Reflections with Ho Kwon Ping

Mr Ho Kwon Ping, founding Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, an international hospitality business, founding Chairman of Singapore Management University, former journalist at the Far Eastern Economic Review, has worn many hats over the course of his long and illustrious career. It was, though, not always so smooth and successful a ride. Mr Ho has had many run-ins with the authorities: first at Stanford University in America while he was an undergraduate, then during his National Service and later under the Internal Security Act while studying at the National University of Singapore as an undergraduate again, having left Stanford after his run-in with the authorities. In all these occasions, Mr Ho’s conviction to speak truth to power prevailed. Today, he has prevailed over these troubles and is a respected figure in business, civil society, education and academia.

By Brendan Loon

Mr Ho: I’ve often said that I think they all build up and contribute to the final thing. If you ask what defines me, I won’t say journalism defines me because that was a starting career, I would probably say it’s education, with Singapore Management University (SMU), and business, with Banyan Tree. These are things that I created and therefore I hope to leave a legacy behind through these.

Journalism was just a short period, however, I’ve often resonated with Steve Jobs’ point about how everything that you do in life, you never know when and how, but it comes back to influence you later on. His famous example at a graduation speech where he talked about how, before he dropped out of Reed College in Oregon, he actually had taken a course in calligraphy – and that was the whole origin of fonts, word processing for Apple. He never thought it would come back that way, because he was just interested in calligraphy.

I’ve found that in my trade as a journalist, I learn what I call the art of asking questions, because in journalism – particularly, serious journalism – you have to ask pretty penetrating questions even though you don’t have a lot of time, and you have to make conclusions because you’ve got to write an article about something. So, I found that in the rest of my career – be it with Banyan Tree or SMU or my other family businesses – in areas where you don’t have domain expertise, and I have no domain expertise in education nor in hospitality, I could get by because I knew how to get to the heart of an issue by asking questions. This supports the point that whenever you have a varied career, and you end up doing something – you may have been a chef and then you end up a banker – in some odd way, though you will never realise until maybe later on in life when you look back, but your experience as a chef probably, in some way, influenced you and made you different as a banker. The point here for young people is that: don’t worry too much if you switch careers a little bit – of course, there’s those who do it excessively – but in your early life, if you do many things out of genuine interest, don’t worry too much because all that varied work somehow will come back to make you different from the next guy. I think that’s a useful point for young people to remember.

Mr Ho: I think I ask why just as sceptically of things as I have always done, but I don’t necessarily act on it as foolhardily as I did in the past: write articles and throw stones, get me thrown in jail in America, thrown in jail in Singapore, get thrown out of university. I still encourage my children to ask why – but you don’t have to be so impulsive in your responses. I think the general spirit of inquiry should not be reduced with age; if anything at all, it should become more penetrating and more acute, because you’ve got a whole wealth of experience with age, so that when you ask why, you’re actually asking the really penetrating ‘why’s. While you were younger, you might not have been able to do so.

Asking why is not a one-off thing; it’s a continuing, circuitous reasoning. You ask why, you get an answer and then you ask ‘why this?’, then ‘why that?’ and ‘why so and so?’ – until you get to an answer that is satisfactory to you. It’s a spirit and an approach – a methodology. When you are very, very young, ironically sometimes young toddlers or young children ask the most penetrating ‘why’s – with the least amount of knowledge they will ask you the most fundamental issue: ‘Why do I have to study?’ They ask you questions like that, and that’s actually seemingly quite silly, but actually it’s quite deep. When you are a teenager and then a little bit later in life, when you ask yourself the same question ‘Why do I study?’ then the answers come in: I study because of my career; I study because of this or that. In the process of answering this question, it helps you a little bit more in terms of how you study and where you want to go etc. But you still accept that your answers are within a certain boundary of practical answers.

When you get to my age now, and I ask myself ‘Why do I study?’, I probably now go deeper than the issue of careers etc., because my career’s already gotten going. I can say things that are very abstract and mean it: I study for knowledge; I study to know more about the world. As to the things I needed to know for my career, I’m already past it, so the things I’m interested in studying and reading now are really to enrich myself and answer more questions of the world. Ironically, I ask that question ‘Why do I study?’ with the same simplicity as a three-year-old, but with much greater depth in my answer. In a way, the answers you get to this question you ask at every stage of your life depends on how deep you want to go.

Mr Ho: In terms of the questions I asked, they were completely different – a different set of questions but with the same origins. I got in trouble at Stanford because of my being sceptical of the Vietnam War and in fact, in retrospect, I think I’ve been proven right compared to the Singapore establishment of that time, which thought that Vietnam was fighting a war of Communism and if the Vietnamese won the war – which they did – it would lead to the Domino Theory. It was also what the Americans felt, and what people like myself were protesting against because we thought it was a war of national unification, and that if they won, they would just stop there. And I think we were proven right. At that time, my views would have been very opposed in Singapore. But the one thing that really got me kicked out of Stanford even though I was very involved in Vietnam War activities, was my participation in a student disruption of the class of a Nobel prize-winner, William Shockley. He had a course on physics but he was a big exponent of eugenics and the sterilisation of black people because they were inferior, etc. Of course, part of my asking why would be: ‘Why do you have such views?’, ‘Why are you able to propagate these views?’, ‘Why should we not engage you in a debate?’. So I got in there – a stupid student at 19 years old – got thrown out.

Back in Singapore, having served National Service and getting some sense knocked into you, that you can’t ask why too many times of your instructors otherwise they’ll charge you. And I did get charged, by the way. I got charged because I shouted and screamed at my officers, because I thought they were mistreating us, so I basically screamed an expletive at him. I was supposed to be the Sword of Honour recipient but I got downgraded and almost kicked out for this staging of a little bit of a mutiny. I didn’t even mention this in my book, but there in National Service, I also got into trouble and went to the Detention Barracks for it.

In NUS, I was asking why not about NUS itself because I was a mature student so I didn’t really study very hard because I was repeating my course as they wouldn’t accept my credits from Stanford. I found time to get a girlfriend, get a motorbike and start writing articles about the political system – that got me into trouble and got me jailed. Since then I have not been jailed, thankfully.

Mr Ho: Nothing – that’s the worst part. First of all, there you become much more honest with yourself because you cannot lie to yourself anymore. You are naked to yourself. In jail, I was held in solitary confinement with no sense of day or night because the lights are on all the time, and no human interaction – you are taken out to go to the loo, taken out to go take a shower. You don’t meet anybody except your interrogators. You’re given nothing. You’re disoriented in time also because sometimes it’s bright 24 hours round the clock so you could be starving and have no food and then you could get meals when you’re full. You’re disoriented. The thing is that there’s no external stimuli. Try to put yourself in a box with no stimuli – nothing, no sound, nothing to see, no day, no night, no sensation of anything – see if your mind goes crazy. Sometimes, you would break out in a cold sweat because time just goes on and on, and you have no sensation of time – it just drags on. Your mind then is your worst enemy, and you find you want to reign in your mind: you pretend to type letters with the typewriter to try and remember things, you try to create a story and remember – but you can’t tame your mind. Of course, those who can are those who are very, very strong – people who endure detention who have a strong belief system, who know why they’re there and so they can reinforce themselves. But when you’re a 24-year-old kid without really knowing, not really fighting for a cause or willing to die for a cause, just sort of big-mouthed and protesting against all sorts of things and suddenly you get thrown into confinement and lose all your bearings, it’s a frightful thing to be. I’ve always felt that your mind is always your best friend – obviously – but it can also be your worst enemy. Being able to control it is not an easy thing to do. What makes you really strong is not your physique; it’s your mind.

Mr Ho: The lie I was telling myself was that I was this revolutionary that was going to go and help change the world. It doesn’t sound that stupid. The line between being sucked into something and believing in something, the line between a fervent young idealist and crossing that line to become something of a terrorist or just something you would regret, isn’t that broad a line. It’s a very thin line and it’s usually the most sensitive, intelligent and idealistic people who become these people. I realised I wasn’t a Nelson Mandela; I didn’t have a cause. I was just a middle-class kid, who was very liberal in his beliefs, criticising things. In Singapore, it crossed the line. I became very clear in my own mind that I wasn’t going to go and spend 25 years in jail, which you can and there have been people who have: Chia Thye Poh and Poh Soo Kai. They did not want to confess. All you needed to do was to confess whatever the authorities wanted you to confess and you’d be released. They refused to confess and for that, they stayed in jail for 20 over years. I clearly wasn’t going to be that, so I was pretty quickly honest with myself and saying, ‘You just get out and start life over again’. I wasn’t a freedom fighter, and I’m not a Poh Soo Kai. I’m not a Chia Thye Poh.

Mr Ho: The climate today is no longer how it was like during my time. That was a time of life and death. You don’t get a Lee Kuan Yew or Lim Chin Siong any more. Those times are not the times as these times. You don’t have freedom fighters and so on – you might get an Amos Yee. For youth who are idealistic today, there is room and space in Singapore, actually, for you to express yourself. You have to know the boundaries, and to me, I really accept and fully support those boundaries. I’m not a libertarian who says, “You can shout anything and it’s okay. You can insult somebody’s race and religion – it’s okay, it’s freedom of speech”. I don’t buy that. We in Singapore have our own specific context, as do many other countries, where you cannot say those things. You cannot have anti-Semitic views and open say them in France; if you do, you get jailed – it’s not freedom of speech for this. So, in our context, I fully support many of the restraints on free speech that we have in Singapore, but not all.

In the artistic space, in civil society, a lot of people who have said things about the government or about issues haven’t been jailed. Sometimes, they are ridiculed – perhaps by a Minister. But my point would be: if you can’t take the heat, don’t be in the kitchen. If you’re going to say something about an issue and some Minister hits at it, so what? But you have to be accountable for what you say. There are also a lot of people on social media who say the most utterly ridiculous stuff – that’s not responsible. I’ve encouraged civil society groups not to try to be fashionable and make irresponsible comments about the government, which I think is plainly unwise. If you want to go out there and do something serious, and it happens to be something the government is not necessarily approving of – though they aren’t going to put in you jail because you aren’t endangering anybody – then go and do it. There is space in Singapore for you to do it. Look at all the dramas being put on by arts groups. Some of them are pretty unpleasant personal caricatures, which I find quite distasteful. They do it, though in pretty bad taste – but they do it and they’re not arrested. I think for young people today, if they have an issue, they should really take it from the Nike slogan ‘Just do it’ – but know what you shouldn’t do not because you’re scared of the government; you should constrain yourself for your own reasons. You have to think through it; if you want to say these things, is it responsible? If it is responsible and something serious and you’re saying it seriously and you’ve thought it through and asked why and can defend it, then by all means, say it and do it.

Mr Ho: I was recently asked at a talk what I would say would be the worst thing that could happen to the young generation today, and my reply was that it’s not that they will be invaded or become poor, it’s that all of them as a cohort will sleepwalk through life: comfortable, not really aware of what’s really happening, not passionate about anything, then one day, they wake up and say, “What did I really do? Did I waste my life?” I don’t want to accuse them, because it’s completely unfair to them as young people who’ve grown up in affluent Singapore. We, in our generation, created the environment for them to live in an affluent context. It’s not hardly their fault. The consequence of this, though, is that they can be less aware of things, and so sleepwalk.

When you look at young people in China, Indonesia, Burma, you see how hungry they are by necessity. We are not hungry anymore and neither should we be – but we must be hungry for something and this is the challenge for Singapore. It’s much easier to be hungry for something physical and then achieve it; it’s much more difficult to be hungry for something more amorphous, more social, hungry for a more purposeful life. My whole point to young people is: find a purpose.

Mr Ho: My family’s my purpose. My being able to create a legacy with Banyan Tree, which is not just about wealth and luxury hotels, but about the corporate social responsibility we’ve done and the community and brand that we’ve built. It’s a legacy I’m beginning gradually to pass on. SMU is a collective legacy – so many people have been involved in SMU – of a living, thriving community of students, alumni, faculty who share values. There may other things I can do too: I’m going to be getting two more grandchildren, so maybe I’ll be a purposeful grandfather. I’ll see what the future brings.

Mr Ho: I wish I would’ve known that the consequence of certain things would be this or that. That if I did this I would be jailed. That if I did this I would be thrown out. That if I did this I would lose a lot of money and almost go bankrupt. I wish I knew all those things – but you never do. Nobody does. Hindsight is always 20/20, but we’re always myopic in the moment. I don’t believe in thinking about regrets. I’ve always told people: “Learn from your lessons but don’t regret because it’s useless to feel regret”. It’s done already. Learn from something and not do it again. Feel sad, feel bad then move on. You can’t be feeling guilty every day of your life. You have to move on in life. I believe in learning lessons, but I don’t believe in regret. Regret technically means you feel bad about something you’ve done even though you can do nothing about it. One should just be practical. You should just move on.