So in the last 20 years, I have heard intermittently of this guy called Philip Yeo. He’s often portrayed as a maverick, an elitist, surrounded by his cadre of scholars, outspoken, brash even, picking fights with people above him, a guy who many considered to have become too big for his boots, arrogant, condescending, a proud mandarin of the civil service.
Everything that puts me off.
Yet I have always had a sense that this guy must be special.
I had a vague idea that he had successfully headed many lofty appointments – EDB, A- Star … I knew little else of what he did but I always thought that to be chameleon like and survive in the civil service for so long and to make an impact in new frontiers – a successful radical rebel in the civil service – there must be something special about him.
I have always been fascinated by “special people “. I have met some of these people along the way.
Such people are always a little anal retentive, a little autistic in the way they do things, no rules, think completely out of the box, so quietly confident that they are completely oblivious to their own shortcoming or capabilities if there were any, spend little time worrying about obstacles, always act first and think along the way, so completely type A that they dominate you despite their faults or diminutive stature.
I’ve seen some of these traits in arrogant upstarts with brilliant resumes. I have learnt, despite my initial bristling reactions, to accept that such idosyncrasies comes with the territory. Their arrogance comes with their DNA.
But god knows I’ve met an equal number who behave like that but who I learn very quickly to be seriously misplaced as they do not possess enough brilliance to be so entitled. But I’ve always been fascinated by people who has a “special” quirkiness and talent.
I’ve met and have been fascinated by individuals who are the special trouble shooter sorts. There is one or two in every tycoon’s organisation. The guy with no specific portfolio with a vague title In the chairman’s office. He is the trusted senior guy sent in when heads needs to get bashed, when the organisation is in crisis mode, the guy with the siege mentality, the guy to bash through new frontiers and to do that special project that no bean counter with a fancy title can accomplish. Hence he is sent in always.
I think of myself as an aggressive type A personality – always have been and proven to be so in every role I have undertaken. No subtleties whatsoever.
But I have never forgotten this guy I met more than 20 years ago when I was a young lawyer. This guy was a special trouble shooter in a billionaire’s organisation.
When he entered the room and spoke to me, I felt this radiating and pulsing dominance which I never felt before with anyone. Total dominance and it was completely surreal to me because few people dominate me.
I felt like getting on my back to surrender to this alpha. I have never forgotten this guy and his aura. And he was in that room no longer than 15 minutes but I have not forgotten him 20 years later although I have forgotten his name. So, like I said, im fascinated by “special ” people.
That is the reason why I have been a closet admirer of LKY, the man not the politics, but have kept silent about my fascination with him until his passing.
I remember in his books which I could not put down, there was a chapter where he talked about special men out there who did not come into politics but who he would rely on to carry out impossible projects. I cannot recall whether Philip Yeo was mentioned but that name immediately came to my mind.
But, again, I didn’t bother to find out anything more about this special mandarin.
At the airport 2 days ago, I saw his book “Neither Civil Nor Servant “. The title already pleased me because it was clever and I appreciated irreverence.
I bought it and started reading it upon takeoff. And I couldn’t put down the book.
The plane I was in reached Manila airspace and was immediately instructed to be on a holding pattern as there was a problem with potholes on the tarmac. We were then diverted to Clark air base and made to wait on the tarmac for the next 4 hours until Manila controls declared the runway repairs completed and the runway reopened. Flights after mine were simply asked to turn around and return to Singapore.
In those 8 hours that I was sitting in the plane, I was transfixed by the stories in that book and finished reading it in one sitting.
This was an industrial engineering geek who behaved like a swashbuckling behemoth. His eccentricity was matched by his unwavering loyalty to his mission in life and his only master was Singapore.
This is a man who was called “the oracle ” by generations after him. His talent and services were so valued by Goh Keng Swee that when he disrupted work and went to Harvard Business School to do his MBA, Goh summoned him within a few months after he reached Harvard to abandon his studies and return home as his services was wanted.
It was revealed in the book for the first time that he was lured by Richard Li to join his organisation as senior advisor with an unspeakable offer for a civil servant – $28 million over 3 years – and he turned it down.
He had eccentricities like LKY. He prints everything he reads on beige paper because “white is not a good contrast against black words. Beige is better .”
I couldn’t put down the book because I could not believe the things he has taken charge of and executed with irreverence and flair.
Goh Keng Swee and LKY, men of absolute no nonsense, tolerated his insubordination, audacity and occasional insolence because they recognised his brilliance. LKY personally intervened to prevent him from leaving to go into private practice on a few occasions. The stuff he has done only exists in legends.
We all knew that Goh Keng Swee took charge of our Defence forces after independence to create our army from ground zero. But what I didn’t know was that Philip Yeo was the henchman sent out to create a logistics and support system for the army.
As an extension of the logistics division in Mindef which Yeo headed up, he was to go on to create what is now chartered industries. How many of us knew that he was the man who bought 151 AMX13 tanks from Switzerland. Why 151? 150 was bought for the army’s use and one for him to strip down so that he could reverse engineer.
And years later, we produced our own AMX 13 SM1 light tanks. He wanted a GPMG but refused to pay the 14 million Belgian franc Licence fees so he reverse engineered it and produced our own.
He got CIS to produce our own semi automatic weapons SAW and later the field howitzer 88 a 155mm calibre gun.
There was this beautiful story of the trust which Goh Keng Swee placed in his judgement. He asked Yeo ” what else do you need ?” And Yeo replied he wanted an early warning system- the E2c Hawkeye tactical airborne early warning aircraft. Goh asked how many do you need ? Yeo replied 3. Goh said “two is enough”.
Yeo was hauled up to see LKY. Again he said he wanted 3 and again Goh said two is enough. Yeo flew to the US and proceeded to buy 4 for a good price of 340 million. In an interview, he was asked “were you reprimanded ?” His non-plussed answer was “No nothing. They knew how I was … I had no personal gain or benefit. What’s there to scold ?”
This guy is slightly off to defy both Goh and LKY combined. He is tuned to a slightly different frequency.
Yeo was later asked to head up SIA by Goh but LKY had other ideas. He told Yeo to remain as the chairman of all the Defence companies which later morphed into the ST group and to move to EDB.
He was to become the chairman of the EDB for the next 21 years where his moniker up to today is ” the Chairman”. Even successive EDB chairmen called him ” The Chairman”.
People in EDB will talk about him and quote his irreverent lines up to today.
His leadership style was so unique that generations of scholars, titans of the industry and Politicians that came under his tutelage remained loyal to him despite his detractors which were many because he disregarded everyone and adopted a “take no prisoners ” approach to everything he undertook, as long as he felt it was right for Singapore. Along the way, he offended many.
How many of us knew that he was the Economic Czar in leading spore quickly out of the recession in the mid 80s, he was running EDB and concurrently the Singapore Technologies Group, Sembcorp Industries, later chairman of SPRING.
Yeo subsequently left EDB to head up A*Star and created a whole generation of biomedical Scientists for Singapore.
I never knew that Yeo was the person designated by Goh Keng Swee in the 80s to solve the labour crunch that was beginning to plague the MNC’s growth in Singapore.
He was the brains to create in double quick impossible times the Batam project. He was to later duplicate the Batam experience in Bintan, Wuxi, Bangalore and Binh Duong.
When the Suzhou project was stalled, LKY sent Yeo in to rescue the project.
It was Yeo who visualised that the future of Singapore rested in the petrochemical industry. He was audacious enough to think about joining seven disparate islands into one massive land reclamation project to create Jurong Island which we know of today, a petrochemical hub delivering 4 million tonnes of ethylene a year, a complete upstream and downstream ecosystem housing 60 leading petrochemical and related companies from all over the world who invested more than 20 billion dollars into the project.
The Jurong island project has drawn more than 47 billion in investments to date and employs 26 000 people.
This man does not understand the concept of any problem that seemed daunting or intractable.
When one of the investors of the Jurong project needed natural gas as a feedstock and PUB didn’t want to get involved, Yeo went to Indonesia to get the Indonesians to sell us gas and pipe it to Singapore, an audacious notion at that time when Spore Indonesia relations were testy.
He called up the new president Habibie with whom he had a personal relationship to ask for help. Habibie called a press conference and told everyone ” This is Pak Philip. He is my younger Brother. Whatever he wants, whatever he does, I support him. ”
Spore and Indonesia went on to sign a 22 year agreement for Indonesia to supply gas through a 640 km West Natuna pipeline and Yeo created Sembcorp Gas to sign the agreement.
He was so respected by titians of the industry that when he wanted to set up scholarships for EDB but he government would not fund it, he had dinner with the chairman of Glaxo Smith and asked if he would create a Glaxo scholarship for EDB scholars.
The chairman asked Yeo how much he wanted whereupon Yeo did a quick calculation on a paper napkin and said 50 million. The Glaxo chairman said ok on the spot and sent Yeo two 25 million dollars cheques after that dinner.
During his reign in EDB, Yeo started to look at Biotech as the next project to create the next lifeline of jobs for Singapore. He plunged into understanding the complex world of biomedical science and, within 5 years, he knew biomedical biology at a level which was comparable to the Scientists.
He was to later head up A*Star and conceptualised and built Biopolis which is now the nucleus and Eco system for biomedical science in spore. The output of the biomedical industry grew from 6.3 billion in 2000 to 21.5 billion in 2014. It contributes 4 to 5 percent of Singapore’s GDP and employs 23000 people. Another audacious Philip Yeo project.
There are some gems in the book which i absolutely love. One chapter talks about his Favourite Latin phrase which is his reminder against any tendency to be complacent. The phrase stems from an Ancient Greek fable which talks about a general returning from a successful battle to bask in glory and to be honoured like a king for a day. But a slave would be appointed to accompany the general throughout the procession and to whisper in his ears repeatedly ” Memento Mori – remember you will die “.
As I looked back on my own career, I have often walked the path of the unknown, I have moved out of the comfort zone to do something that was completely alien to what I have done and what I know. And in that quest to learn new skills to carry out that new role, I have always muttered to myself when the going gets tough “suck it up, it’s not rocket science “.
But when things become better and when I came closer to perfecting that new role, my mantra has always been something akin to ” stay hungry and don’t be complacent ”
Memento Mori perfectly sums it all – ” the siege is not over. Someday you will die ”
What a perfect line. A gentle reminder of our mortality and that there is a higher being to which we will be accountable. Beautiful in its simplicity and honesty.
Almost as beautiful is the line Memento Vivere – remember that you must live. Seize the day. Powerful words to humble yourself by.
The last few pages made me laugh out loud.
One part of it tells the incredible story of how Yeo interacted with LKY. It recounted a story of how LKY called for Yeo at the Istana when Yeo was the EDB chairman. It was to illustrate that long rambling reports and bureaucratic exchanges were what hindered people.
LKY allegedly asked Yeo
“Can you bring investments into Woodlands ?”
Yeo reportedly replied
“Can you put an MRT station there ?”
The meeting allegedly ended on that note and Yeo walked out.
LKY proceeded to call the Minister of communications and mandated that Woodlands was to get an MRT station immediately.
Yeo proceeded to quickly arrange for Texas Instruments, EDB, Canon and Hewlett Packard and other projects to be pushed to Woodlands and to be set up before the MRT station was opened.
It was complete trust, understanding and delivery without much ado.
The last phrase reportedly given by Philip Yeo to the interviewer who interviewed him for the book was my Favourite and he became somewhat one of my heroes henceforth.
To be a beast in everything that you do is one thing. To be completely and genuinely irreverent about your achievements sets you apart.
And I happened to think it was damn funny to boot.
How do you think you will be remembered in Singapore ?
Not my problem.
Thats a great answer.