Surely, two of life’s most intense experiences revolve around people. The first is meeting someone who you share a deep affinity with – a soulmate experience. The other is being locked in a room with your unbearable polar opposite. The latter experience, many say, is the type of encounter that teaches us the most.
For this reason, reading about Philip Yeo, a former high-profile leader in Singapore’s government service, was very instructive to me. Yeo is unpredictable, rapacious, and quick-witted – traits that don't come naturally to me.
His biography, Neither Civil Nor Servant, opened my eyes to the value of cunning, wiliness, and an almost shameless roguishness when applied even in the dead serious context of building a nation. The book converted me to the point that I went down to one of his talks, and got him to sign my copy, with all my post-its on it, which I had hoped would secretly impress him into giving me a cool job. Or headhunt me…
Below are some of ma fanboi recordings about this colorful character (and ok, yes I only read one book... but I read that one book real hard):
First of All, Who is He?
Rule breaker, daredevil, atypical civil servant: this is how biography Neither Civil Nor Servant describes Philip Yeo.
Throughout an illustrious career, the 73-year-old leader earned a reputation for working fast, creating breakthroughs on a national scale, and scandalizing observers by disregarding and arm-twisting bureaucratic rules and red tape.
He has held many positions, but the biography explains that he essentially always played two roles: groundbreaking entrepreneur, and insatiable salesman (marketing Singapore to multi-national companies in the West). Here are a few of his major achievements and career positions:
Director of Logistics Division, Mindef (appointed in 1976 at age 30)
-Produced/created some of Singapore’s first locally manufactured weapons, including GPMGs, a Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), and the Field Howitzer 88 artillery.
-Yeo was given orders to support an ammunition-scarce Thailand army in its defense against a Vietnamese invasion during the Cold War. When the army requested for ammunition supplies, Yeo supplied 10 million bullets in 7 days from date of request, working with a speed that caught the Thai generals by surprise.
Chairman, Economic Development Board (EDB) (appointed in 1986)
-Conceptualized and developed Singapore's Jurong Island as a petrochemical hub, courting 60 leading petrochemical and related companies to expand on the island, with a total investment of >$20 billion secured by the time of the island’s official opening in 2000.
-Developed an industrial park in Batam, Indonesia, in the extremely short period of 16 months to help bolster MNC operations in Singapore and regionalize the nation’s economy. (By comparison, a block of HDB flats takes 3-4 years to be completed these days.)
ST group executive chairman (appointed in 1987)
- Started Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing around 1988, a business which eventually became the world’s third largest chip maker by 2009 and was sold off in the same year to Abu Dhabi.
The biography catalogues Yeo’s wide arsenal of strengths. In the interest of time, let us look at a few of the more colorful ones:
If there is one priority of Yeo that is easiest to describe, it would be how he prizes quickness in what he does.
“My philosophy is that if I do things fast, very few people would dare to oppose me. They can’t catch up.” – Philip Yeo, Neither Civil Nor Servant, pg 109
Easy enough to understand, but how was this approach executed, specifically? Here are some examples:
In my eyes, Yeo is someone who brings minimalism, simplicity and time-savings to a higher plane. He favours quick action and a straightforward approach over tedious discussions and hesitant decision-making.
Total Service, Concierge Service
Another trademark characteristic of Yeo is his devotion to what he calls “concierge service” to his clients, the foreign companies who could invest and build in Singapore.
Neither Civil Nor Servant details how, in 1995, an American executive leader for Levi Strauss encountered a problem during his transfer to helm the clothing firm’s Singapore office. His children’s pet dog had been flown to Singapore but upon arrival, it was quarantined by the Singapore authorities. When word of this reached Yeo, he called the relevant authorities and demanded for them to “release the bloody dog!” Although the dog was not released immediately, the children were allowed to see it and its quarantine was cut short.
Said Yeo: “This is customer service, total service, concierge service. Even a dog became my problem. But we needed the investment, so it’s okay. I would do anything to get the deal over the line.”
Another example: during a meeting to convince the CEO of Mobil to invest in Singapore’s Jurong Island, Yeo could sense that the C-suite leader was interested, but also uncomfortable for some reason. Looking more closely, he noticed that the CEO was smoking a cigar but there was no ashtray in the room. When he asked for one, he was told by hotel staff that it was a non-smoking zone. Yeo responded by making his way to the bar and quietly slipping an ashtray into his pocket. He returned to the room and offered it to the CEO who, as the story goes, eventually said yes to the deal. This keen attention to detail by Yeo in serving others would pay off throughout his career.
100/100 Cunning Stats
People may argue about what best characterizes Philip Yeo, but most could agree that what stands out about him is his street smarts and cunning.
He has persuaded Swiss army representatives into selling spare parts for tanks at 1/5th their purchase price, by bluffing that he didn’t have a pressing need for them. He has built rapport with a company CEO over conversation topics as unlikely as Pokemon and how the CEO could improve his Pokemon battle tactics, an idea that arose from Yeo noticing the game figurines inside the CEO’s office.
Most famously, when faced with a severe manpower shortage during his first government job as Systems and Research Branch head, Mindef’s Logistics Division in 1970, Yeo did the unthinkable. He screened Mindef’s personnel records for physically unfit or handicapped engineering graduates who were conscripted for national service. He went to army camps across Singapore to find these personnel, and privately persuaded their reporting officers to transfer them without official approval to Philip Yeo’s division while continuing to pay their salaries (yes, somehow this happened). Yeo shocked many by amassing a total of 250 staff with this unapproved scheme, a huge upgrade from the original 4 staff he was given.
The Roguish Trickster
If Philip Yeo were a game character, he would be the charismatic and charming rogue because of his ability to act and think quicker than his competitors, and his cunning mind and big picture perspective that positions him well in deals or confrontations with others.
There is much more to know however, and for this, I recommend reading Neither Civil Nor Servant by Peh Shing Huei to get a fuller picture of Yeo’s exploits and perspective on life. Overwhelmingly positive in its portrayal of Yeo’s character, the book seems to be slightly one-sided and gives little weight to negative views of Yeo. It will however, offer many unforgettable anecdotes and valuable perspectives to a reader through its account of this one-of-a-kind public servant’s journey.
You can buy the book at Kinokuniya now (this is not a sponsored post. I just really like the store):