An interview Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s son Li Hongyi gave Advisory.sg is re-circulating on social media and messaging platforms like WhatsApp. In the interview, that was first published last year, Hongyi shed light into his personal life and his work as Deputy Director (Data Science & Artificial Intelligence Division) at GovTech.
The son of Lee and Ho Ching, the CEO of Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek, Hongyi is one of the key developers behind Parking.sg -an application that allows drivers in Singapore to pay for parking digitally.
Having previously been employed at Google, the MIT graduate has been with the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) of Singapore for over four years, since December 2013. IMDA is a statutory board under the Government ministry.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Hongyi is now in charge of increasing interest in computer science education in Singapore, redesigning and re-implementing data.gov.sg, and improving the transport network using sensors and optimisation algorithms.
Hongyi told Advisory.sg that the his typical work day involves product development, working with the Government bureaucracy, figuring out user strategy, project and team management.
He revealed: “I think the biggest highlight of my job is that we have a very rare opportunity to really do something nobody in the world has ever seen – which is a truly modern, functioning government. It’s a weird thing to say, right, especially in Singapore.”
Noting that the private sector is “increasingly using more sophisticated technology to do extremely trivial things,” Hongyi said that there are only a few nations like Singapore.
Hongyi, one of the grandsons of Singapore’s founding PM Lee Kuan Yew, said: “Singapore has a lot of problems, but one of the things we don’t have is a lack of political stability and a lack of resources. For all our issues, we are in the best position for a few people to do something really right.”
He added: “That, I think, is the exciting part, where you feel on our team that, if you are really successful at your job, not only does Singapore develop and not only do we alleviate suffering and reduce inefficiency, but then we become this example in the world of what a country run right can look like.
“And people will come and look at us, and they will see what society can be like. Even if they have always felt that this was possible, by seeing with their own eyes that it can happen, it becomes that much more powerful. It’s no longer just this theoretical dream, they see that it’s been done and so they can do it too. And hopefully that pushes other countries to do better, and we move towards a better world because of it.”
That said, Hongyi indicated that working with the Government is not without challenges. Noting that the Government is unlike a typical technology company where one could push out products more easily, he said:
“When I first joined the government, my mental model was that, as a technical guy who knew how to build products, I could come here and build good products, which the government would use since the government was looking for technical capabilities to build products. But that didn’t happen.
“Instead, you come here, you build something useful, and you realise that the government makes certain choices which work against such products. We lack products not because we lack resources but because we choose to – which means that you need to work to change that choice. You need to figure out who is making these choices and why they are making these choices. They often have reasons – not terrible ones, but nonetheless if there is a better way, then you need to figure how to convince them of it.”
For example, while the Parking.sg prototype was built in a mere two days, the tests for the product lasted months and the team Hongyi led faced difficulties in getting agency buy-in. He added:
“That’s something you have to deal with: figuring out how to convince people that the horrid way things are isn’t the horrid way things have to be. It takes persistence; we talked to URA and HDB for at least six months – making slides, presentations, and addressing concerns. If it wasn’t for sheer pigheadedness, we would’ve given up a long time ago. But we didn’t and we got there eventually.
“I think we need to overcome our choice to be afraid and stick to what we have even though there’s something better. If not, we will lack innovation not because of lack of ability or lack of resources, but because we choose not to innovate. And figuring out how to change that choice is key.”
Despite these challenges, Hongyi said that he has greater job satisfaction working for the Government than a tech giant like Google. Recounting his experiences at the multi-national tech conglomerate, he said:
“The thing to realise about Google and most private companies is that, even if you are incredibly successful…is that you would have spent the last year or two of your working life figuring out what colour advertisements should be to make ten million more dollars in revenue.
“It’s big money, but is the world a better place because the ads are now a slightly bluer shade of blue? Probably not.
“In the government, if you get a thing done – like fixing parking, which some might say is rather a first world problem we have – and remove that pain, you make people happy because their lives are better. Our goal is not only to fix these small things, but to fix the important stuff. If something small can already bring such joy, what more with fixing the more important stuff?
“That’s the difference. In government, you are going to work on the most important problems. It’s a question of what you want to do.”
Hongyi also encouraged students and young people in the interview. Asserting that his time at MIT “tremendously” influenced his career track, Hongyi said that its not that MIT students are smarter but MIT students are generally different since “they were willing to try harder.”
He said: “They weren’t just content with graduating and getting a good grade or class of honours. They would go and try to build a solar car or start a clinic to treat heart attack patients in some country.
“They weren’t inherently good at these things – because nobody inherently has such knowledge. But because they were willing to try, even though they didn’t know anything, they would get good at it after a short period of time figuring out the basics.”
Encouraging young people, he said: “If you can do that, then I think succeeding professionally isn’t as far away as you think. It’s not as mystical as you think. I think that was a big insight.”
He advised young people who want to work at GovTech that the agency looks for ability, an understanding of tech, communication skills, initiative and values like conviction. He said:
“I look out very acutely for people who, in their decision making process, do their job not because it pays well or because it’s a good career. We take people seriously. Ultimately I want people who want to do this job because they think that there is more to life than what we have now, and we can make a difference there.”
Hongyi further shed light on his managing style and said that he is focused on treating his team members like adults and keeping them accountable for their tasks and performance. Asserting the importance on developing his people, Hongyi said: “if you only focus on the projects, you start sacrificing your people.”
Sharing that unlike Google, his team doesn’t have “a fancy pantry…free massages or gourmet snacks.” He, however, recognises that life is important and indicated that he allows his team to work from home if they or their children are ill.
Hongyi also told Advisory.sg that he enjoys learning new things in his free time. He said: “Just recently I learned to touch-type properly. I never used all ten fingers like you’re supposed to – I typed weirdly growing up. For about two weeks, I set aside 15 minutes a day to practice touch typing, so now I can kind of type better than I could before.”
Besides watching YouTube videos on technology, to teach himself how to build new things, Hongyi also professed a love for audiobooks. Revealing that he enjoys listening to audiobook on a wide variety of topics from physics to psychology during his commute to and from work, he said:
“I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I try to specify the big broad categories of human knowledge and try to listen to an introductory book on each. It’s nowhere near a university education but at least you understand the big thought processes behind, for example, physics, biology, chemistry, history, economics, psychology, computer security and a few others, design, and things like that.
“You’re not going for becoming an expert, but just to and from work, you listen to these things, and over time you build a basic understanding of the thought processes in these fields and what the main things they think about are. You get a rough sense of what the big conundrums and focuses are. When you talk to someone about these things in the future, you at least know where to start to look things up and go deeper.”
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