The Straits Times: Lunch With Sumiko: Want a Smart Nation? Then make sure you get talent, says Philip Yeo


Philip Yeo’s biography has raised $700,000 for fund that helps underprivileged children

The first thing that strikes me are the books and files. They are everywhere and they look scarily erudite.

Mr Philip Yeo has opted to have lunch at his office on the 21st floor of Symbiosis Tower in Fusionopolis. I’m early, he is not in yet, and his secretary has led me to his office-cum-library to wait.

Sunlight streams in from tall windows, giving the room a pleasant, airy feel.

His books and files occupy two large shelves. A long glass table – where we later have lunch – is also completely covered with plastic files filled with articles, all printed on cream-coloured paper.

In front of me on the table is an article titled, “A reversible haploid mouse embryonic stem cell biobank resource for functional genomics”.

Next to it is a paper headlined, “Analysis of Fusobacterium persistence and antibiotic response in colorectal cancer”. Other articles are on topics like molecular drug targets, gut microbiome and gene editing.

I turn to the shelves to see if there’s anything in simpler English.

There are six folders on cancer labelled Cancer 1, Cancer 2, Cancer 3 and so on; three folders on drugs; and other folders on topics like drones, sugar, oil and energy, 3D design, brain, climate and water.

The books are also arranged by subjects like war, history, Singapore, America, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Greece.

Under the literature section, I finally spot some names I know – Robert Ludlum, William Safire, Germaine Greer and John Gray.

A voice outside signals that Mr Yeo has arrived. He enters the room and greets me cheerily, a slim man who looks younger than his 71 years. He’s dressed in office garb of long-sleeved shirt and slacks paired with bright blue Nike trainers.

I’d been warned that he isn’t easy to interview because he speaks fast and his thoughts zigzag from one topic to another. I discover this to be true. He also doesn’t sit still and I count at least a dozen times he gets up from his chair during our nearly three-hour chat, to ask his secretary for something or to grab a book or magazine to show me.

His secretary brings our food in and he proceeds to clear the files on one corner of the glass table to make space for it. We’re both having a salmon bento set.

“Let’s have our lunch first,” he says in a friendly manner.

It’s the first time we are meeting but he’s easy to warm up to and like. He asks if I’d gone on holiday and when I say I’d just come back from Spain, he’s happy to chit-chat about tapas and the best cities there, and also how he has visited Spain’s medical research centres.

Judging by his reading material, science and medicine seem to occupy his mind. Is all this just your personal interest, I ask.

“Yah, personal interest,” he says. “Curiosity.”

Doing medicine in university was something he had considered. “Then I realised that there was no scholarship to study medicine, so forget it, I cabut to engineering.” He did industrial engineering at the University of Toronto on a Colombo Plan scholarship.

But he has always kept in touch with the subject. It featured in his long civil service career, and he’s now involved in a company that does medical devices. He also sits on university boards.

The reason we’re meeting has also to do with a book – his successful biography, Neither Civil Nor Servant: The Philip Yeo Story. Surprisingly, I don’t see it on his shelves.

Published by Straits Times Press and written by journalist Peh Shing Huei, it recounts the roles he played in key areas of Singapore’s development.

There were the Ministry of Defence years where he worked closely with Old Guard ministers Goh Keng Swee and Howe Yoon Chong to build Singapore’s fledgling army.

This was followed by his Economic Development Board (EDB) years where he led the charge to get MNCs to set up shop here.

Then there were the A*Star years where he spearheaded the economy’s move into biomedical science.

In the book’s foreword, friend and former minister George Yeo describes him as an “atypical civil servant” who disliked bureaucracy and would speak his mind freely, “sometimes too freely”. He attracts fiercely loyal supporters, who still refer to him as “chairman”, as well as detractors.

More than 20,000 copies of his biography have been sold since its launch in November last year, and the book spent 55 consecutive weeks on The Straits Times’ bestsellers list.

Even more impressively, autographed copies have raised $700,000 for charity. He’s grateful to his generous donors, who include well-known businessmen.

The money goes to the EDIS Cares Fund. In 2013, he set up Economic Development Innovations Singapore (EDIS), a company which does consultancy in areas like economic development. Clients include foreign governments. EDIS Cares is its social responsibility arm and provides help and mentorship to children of low-income families.

“The key is not money. The key is finding people who have the compassion to help them, to be a mentor, big brother,” says Mr Yeo, who is also chairman of Spring Singapore.

He has roped in past scholars from EDB and A*Star to be mentors.

He has always been big on nurturing talent and had set up scholarships in the organisations he headed. “The key to an organisation is talent… even if they finish their bond, they leave, they are everywhere.”

He recounts how board members of Japanese conglomerate Hitachi – he is a director – were in town and visited Sentosa and Changi Airport.

They were surprised by how many people in leadership positions they met used to be his scholars. “They said, ‘My god, everybody work for you?’ I said, no… I take people then I let them go.”

Many of the scholars still keep in touch with him and he speaks about them with fondness and pride. He remembers the universities they – and even their spouses – attended, their grades and career choices. It’s a rarefied world of people with postgraduate degrees and PhDs.

His two children are also in the medical field. Eugene, 40, is an engineer turned scientist, entrepreneur and inventor, and Elaine, 31, is a psychologist. Both are in the United States.

I wonder if non-scholars and more, you know, average-minded people figure in his world.

“I don’t look at just scholars,” he says. “I want to mould people, and when you join my organisation, I don’t care. If you are good, you are good.”

But he has high expectations of scholars because “we paid so much for your education, so the onus is on the scholars to work harder”.

He believes intelligence has to do with both nature and nurture, but says hard work and effort can get you far. “The key is that if you are willing to work, you can do well, unless you fool around,” he says.

“I think anybody with effort can do it. It’s nothing to do with brightness, unless you’re mentally handicapped or physically handicapped.”

What about students who have been put into, say, the Normal stream, I ask.

“Normal-level people, they can continue to do the next O level. It’s a matter of effort. Some people bloom later. My own view is that with sheer sweat, you can do it.”

In fact, a few days after we meet, The Straits Times has a story about a Normal-stream student who is now studying medicine at the National University of Singapore.

He e-mails me the story with a pithy note: “Those who sweat it out, can rise up.”

BECAUSE he has been involved in so many aspects of Singapore’s economic development, I ask what he sees as the next big thing.

He believes science will continue to be very important as people search for cures for diseases, how to age better as lifespans increase, and grapple with technology, whether robots or electric cars.

“It’s all science. I think science today is a pre-requisite. If anybody wants to be a political leader and he doesn’t read, God help us, man.”

Does his crystal ball see Singapore surviving into the next, say, 50 years?

“It depends on the leadership, if the leadership is supportive, encouraging. But if they say you must do it the Frank Sinatra way, then you have a problem.” (I’m guessing he is referring to the Sinatra song, My Way.)

The Singapore economy, he notes, is now flat and coasting. “We’re not growing at more than 3 per cent because we’ve got no more labour. But the trouble is not labour. It is what kind of labour you take and what kind of talent we have.”

A country without natural resources must bank on developing talent. “A smart nation needs smart people. There’s no such thing as smart nation, it’s smart people. People make a nation, whether a scientist, a journalist, it’s all people.”

And if people like scientists are expected to do great work, they can’t be micromanaged, tied down by bureaucracy or rushed for results, he believes.

“The trouble with science is you have to be patient but our people want instant results. But if you build a strong science capacity in Singapore, we are the best in Asia. Science is expensive in terms of human talent and money but, don’t forget, if we achieve that level, who can beat you?”

He also thinks Singapore needs to “kidnap” talent. He points out that the country has fewer than 40,000 babies each year, which means the top 1 per cent of talent will number fewer than 400 people.

The key to supplementing the population is to attract smart, young people. “My way is, if I really want to nurture a Singaporean, whether it’s from Vietnam, China or Malaysia, I will take them young, Sec 2, Sec 3. Then they grow up, they stay in dormitories, you are creating a new Singaporean. When you bring them as adults, their value system is different.

“But today, people say, why are you doing this, you have Singaporeans. So now we become like America – inward. We will suffer.”

He adds: “We are not asking for foot massagers. We’re looking for talent. You bring lots of foot massagers, I can understand, it’s stupid, right? But I’m bringing in young people at 15. I mould them. So my scholars come back, bring their spouse, whether it’s German or whatever, they bring the talent.”

I ask what unfinished business he has at this stage of his life.

His aim is simple: to support a generation of young people to do well – and then leave it up to them to live their lives because the rest is up to them.

The $700,000 raised from his own incredible life story will certainly go a long way to changing young lives.

Twitter @STsumikotan

• Neither Civil Nor Servant: The Philip Yeo Story is available at bookshops at $37.45 (inclusive of GST).