitate something that was very good, which the temple folks did anyway. But what was done to make it convenient had the negative implications of adding pressure.
Bharati: In order to defuse the situation, Mr Lee Kuan Yew intervened and he had a closed-door meeting with those individuals. You were excluded from this meeting. How did that make you feel?
Ho: I had no choice. I wanted to be in it. I felt I should be in it. I believe it could have sent the wrong signal and undermined my position as their MP. I didn’t feel good being excluded, but that was it. Anyway, in the heat of elections, the pace was very quick and before you knew it, the meeting was held, the meeting was over. He dealt with it. It was not an issue after that in the sense he must have placated some of their misgivings. I am thankful for that. I think the aim was to avoid any unpleasantness and just resolve the issue. But I still feel there was no reason to exclude me.
Bharati: Did you have to personally still repair relations with them post-election?
Ho: I would say that in my then-10 years in Nee Soon East, I had good relations with everybody including the temple folks. It was nothing personal. They felt that things were not going right in terms of the procedures; it was not a personal relationship problem but the procedures, which they felt had to be put right, and they were put right. I said after the episode, that it was a storm in the teacup. It was important for the people who expressed those views, but whether it would have had a large impact in the election was a question mark. Maybe not, but who knows now.
Bharati: You maintain till this day that Mr Lee should not have intervened.
Ho: I say “perhaps not”. But I think it’s a moot point now. I think in terms of an MP building rapport on the ground – ask any MP on the ground – they would prefer to fight their own fight. There were instances, later on when MPs were bolder, they would ask party HQ: Please don’t come in. Let me fight the fight. If I win it, it’s my win.
Bharati: How would you personally have handled the situation in Nee Soon East had Mr Lee not intervened?
Ho: I had actually had a visit to one of the temples when I heard about this. I had talked to the leaders there, the media had come, it was covered in the media. Another MP, Ong Ah Heng, had gone to the rally and spoken about what I had done, my good relations with the temple folks. I thought that it was already being addressed.
Bharati: What lessons did you learn from that episode?
Ho: First of all, in doing anything new as an MP on the ground, I think it was very important to be able to look ahead to see whether they would cause any problems and address them beforehand. Second, when you are in a fight, when you are a leader of a team, not just in elections, but in any situation where it is fluid – it can be a company crisis if you are a corporate manager – as a leader you must project a strong image.
Sometimes I suppose, the problem with me is that my feelings are transparent, maybe in that sense I am not a political creature. When you do that, it may cause your people who are following you to be a bit demoralised. They may think – are you entertaining thoughts of losing?
I think it’s important to gear up and say – yes! And I did. I publicly said – and I believed –
that I was going to win. The media asked me and I said I would win, but I suppose in terms of physical appearance, that was not fully conveyed. That was a lesson learnt.
FAITH AND POLITICS
Bharati: You are a devout Christian and your religion came up as an issue during that time because of your problems with the individuals from the temple.
Ho: I would not say my religion became an issue in the 2001 election. I think it was clarified. It was just a surrounding circumstance that Nee Soon was a place where there were Chinese temples. My opponent then, Poh Lee Guan, whose father was in a temple, so people thought it was religious. But it was not. I don’t think my religion or my faith as a Christian was something my residents felt would work against me. If anything, as I mentioned in my book, I think one of the media mentioned that I was a very committed Christian and I (being) an elder in church worked to my advantage, because residents, especially, knew I was a committed Christian, and whatever I did was informed by my faith, my motivation to do good. And I went to all events and interacted with people of all faiths.
Bharati: To what extent do you think your faith might have shaped your decisions when it came to policy matters?
Ho: As an MP I knew that I served Singaporeans of all faiths so I must make decisions on that basis, on the basis of what is good for Singapore. So when one is very comfortable with one’s faith, not just as a Christian but whatever faith you may be, then in public service, your sincerity is motivated by your complete person which also includes your faith. I think in terms of what we do, it must be good for Singapore.
Bharati: When it came to the building of casinos in Singapore, some MPs voted against it. Some of them cited their faith as a reason. Why did you vote for it?
Ho: I think ultimately it’s something that Singapore would benefit from. And looking at what we have done in terms of mitigating all the negative consequences, we did it in the Singapore way. And that is very important. We went in with eyes open, and whether it’s in terms of countering money-laundering, or vices, or broken families, we have taken measures to do it. So ultimately I supported it on that basis. With eyes open, we can weigh the economic benefits.
Bharati: One could say that the economic benefits of the casinos are questionable today. We are hearing of addiction to gambling rise, but granted, that could be because more people are coming forward to get help or greater accessibility to online gambling.
Ho: I looked at it this way. It’s not just casinos. It’s the integrated resorts as a whole in the longer term. First, in terms of the time at which they were built, jobs were created. The buzz added to the economy when we were facing a downturn. That was important, and also in terms of adding to Singapore’s proposition as a tourist destination, not just in terms of the casino aspect, but bringing in the arts, bringing in culture. Having the infrastructure at both the resorts added to what Singapore can offer as a tourist destination. To me, that is the larger proposition that one has to think about – whether Singapore can benefit.
Bharati: A lot of religious leaders objected to it. How did you reconcile your beliefs, your religious beliefs with the decision you ultimately made?
Ho: I do not support gambling. Definitely, it’s something as fellow Singaporeans, we must be very mindful of – the negative consequences of gambling. It’s not a question of whether we should have gambling in Singapore or not, which is different. We already had gambling in Singapore at that time in various forms. The question is whether we should have integrated resorts with an element of gambling. That is how I looked at it. So if the proposition had been – should we have a law that legalises gambling? I would say “no”. But that was not the issue at that time.
Bharati: Because gambling was legal already.
Ho: Correct. Other forms of gambling.
Bharati: But why support creating another avenue of legal gambling when you’re against gambling? The fact that some forms of gambling were legal already, surely, should not be a justification for adding to the list.
Ho: Yes, but there were also all the pluses you have to look at. The gambling safeguards for Singaporeans, the other economic benefits.
SERVICE IN POLITICS: A TWO-WAY STREET
Bharati: Earlier, you talked about wanting to serve through politics. But I understand that you actually studiously avoided saying it to your residents when you were in politics. You didn’t want to tell them that you were there to “serve” them. Why?
Ho: I felt that when you say it in very stark terms: I am here to serve you, then it may cause expectations on the part of your residents. It sounds a bit too one-sided, I am here just to serve you. You don’t have to do much yourself. No doubt, an MP must serve. That is the substance of it. He or she is there to make the lives of his constituents better. He must have the ability. That is why one of my frameworks as an MP was the four As: Ability, Accessibility, Affinity, Affirming nature.
Part of it must be your ability. Part of service is being able to make the lives of your constituents better. To me, service is definitely a core element of being an MP. But it can’t just be one-sided. In my years in public service as an MP, my rallying call was – let’s come together, let’s make constituency a better place, a home for everybody. I would definitely do my part in ways that I can in terms of bringing in resources, being the contact man with various agencies, speaking up for you in parliament, but you must also do your part in keeping Singapore safe, keeping your neighborhood safe, coming for functions. It’s a two-way street. I think ultimately it must be a two-way street.
Bharati: Do you think that attitude and message is missing now from today’s political landscape?
Ho: Today, civic consciousness is rising. Civil society is rising, which is good, Singaporeans are getting up to do more for themselves. I think there is already this swell of volunteerism. So in that context, MPs feel that: I am here to serve you. But the rider is that OK, we know that citizenry is already more active, more people are doing their part.
Bharati: Some people might not agree with that statement, because based on comments on social media for instance, a lot of people do still have a sense of entitlement.
Ho: There may be some people who feel like that, but on the whole I am a bit more positive about society.
Bharati: Why, when in fact even people who are in politics now have said that citizens or constituents come up to them with high and sometimes unrealistic expectations? Some politicians have said that more and more, over the years, people have been threatening them: “If you don’t meet my expectations, I will not vote for you.”
Ho: I think this is the reality. There will be people who are like that. You can’t run away from that. But ultimately, I think if an MP has established a relationship with the constituents, there would not be that. I think that connection is very important. Singaporeans need to be more mindful of that need for collective teamwork, this sense of collective destiny, and for me, this has percolated also to the constituencies.
A SPORTS ADVOCATE
Bharati: Let’s now talk about some of the other things you have done. In 1993, you advocated for a sports ministry. Since then we’ve seen the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports being formed. Now, the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth. We have seen progress in terms of support for sports in Singapore. But when Joseph Schooling won the Olympic gold medal, there was a lot of talk about how the Government wasn’t doing enough to support our sportspeople, chiefly because of the fact that his parents were the ones who had to go through so much to support his dreams. What’s your perspective on this?
Ho: I think we have come a long way. Overall, government support in many areas – facilities, community sports, recognising the need for champions, pathways for elites. From the time I made that speech I think we have come a long way, and I think we are on the right track, turning up champions, not only in the Olympics but also the Paralympics.
Bharati: Is it enough though? Is the Government doing enough?
Ho: What is “enough”?
Bharati: Some might say that “enough” is when you pump in more money to support an athlete like Joseph Schooling without his parents having to sacrifice so much. Not everyone’s parents even have the potential means to do what they did.
Ho: I think the Government is pumping in more money. Joseph Schooling is probably a lesson learnt. But of course…
Bharati: …a lesson learnt in the sense that?
Ho: That we need to recognise talent earlier. In Joseph’s case, he had talent earlier, so from the Government’s perspective, it’s a matter of recognising a talent that is special earlier, and then investing in that talent earlier. That is the point, and being able to create a path, especially if you are male, even through NS. That is happening now. More flexibility is being shown. We recognise the need for encouraging sportsmen overall, but flexibility in terms of recognising there are some who maybe you need to walk the extra mile with, then maybe support with all kinds of resources.
NOT BECOMING A FULL MINISTER
Bharati: You never became a full minister even though after the 2001 General Election, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had said that in appointing the law minister, you would be one of those whom he would consider. How did it feel when you weren’t appointed to the post?
Ho: I never saw that as a promise. I saw what Mr Goh said as a response to a question that had been asked in the heat of campaign. I think he said it very factually – if he were to appoint a law minister, who were the people who were legally-trained? There was Prof Jayakumar, there was Mr Lee Kuan Yew and there was Ho Peng Kee. That was the context. As I said in my book, what I was very happy to hear was that I was a member of his core team. Even if I was not appointed a full cabinet minister, I was a valued member of the core team, an emerging younger team. When that didn’t happen, I took it in stride. Humanly, I was disappointed, but I am thankful I remained in the two ministries and continued to contribute.
Bharati: You said in your book that the system was true to itself, and recognised that you wouldn’t fit in as a cabinet minister in charge of law and home affairs as you did not have an essential ingredient, which is a hard edge. You said it is a correct assessment. What sort of hard edge do you think is needed to helm a ministry like that?
Ho: You need to have a tough demeanor, use tough words, if need be, against critics, against opponents.
Temperamentally I am not like that. If I have to put down an argument, I think I can. But in any team, you need people with different dispositions. I said in my book that I think I could have made a contribution for example as Minister of Community, Youth and Sports at that time.
Bharati: Or Social and Family Development. You mentioned that too.
Ho: Yes, because my heart was there in terms of what I did, the various hats I wore, the various programmes I rolled out were fitting in those ministries.
Bharati: Did you discuss that with existing cabinet ministers at that point? Did you tell the PM – would you consider me for this other ministry instead?
Ho: When I was appointed MOS (Minister of State) in 1997, I did ask him whether I would make the cabinet. At that point in time, he said, “no, no plans.”
Bharati: What do you think the problem was?
Ho: I think it’s like that – the PM and the team has to decide, who are the people who were potentially cabinet ministers.
Bharati: Why do you think you didn’t qualify?
Ho: Because I was not somebody who came from the system. In fact, when I was fielded in 1991, like I said, probably people were quite surprised.
Bharati: Because you weren’t a government scholar?
Ho: I was not a government scholar. I was not in the system, I was a very happy university professor.
Bharati: Do you think it should be necessary to be a government scholar in order to move up?
Ho: At that time, it seemed to be. Now, definitely not. Now I am very happy that cabinet ministers come from diverse backgrounds; that is fantastic.
Bharati: It does seem like they are of a certain mould though – government scholars, or from the army. Some might say the mix isn’t diverse enough and for new, workable solutions, Singapore needs diversity in its cabinet.
Ho: Well, we need to find people who are willing to give up their private sector jobs or businesses. If you have enough people doing that, you may very well have more private sector or cabinet members with private sector backgrounds. That is the context.
Bharati: Did you resent the fact that during your time, there was a lot of focus on getting people of a certain mould only into the cabinet?
Ho: I don’t think so. Basically we were there to serve. I think if anything, my book shows that when you are a strong number two, even if you are not a cabinet minister you can still make a meaningful contribution. That is something I hope my book can be an encouragement for. Not just in politics, but in every sphere in life. You may not be the top person. Everybody wants to be the top, but there can only be one top or one team of people at the top. Wherever you are, do your best, contribute, and you can make a difference in the team.
Bharati: You don’t regret never been at the top?
Ho: I had a very good 10 years after that. I was a strong senior minister of state. I continued to work very well with Prof Jaya and Mr Wong Kan Seng, and many programmes mentioned in my book continued to be rolled out. So I continue to make meaningful contributions.
Bharati: Why did you quit politics?
Ho: I felt it was time to leave. I had 20 good years. I was 57 then. I think it’s good to go when you are sort of doing well as long as you are quite sure that whatever you have done, someone could come after you to continue the work you are doing. There were other things I wanted to do. And so I left.
Bharati: You sit on some committees and do a lot of volunteer work now.
Ho: I try to add value wherever I have the opportunity. I do the groundwork where I continue to espouse causes I continue to support, whether it is committee mediation, whether it’s sports…
POLITICIANS CAN’T FIX THEIR UPBRINGING, BUT CAN FIX THEIR MINDSETS
Bharati: Looking at the political landscape today, post-2011 – parliamentary debates, social media engagement, the requirements that politicians have to fulfill – would you join politics as it is today?
Ho: I think I would have still joined politics because it is an opportunity to serve. The basic motivation is there. But whether I would have been so comfortable … I was quite relaxed about it then. Actually, I enjoyed my stint. I think basically my temperament is like that. I like meeting with people. I lived my life interacting with students, living with them. But in terms of social media, I would be out of place, definitely, but if I were to be younger, it would be different, because as said, in my book, I am basically not that sort of creature.
But I am very happy that despite what people say about social media, being on the ground, shaking hands, connecting with residents, being informal with them, being one of them, is still happening on the ground. I think nothing would replace that. For example, I am very happy now in terms of how our MPs and office-holders interact with people. When you come to a function, don’t ask residents to stand up for you. When you speak, speak off the cuff at times. If you have a prepared text, you have a message to bring up, by all means; but the way you talk, eye contact, voice inflection, that is important. I see many of our office-holders, younger ones especially, doing that now.
Bharati: But in spite of that, I hear a lot of people say that politicians are often quite out of touch with the ground. For example do they understand what it is like to travel on public transport day-in and day-out during peak hours? What do you have to say to that?
Ho: I think it’s about your mindset. My book shows that. I started off in politics not knowing what an HDB estate is like, never attended any meet-the-people sessions. I did take public transport as a student. You make up for it as you go along. You are mindful of what your needs are. You can’t fix your own upbringing, but you can fix your own mindset, your own motivation and some of these skills you can imbibe and express. To me, a politician must be like that. Many of our younger politicians know what is needed. I said it in my book – you play one football game with your residents, you connect much better than if you make ten speeches. Because they know you are one of them, if you are on the field playing football. Also, don’t go in with your pants rolled up and barefooted. Gear up like them, play with them, you tackle them, they tackle you. You have a good laugh after that. That’s it!
Bharati: But on a deeper level, you also need to understand what day-to-day living is like for them.
Ho: I agree. I agree, but that is about mindset. You have to really get into their lives. When I, for example, had to answer a question on the situation in Geylang, I drove around Geylang at night to learn more. You have to immerse yourself in the circumstances and situations of people whose lives you have some say over.
Bharati: Who or what would you say has influenced you the most over the years?
Ho: I think one person would be my father. In terms of looking after other people, in terms of exercising compassion, in terms of being a good provider both with my family, and being generous with the resources given to me. I didn’t have a lot of interaction time with him, because he was a typical Chinese businessman who provided for the family, who worked very hard, who rose from being an itinerant seller of watches on the ground to owning his own watch shop. He showed through his life the values of honesty, integrity, hard work, and providing for your family. He had a very strong impact on me. In the back of my mind, (there) is still this need to live up to what he wanted me to be.
Bharati: What do you think he wanted you to be?
Ho: He wanted me to be a person who is useful to society, who is helpful, especially to those who are needy. He wanted me to be someone who can be part of the process where you can make your community and Singapore better.
Bharati: Is there anything you have done differently? Do you have any regrets?
Ho: I don’t think so, I think I have lived my life fully and I am thankful for that.
Bharati: You mentioned wanting to leave a strong legacy. If you could just encapsulate it in one sentence, what is this legacy you want to leave?
Ho: I hope I have touched lives and made a difference in the lives of many people out there.