Revealed: Singapore’s strategic secrets for staying ahead

By Joshua Chambers

Exclusive Interview: Peter Ho, Senior Advisor, Centre for Strategic Futures

The great military strategist Clausewitz once said that leaders must “bring to the task the quality of intuition that perceives the truth at every point.” In other words, they must imagine many different outcomes - and ensure that they are prepared.

How can leaders do this when the world is increasingly volatile? When fake news and ‘deep fakes’ can cloud our judgement of reality? When even the most certain opinion poll can shift within minutes to the opposite outcome?

This is the challenge facing a unit at the heart of Singapore Government. Nestled in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Centre for Strategic Futures must think of the many possible outcomes for Singapore in the next 50 years. GovInsider interviewed Peter Ho, Senior Advisor to this centre and former Head of the Civil Service, to understand the techniques they use to keep Singapore one step ahead.

Inside the Centre for Strategic Futures

Three officials come to meet me before the boss arrives, taking their seats in the corner of the wood panelled boardroom with anticipation. Ho served as one of Singapore’s most powerful people, and remains a trusted voice at the heart of government. He ran Singapore’s Ministry of Defence; Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and oversaw national security and intelligence - before being appointed Head of the Civil Service from 2005 - 2010.

Despite his seniority, Ho cuts a relaxed and engaging figure, talking expansively about the perils Singapore must overcome. This is one of the best methods for government to think about the future, he explains. “You just sit around the table with a mixed bag of people and you talk: ‘‘What do you think is going to happen, and what worries you?’”

Ho founded the Centre for Strategic Futures ten years ago to fill a clear need. “We began to experience a series of shocks,” he says. These included the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis; the 2001 discovery of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network in Singapore; and the 2003 SARS crisis. Each was unforeseen, and had the potential to dramatically unsettle the nation. How could Singapore prepare?

The answer was to form a team of ten people who are tasked to think about future challenges and opportunities. It is impossible to predict the future, he explains, but you can look for “weak signals” that indicate potential changes. This discipline is known as ‘horizon scanning’ in the government world.

Shocking possibilities

What are some weak signals? Ho provides three examples. First, there is increasing nationalism and populism in Western politics. “We have to ask ourselves: ‘why is it happening’?” It points to a lack of trust in government institutions, and the broader role of social media in political debate.

Singapore has yet to visibly face this, he notes, “but that doesn’t mean it cannot”. This year’s Indonesian elections saw racial and religious slurs spread widely, with fake news fanning the flames. India suffered similar problems, with instances of mob violence caused by false stories spread through Whatsapp. How can government prepare for all of these potential problems?

Artificial intelligence is a second area of interest. For the past few years, the Centre has debated its impact on jobs and the broader effect on society. “We tend to look at technology more from the point of view of economic opportunities,” he says, “but you should be looking at where the downsides are as well”. In hindsight, “it seems obvious”, but global governments have only just started to look at the impact of AI on jobs and their wider economic models.

Climate change is a third example, and one which throws up vast numbers of interconnected challenges. It causes problems ranging from the global economic model to urban planning in city spaces and the scarcity of water and food. The challenge needs engineers, social scientists, biologists - a vast mix of differing expertise, Ho previously warned in a public lecture last year.

Why does this need a unit?

At this point in the interview, you may wonder why traditional government structures can’t consider such glaringly huge problems. The problem, Ho explains, is human nature. Economists refer to ‘bounded rationality’, with human brains only able to consider a finite amount of information and make a decision. Climate change is a whole series of interconnected problems, for example.

We also suffer from another flaw known as ‘hyberbolic discounting’. This simply means that “people are reluctant to invest in the long term,” Ho explains. “They would prefer to focus on the short term because of the obvious payoffs”. This is true in politics where there is no credit given for something achieved in the future, and no credit at all for problems that were avoided.

Ho has added his own theory to the discipline, which he terms “black elephants”. The economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously wrote of black swan events - unforeseen challenges like the Credit Crunch or the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. Ho adapted this to refer to obvious future challenges that still get ignored. Take climate change again - the oil companies prefer to cast doubt on the evidence, while the biggest nations keep increasing their consumption.

So you think you’re a horizon scanner?

What do you do when you spot a weak signal, let alone a black elephant? How can horizon scanners overcome human nature to ensure they are taken seriously? “It’s a perennial problem,” Ho warns. Singapore’s structures are intended to overcome this risk.

The unit is placed in the Prime Minister’s Office, and reports to the current Head of the Civil Service, Leo Yip. “If they need to co-opt or direct, they will, because they have the positioning at the centre of government,” Ho says. This gives their reports an institutional heft.

That doesn’t mean, however, that horizon scanners should be forceful. “The way we do things is very gentle”, he says: “It doesn’t ram things down the throats of policymakers.” Their rallying cry is “tolerated but not embraced,” Ho adds, and they never take the credit for any policy or strategy.

What are the topics they choose? “The only thing we don’t get involved in is what we know the government is looking at,” he says - they look for issues that may not have been spotted, or prioritised. “We can cover everything from geopolitics to economics, technology to social issues”.

A brief history of futures

History has plenty of examples of early horizon scanners, and they are often ignored. One of the first comes from 480 BC, when Persia’s Emperor Xerxes was preparing to invade Greece. His advisor Artabanus warned of the risks, from supply problems to the perils of the long march to come. Xerxes conquered Athens, but was slowly defeated by guerrilla attacks and food shortages. He fled home and was assassinated.

It was the British Empire who took horizon scanning into the heart of government. In 1902 they created the Committee of Imperial Defence, which designed some of the modern techniques used in strategic planning. The CID also recommended the formation of the world’s first modern intelligence agencies: MI5 and MI6.

Singapore has made its own contribution to the field. The nation uses horizon scanning to consider all of its policy challenges, from healthcare to road building. It also built a network of advisors across government, which feed into the Centre for Strategic Futures.

“The habit of thinking long term started from almost day one,” Ho explains. On independence, the government had to build housing programmes and consider its water supplies, which “all required a very long term perspective. I guess, after a while, this creates a habit of thinking long term”.

This year is the unit’s tenth birthday. If Ho were to horizon scan for the future of the unit, what would he see? “My guess is it’s got a good chance of staying around,” he says.

But it faces a tradeoff. There is a temptation to increase its size, enabling it to consider more problems. “The danger is it becomes very much part of the bureaucracy,” he says. “It’s got a lot of freedom, which is very important for an outfit like this.”

The Centre has achieved a great deal. It created a new model for others to follow, and advised on challenges ranging from diversity in politics to terrorism and climate change. It all sounds quite obvious when it’s put down on paper. But as Clausewitz once said of leadership: “the simplest thing is difficult”.