For those who don’t know Philip Yeo Liat Kok is, he is one of Singapore’s most accomplished and controversial civil servants who contributed significantly to our military, economic and biomedical sectors.
He led the Jurong Island project for the energy and chemical industry by reclaiming seven islands; helped make Batam and Bintan a success; started the Economic Development Board scholarships and spearheaded biomedical research by attracting international pharmaceuticals to do their R&D in Singapore.
What made Philip Yeo stood out was how he was unafraid to bulldoze his way through the bureaucracy he was a part of, blazing new paths in a manner more akin to an entrepreneur than a civil servant.
With such a personality in the public service, it is natural that he would step on the toes of others.
There were those in the highest echelons who did not view him favorably and felt he was not suitable for the civil service. In one specific instance, a PAP MP Chng Hee Kok expressed that it was acceptable for scholars to break their bonds because they were merely legal contracts. In response, Philip Yeo said the PAP MP should step down. Later on, Chng expressed his unhappiness with Philip Yeo’s audacity.
Despite being distressed by this incident, Philip Yeo did not let naysayers affect him and continued to excel. From 2000 to 2007, he was the Chairman of A*STAR and helped to lead Singapore to become a leading centre for biomedical research and development in Asia and recruited several prominent scientists to nurture young Singaporean scientists.
In this entry, I shall share some lessons I’ve learnt from Philip Yeo after reading his autobiography.
Table of Contents
1) Philip Yeo had a healthy disregard for rules
The quality about Philip Yeo which stood out to me the most was how he had a healthy level of disregard for unnecessary processes and rules that didn’t make much sense.
This is a far cry from the common criticism of civil servants who is generally perceived to be more ‘inflexible’ and ‘by the book’.
For instance, back in the 1980s, no ministry was allowed to have an IT department. To purchase a computer, Yeo named it as an “intermediate business machine” and removed all mention of computers in official documents. His covert operation became a foundation for MINDEF systems engineers and they led the national computerization effort for Singapore.
In another example, Philip Yeo was having a meeting to convince Mobil’s CEO that investing in Jurong Island would help Mobil integrate her existing refinery and aromatics operations. During the meeting, he noticed that the CEO was getting a bit ‘angsty’ as he needed to smoke but there was no ashtray in the room. Philip asked for an ashtray but was told that they were in a non-smoking room. He thought out of the box and went to the bar to ‘borrow an ashtray’ and snuck it back into the meeting room. This successful meeting led to US$2 billion investment in the Singapore Chemical Complex in 1997.
In his words:
“In Singapore, we spend our time praising people who follow the rules. People should not be forced to follow the rules. If you do so, the good ones will leave; the ones who follow the rules are not necessarily the best. We’re not asking them to break rules to steal money. Break rules to get a job done.”
2) Philip Yeo takes responsibility and ownership at work
The author interviewed several people who have worked with Philip Yeo throughout the decades. One consistent message was how Philip Yeo was a responsible leader and a ‘do-er’. When there is a big battle to fight, he would be there leading at the front.
Quoting Lim Swee Say who used to work under Philip Yeo at the Economic Development Board:
“When he broke rules he also took ownership. The worst type of rule breakers are those who run away once something goes wrong. He stood by his decisions no matter how powerful the critics, he was unmoved. He never put the blame on people, not even once.”
In my personal view, this is a huge contrast to many leaders who seem to shirk responsibility and choose to fire someone below them when things go wrong.
As Philip Yeo himself acknowledges:
“Today, ministers overwork – doing everything and appearing everywhere. When there were issues with CPF, the minister answered. Where was the CPF chairman? When the trains broke down, the minister answered. Where was the SMRT chairman? In the past, the civil servants would take charge.”
3) Philip Yeo truly cares about those who work for him
Philip Yeo was an excellent leader who was able to connect with his teammates on a personal level. In Mandarin, we call this leadership principle from Sun Tzu’s Art of War “視卒如愛子，故可與之俱死” (English translation: Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley).
When he was in charge of the Economic Development Board and hatched a plan to develop the Indonesian island Batam as an offshore manufacturing location for Singapore-based companies. In the early days, he would visit Batam several times to ensure that the food and lodging were good. He was also responsive to the staff’s needs. For instance, when their salary was paid in cash and stolen, he asked for a bank to be opened in Batam for them.
Another instance which stood out to me was how he cared for his employee’s families and personal life. When his secretary’s mother died, he asked someone to take over a presentation at work so he could be present at the funeral. He also bought books for her children.
Quoting his secretary: “He did not see me as a piece of asset… he saw me as a mother and even remembered my son’s name. That’s how he was a leader.”
In addition to being a caring leader, Philip Yeo also never believed in micro-managing others. As long as the results were achieved, Philip Yeo did not care about the methods. Almost every one of his staff spoke about the space which Philip Yeo gave them. This style of management was high effective in motivating young people as they had a chance to think of their own way and work out their own solutions.
Rather than being obsessed over how things should be done, Philip Yeo is deeply interested in the ‘why’. He would often patiently explain to his staff about why things should be done instead of treating them as merely a cog in the wheel who should just execute without knowing why.
4) Philip Yeo was unafraid to make tough decisions
Philip Yeo was able to balance being a nurturing, flexible and caring leader with one who was also results-oriented. He was unafraid to let people go when they did not perform well.
The first people he would often fire are the managers. To him, he was not the fault of the workers whenever a company faced problems. In his own words:
“When people feel they are being taken care of, that they’re being recognized, and when workers respect their bosses and are able to work with minimum interferences, their productivity will be unlimited. People don’t work for the pay alone. People work because they are recognized and valued. They leave a company because they don’t feel wanted.”
In one of the examples cited in the book, there was a persistent high staff turnover at a factory.
Philip Yeo sacked the Human Resource manager and made the plant manager double up as one. Every time a worker was lost, a recruitment cost will be charged to the plant. This motivated the plant manager to be nicer to the workers to retain them.
In an interview, Philip Yeo described the rationale behind the firing squad approach – to rid the civil service of ‘eunuchs’.
The ruler says, “I want my pyramid,” and the workers are the people who build it. The eunuchs are the ones who shuffle papers. They don’t do any real work. Their objectives are to keep the emperor happy. How to do that? Keep the emperor entertained or distract him with other preoccupations. Eunuchs destroy empires. It was true in China and also in the West. The Ottoman Empire was brought down by eunuchs too. All they did was create problems between the emperors and the commanders who did real work out in the battlefields.
5) Philip Yeo displayed humility and eagerness to learn
In the early 2000s, Philip Yeo had a plan to build up a biomedical cluster in Singapore. He saw many benefits of this initiative: not only could it improve the lives of Singaporeans by finding cures to diseases and cancers, it could also create jobs through anchoring manufacturing and R&D facilities of major pharmaceuticals in Singapore.
At that time, he was already well-established in his career. Yet, he displayed tenacity and eagerness to learn.
Quoting him, “While other people of my age were chasing after white balls on greens, I was reading up on immunotherapy.”
To equip himself with good knowledge about this sector, Philip Yeo devoured medical journals and magazines and even books like “Genetics for dummies”. He also went back to school to take a course on molecular biology.
When he was unsure, he was unafraid to ask for help by inviting experts from NUS and IMCB into his office in exchange for free lunch.
To me, this is one of his most admirable qualities.
When I entered the workforce, I realized that some people were simply lazy and complacent. This type of mindset makes people resistant to learning new things and at a massive disadvantage to a fast-changing world like ours. We need to stay hungry and constantly upgrade ourselves to prevent ourselves from becoming irrelevant and retrenched.
What was consistent in Philip Yeo throughout was his love for Singapore. He truly put Singapore first and cared about grooming young Singaporeans through scholarships and create good jobs for Singaporeans.
“In the last 10 years, we imported too fast and too many. The tap was turned on. The key is who do you bring in and how do you manage and assimilate them. A persistent complaint is that our young fresh graduate has to compete with a fresh IT professional from India. What value can this new Indian guy bring to Singapore? If he is a senior person, okay, that is fine because he is bringing his experience and knowledge and contacts.
When I brought in scientists, they were all top guys who could help our guppies. But a fresh foreign guy is just going to depress the Singaporean wages. We should bring in foreign talent at the higher level and always to supplement, not to replace.”
In his spirit, I saw many qualities that I saw in many of the pioneer generation leaders such as Goh Keng Swee (built up the foundations of the Singapore Armed Forces and improved our primary and secondary school education); Lim Kin San (the man behind our public housing policy) and S. Rajaratnam (helped Singapore gain entry into the United Nations).
Collectively, they had a can-do spirit; love for Singapore; strong conviction in their beliefs and the courage to do what they felt was right. I hope that we can feature the stories and contributions of the many of our other leaders in our national education syllabus instead of just profiling Lee Kuan Yew and crediting him for everything.
It gives the false impression that he did most of the work when Singapore’s success was due to the effort of many people. By focusing on the contributions of our other pioneers, it will add a layer of greater depth and understanding of Singapore’s success.
Hopefully that Singapore will be able to produce excellent civil servants or political leaders like Philip Yeo with the canine tenacity of a bull dog; the sweet eloquence of a nightingale; and stamina of a stubborn buffalo to keep knocking on doors, never say die, always confidently persuading, negotiating, and convincing others to work with them to make Singapore successful.