HR must be more than a support function, says Low Peck Kem

Author: PM Editorial | Date: 21 Oct 2015

The Singapore government’s chief HR officer on how she plans to engage employees in an age where even free food isn’t enough to keep them happy

Low Peck KemLow Peck Kem, the Singapore Public Service Division’s chief HR officer, is no career civil servant. A former engineer who rose through the ranks at Hewlett-Packard Singapore before switching to an HR role, she has led HR at some of the most dynamic local technology businesses and also at the Ministry of Manpower, the government department responsible for overseeing the labour market.
 
The sparse, modest office she occupies at the heart of the Treasury building is central to Singapore’s modernisation efforts.Since taking up her role in early 2014, she has sought to broaden HR’s horizons, bringing in ideas and speakers from the best of the private sector, encouraging colleagues to measure themselves against others from multinationals and working with Singapore’s Human Capital Leadership Institute, which aims to make local HR the exemplar in the region and beyond. “We’re trying to grow our HR leaders at a national level, so that when companies come here they’re not bringing HR leaders from the US or wherever over here,” she says. “We want them to hire the local Singaporean person who understands the local talent pool.”
 
That means more mature HR practice is required in government too. Peck Kem has insisted the mandatory 100 training hours per year for every government employee is a genuinely meaningful experience for the function. After all, “if you create a learning organisation, that applies to everyone”. She has also partnered with the CIPD to benchmark the capabilities of the HR community against international standards, encouraging an initial 20 senior HR professionals to have their knowledge and experience assessed. As she puts it: “People are passionate about HR as a career track, and passionate about what they are doing. Some of them have been doing it for 20 or 30 years and they want to be recognised for that.”
 
The bigger picture, she says, is to ensure that the public sector remains fit for purpose for the next 50 years: “It’s no longer good enough to be very efficient. You need to think about how you can be highly effective.” But what will that look like in practice?
 
What is the most important driver of change in the Singapore public sector?
Our citizens today are very demanding. I went to visit the Google office in Singapore recently. Google, of course, is well known for its wonderful workplace environment and its free food, so you don’t have to waste time queuing or going outside in the sun. So I asked its HR director what people complain about. She said there were two things. One, work-life balance – because the work environment is so nice they spend so much time in the office and not enough with their family – and two, the quality of the free food. No kidding. The company has hired a lot of people fresh from college and it’s their first job. To them, that’s the norm. So when there’s nothing else to complain about, what do they complain about? The quality of the free food…
 
What do more demanding people mean for HR?
HR has traditionally been very much more of a support function. In today’s context, you are dealing with a very different environment. How effective and efficient our public service is depends solely on public officers. As a central agency, you can give HR professionals the budget, tell them the number of people they can hire, but it’s no longer just a numbers game. It’s about what kind of capabilities you are looking for. And the unfortunate thing is that even if you are delivering to the best of your abilities, if your citizens are complaining about the quality of your free food, you have to deal with it. If public sector leaders believe they can do it by themselves, by all means go ahead. But we know you can’t do it without HR.
 
We are trying to develop a strategic plan for the whole of government. We collect a wealth of data and have a strategic planning team that looks at organisations’ business and workforce challenges, and whether they have the capabilities to meet them. HR can’t do this alone – it has to work with leadership teams, finance and OD practitioners.
 
As native Singaporeans increase their share of private sector leading roles, won’t it become harder to attract the best people to the civil service?
The kind of people Google attracts are different from the people we are looking for. Our value proposition is that if you join us, you have one career but infinite possibilities. When I talk to graduates, I say: ‘If you choose a career in HR and apply for a position in the Ministry of Manpower, for example, you don’t have to look at the head of HR for Manpower as your ultimate position. There are 100 other HR director positions, and other leadership positions outside HR too. If we identify that you have high potential, we will groom you.’
 
As we are using taxpayers’ money we must make sure we don’t pay ridiculous sums. You may have heard our prime minister is the highest paid in the world: we believe that if you don’t attract the best to lead, you’re in trouble. But in the public service, we’ve never believed pay is the most important thing. They are fairly compensated but it’s a wonderful feeling to do good and get paid for it.
 
What role does having a stable political system play in encouraging public sector innovation?
The fact that the same party has been ruling Singapore for 50 years is a huge factor in what we can achieve. The public service supports whoever is political leader, but when you have a stable party you can start to accumulate and save for rainy days. You have enough credit within the country to say: “This is going to be a tough measure, but it is necessary. Let’s swallow the bitter pill now so we can have a better future.”
 
For example, during the 2008 Asian financial crisis, a lot of organisations found that they could not sustain themselves. We said: ‘If you have workers and they have nothing to do, send them for training. The government will subsidise your payroll and put them on relevant courses so that, when the business comes back, they’re prepared for the upturn.’
 
Would you still characterise Singapore as a hierarchical society, and how does that sit with a desire to innovate?
Of the six million people here, one in three in the working population is foreign talent. The majority of Singaporeans are Chinese and they tend to be brought up in a more Confucian kind of manner. But that is changing, particularly in management. Today, you are dealing with a generation that has never quite experienced pain and poverty in the same context that less-developed countries have. Their expectations are different.
 
People now tell us: ‘I don’t think you know best. I elect you not to make decisions for me but to ask me.’ In that context, we have evolved from a very command-and-control environment to one where we are constantly looking to engage, which is why our ongoing public service transformation is about building a trusted service. We have gone to great lengths to engage with the public. Nobody should go away thinking that Singapore is so efficient that it is clinical.
 
What role would you like to see HR play in your organisation and across Singapore more widely?
I’d really like to ensure that we’re a trusted HR community, with public officers at the centre of all we do. It’s my firm belief that HR is a vital tool in public sector transformation. If you ask CEOs what stops people riding on the back of the growth of Asia, they will tell you it’s not lack of funds, or desire, or opportunities, it’s that they don’t have the right calibre of leader trained with a global perspective. That’s why you need the foresight to say HR has a big role to play. By virtue of the fact that the country is so small and we have no natural resources, we don’t have enough land and water to sustain ourselves. Our only resource is our people.
 
A longer version of this article originally appeared in Work. magazine, the magazine for CIPD Fellows.