Former EDB chairman Philip Yeo played a pivotal role in Singapore’s development from Third World to First through his work in the military, economic and biomedical fields.
Known for making things happen at breakneck speed during his four decades in public service, he gained a reputation as an outspoken maverick who nevertheless got things done, from jump-starting industries to talent recruitment. He created Jurong Island for the energy and chemical industry by reclaiming seven islands; started MNC-sponsored EDB scholarships as an ongoing means to replace EDB officers; corralled the best brains of the country into A*star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research); and spearheaded biomedical research by attracting international pharmaceuticals to do their R&D in Singapore. The following edited excerpt from Neither Civil Nor Servant – The Philip Yeo Story sheds light on his leadership style.
What is the rationale behind your firing-squad approach to managers?
Like Dr Goh (Keng Swee), I don’t believe people can change. So the best way to change an organisation is to burn it down and start afresh. That means I sack the whole lot of managers. In every organisation, there are three types of people: the emperors at the top, the workers at the bottom, and the eunuchs in the middle.
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.
Who are the eunuchs in the Singapore context?
We call them “staffers”. I advise CEOs and top civil servants to go into the field, visit the companies and spend time with the workers. But many still prefer to hold meetings and presentations. They create another layer and it is a layer filled with staff ers. Soon, the leader will be infected with eunuch disease.
What is eunuch disease?
It is when a leader surrounds himself with staffers and he becomes increasingly isolated. It is a common cancer in pyramidal organisations. The best organisation structure is flat. If I’m the emperor, I would want to see the generals myself. Increasingly, the emperors in Singapore do not see their generals because there are so many layers.
How did Singapore get to this stage? Is it because as society becomes more developed, it requires a more complex governance structure?
No, it’s how the leadership has evolved. There are so many papers which need to be submitted, and then summarised for the management. Why can’t the leader read the paper himself? Dr Goh used to demand that a paper be no longer than one page and it must be written in simple English. He always said: short and sharp. If you cannot tell me in one page or in five minutes, it means you have no clarity of thought. I have no patience because a damn idiot wants to write his grandmother’s story.
Is this a result of how talent is recruited?
The organisation wants stability. There must be a balance with some turmoil. If it is all stability, it gets really boring and a maverick won’t want it. He will run away. You will get people who are honest and respectable, but you won’t get mavericks. These are the people who follow rules – “Yes, Sir, I will do this.”
They are your obedient kids in schools and teachers like them. They grow up to be good eunuchs. They sit down and don’t move around. They are better than the guy who cannot sit still, the kind who has an itchy backside and will get into trouble.
I used to get into trouble in school. I finished my work fast and I made noise in class. The teacher made me stand at the blackboard. I’m happy to stand. Better than sitting in the stupid chair.
How much of this increasing bureaucratisation is seen in Singapore today?
The management is too involved in day-to-day matters. They become administrators rather than leaders. Let me tell you a story. When Lee Kuan Yew was in charge, he called me to Istana one day. He was still Prime Minister and I was EDB chairman. I sat down. It was just the two of us.
“Can you bring investments to Woodlands?” he asked me.
“Can you put an MRT station there?” I replied.
Finished. I walked out. Our conversation lasted less than a minute. I knew he called the Minister of Communications right away and said that Woodlands must get an MRT station. I quickly got TECH (Texas Instruments, EDB, Canon and Hewlett-Packard – Semiconductors) to get set up in Woodlands, way before the MRT station was even up. I pushed for projects to go to Woodlands. I didn’t write a memo. I didn’t have to answer him on how we were going to do it. He took my word and I took his word. He wanted something and I delivered.
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.
Now, the Admin Officers are quiet. That is a sad thing. In my time, permanent secretaries were permanent in their postings. Today, we should call them “temporary secretaries” because they get rotated every few years. There’s no reservoir of experience… they are constantly rotated and they have no depth.
Related: Remembering Lee Kuan Yew – 11 Quotes for Business Leaders
How does this contrast with the Old Guard leaders?
The Old Guards were politicians. They built a nation from next to nothing. They didn’t care about the nitty gritty. Just get the bloody job done. Bring in investments, create jobs, build up an army. They didn’t have time to discuss with you “on the one hand and on the other hand”. They sketched the big picture, they told you what they wanted and they left you alone to do it. It’s based on trust.
Do you think Singapore can remain exceptional?
It depends on exceptional people who’re willing to serve. It’s up to the present leadership and the future generation. I’m concerned about Singapore’s economy. What’s the next engine of our growth?
Is it tourism? But do you create good jobs with tourism? You don’t need highly qualified people. All you need is a tour guide. Look at Formula One. For a few days, all the chauffeured cars and the hotels are occupied. It’s like the Singapore Airshow. It’s a one-week event and the tourists leave after that. These are not sustainable, everyday industries. These are icing on the cake.
So far, I haven’t seen anything new that can create good and sustainable jobs. After biomedical sciences, what’s next? Space? What are we selling to our young people? What’s the new dream? It is a harder job today for EDB. But we must keep trying.
How do you think you will be remembered in Singapore?
Not my problem.
(Related: In Memoriam: 6 lesser-known facts about Mrs Wee Kim Wee)
Neither Civil Nor Servant is published by Straits Times Press. The book is written by Peh Shing Huei, Singapore Literature Prize-winning author and former news editor and China bureau chief at The Straits Times.