Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Serial Rule Breaker

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.'

Published: The Straits Times, Friday, July 11 2008

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