PHILIP YEO, THE STRAIGHT SHOOTER TOP CIVIL SERVANT AND THINKER
[Editor’s Notes: Why I created a section for Philip Yeo?
It is something interesting about Philip Yeo. Despite being a prestigious scholarship holder, he is more like a maverick and an Intra-preneur. He will be best remembered as a big spender (such as creating the Jurong islands and Biopolis) but also a rare civil service talent that able to deliver and create many jobs for Singaporeans. But his colourful character and sometime extreme views make some of his quotes extremely memorable as can be seen here. Philip Yeo is also an early generation scholar who was educated locally in NUS. ]
THE SERIAL RULE BREAKER (Source: The Straits Times 11 Jul 2008)
HE REFUSED to take his Administrative Service examinations in the 1970s when he was a young officer in the Defence Ministry.
Preoccupied with solving problems, Mr Philip Yeo could not see the priority or purpose of those ‘hurdle’ exams on Instruction Manuals 1, 2 and 3.
These were ‘monster manuals’ specifying the Singapore Government’s administration rules and regulations.
‘So I was not confirmed for four years,’ he tells Insight, unabashed. ‘My bond was for five years. I was planning to walk out a free man.’
His boss, former defence minister Goh Keng Swee, discovered this anomaly and called up the Public Service Commission (PSC) chairman to scold him.
The PSC chief then was Mr Tan Teck Chwee, and he in turn rang Mr Yeo to complain: ‘You’re a very troublesome guy. You break all the rules.’
In any case, Mr Tan invited him for lunch and advised him to join the private sector. But Mr Yeo could not bring himself to ‘abandon’ Dr Goh.
The former Economic Development Board chief understands the power of rule-breaking, if done in the right spirit. ‘I do it to improve the system,’ he says.
Once, he ‘stole’ a whole football field from the Singapore Armed Forces for Singapore Automotive Engineering (SAE) to park the AMX 13 tanks that needed an overhaul.
The defence and speciality vehicles company in Ayer Rajah is now known as ST Kinetics.
It was June 1976. He had just returned home from Harvard Business School to be director of Mindef’s logistics division and assumed the secondary appointment of SAE chairman, and urgently needed space to grow the company.
So after 5pm one day, he arranged for barbed wire to encircle and ‘annex’ the field.
Someone complained to Dr Goh, who laughed and said: ‘Philip is like that. What can I do?’
Mr Yeo likes to joke that he is neither ‘civil’ nor a ‘servant’ by nature. Yet he has spent his career in policymaking – because of Dr Goh.
‘I respected him and stayed. He gave me a lot of freedom.’
He did not fear being fired. ‘My bargaining power was that I just didn’t care.’
In the event, he was ‘double promoted’ soon after.
This shows that walls do not matter. ‘I always tell my officers, there are ways to go over the wall, under the wall, around the side. So don’t tell me you can’t get over.’
The pioneering society had no rules, he points out.
‘If you depend on people like me to break the rules, what happens the day I’m not here?’
There’s no Philip Yeo the second, third and fourth, he says. Cloning has not succeeded.
He thinks those who break the rules should be praised.
‘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.’
But lest you think he is all for anything goes, he tells you: ‘We’re not asking them to break rules to steal money.
‘Break rules to get a job done.
FAMOUS QUOTES FROM PHILIP YEO
“If you ask for a scholarship from me, and yet have the audacity to say that you will encourage your child to break a bond, doesn’t it show a wrong value system” (18 Jan 2012, U@Live)
Philip Yeo recounting his infamous exchange with a then Member of Parliament Chng Hee Kok who questioned his “name-and-shame” the scholarship bond-breakers.
“You need gullible customers to make money” (2010)
Philip Yeo made the comment that “Apple products are for gullible dummies” when he was the guest speaker at the Fullerton-St. Joseph’s institution leadership.
The Straits Times reported that Apple fans were furious about his claims that people who bought applications for Apple products were “gullible customers” and that they were wasting their money on “all sorts of useless applications”. See more comments here.
“In any society, in the bottom 20per cent, you will have kids who are very bright but who do not have the same opportunities. If you want to be reasonable, you need to find ways to help these kids cross the barrier.”
- Philip Yeo on why A*Star scholarship forms ask for details about an applicant’s home and family income, in addition to the usual information. Answering a question at the Pioneers Series dialogue, he said: ‘I did it that way because, in my view…I can uplift the one from the lower economic base. If the other candidate lives in a bungalow, his parents can afford to send him off to study.’ He offered an interesting statistic: 70per cent of A*Star scholarships go to those who live in HDB flats, while ‘a majority’ of those on scholarships from the Public Service Commission live in landed property.(24 Jul 2008)
“Make sure that our young people are hungry. If our young people are not hungry enough, bring in hungrier ones from overseas. Make them feel hungry, increase the hungriness index.” (2008)
- Assuming the logic is sound so if you child is lazy or stupid, it is alright to adopt a “hungrier” child into the family to boost the hungriness index? Think again and think very hard.
- It is a very difficult task and a formidable one is to make our children who are already full to feel hungry. The hungry imports when fed to full will one day feel hungry no more!
- It is better to encourage and nurture rather than threat or punishment which in my opinion is a short-sighted solution.
- read more: PRs & foreigners spur us to do better? Really?]
“My greatest fear now is that the Government is terrified of the people. You cannot have a system where the people are pampered.” – Philip Yeo on how the PAP realises that it is no longer infallible after GE2011 (The straits Times, 17 Jul 2011)
“Whatever I’ve done, I passed it on; but what happens in new hands, it is certainly not my fault.” - Philip Yeo on “things get done because he is Philip Yeo and others after him can not carry on the work.” (The Straits Times, 16 May 2011)
“When you are hungry, you try everything. When Singapore was being built, Dr Goh (Keng Swee) had no masterplanning.” (The Straits Times, 11 Jul 2008)
“Dr Goh (Keng Swee)’s preferred method of rewarding high performance was to give the officer even more work.” (The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2016)
[Askmelah’s Note: Top civil servants these days are obsessed with masterplans as if it is a sure ticket to promotions. Many masterplans such as Land Transport 2020, Intelligent Nation 2015, URA Masterplan 2008 are all slogans and motherhood statements but the impacts (if any) are very insignificant compared to Dr Goh’s no masterplan but wanting to do good for the country and its people speak volume of the outcomes.]
“I don’t want whining Singapore boys. They are not mature even though they have national service and are over 22 years old when they take up undergraduate studies. They give me so much trouble and waste our precious time.”
“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.”
“Money doesn’t bother me. I’m not broke, I’m not rich, but I’m happy. So long as the work is fun and you’re happy, just do it. If it’s just money alone, might as well rob a bank.”
“life sciences graduates are only fit to wash test tubes”
Every Primary 6 kinds knows what an “A-star” is. It’s not just “A”. it’s an A-PLUS. It means you can go to the top schools. So I used A*STAR and worked backswords to form Agency for Science, Technology and Research. I want the kids to be A-plus students, not just A alone …. I focused on A*Star to emphasise human talent” - (Source:The Straits Times 10 Dec 2011). Former A*Star chairman Philip Yeo, who came up with the A*Star acronym, for better or worse of it as compared to the former NSTB namesake, which was once ridiculed by Mr Tan Soo Khoon. For the record, Askmelah thinks it makes no sense except to fill one’s ego.
- ‘Between my brain and my guts, I can get things done‘ – Straits Times 11 Jul 2011
- Ignore the rule – Straits Times 16 May 2011
- $2200 bikes, $600 chairs, $25,000 French cooking classes – and $60 haircuts
- Philip Yeo story part of Singapore success story - (The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2016)