"It's About Understanding People Too…", Tan Poh Hong

Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore chief Tan Poh Hong opens up about farming in Singapore, what she learnt from public relations, and how the words of one old woman changed her.

With Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) Chief Executive Officer Tan Poh Hong, you are at ease immediately. She makes conversation readily, her eyes sparkling when she talks. She recognises our photographer from an event they both attended at a local farm recently. The familiarity segues into an easy chat about our need for more local high-tech farms.

“It is important to support local farms because they provide a buffer, so that in times of crisis, we are not solely reliant on a single source for our food,” Ms Tan says, citing Malaysia’s sudden ban on the ex port of five types of fish in July last year as an example.

In land-scarce Singapore, this means producing more vertical farms, which can yield five to 10 times as much as conventional farms, as an additional source of food for its people. Today, local farmers supply 25% of the country’s eggs, 7% of its vegetables and 5% of its fish. “But we think we can ramp up capacity through research and technology,” she says.


In policymaking, PR matters

An avid learner, Ms Tan’s thirst for learning seems to have stemmed from being a shy but inquisitive teenager at St Anthony’s Convent. She recounts with a laugh how she would often take buses for fun, just to study different bus routes and how to navigate the roads. It was only at National Junior College when she sat on the student council that she began to shed her shyness, as she “learnt different perspectives on leadership and how to interact with a lot of people”.

After graduating with honours in estate management from the National University of Singapore, she joined the Housing & Development Board (HDB) in 1981 as an Estates Officer.

Among her most memorable experiences was a three-year stint as HDB’s head of public relations (PR) in the mid 1990s, a few years after the Main Upgrading Programme to retrofit ageing public housing estates started.

Ms Tan shares: “Before [taking on the job], PR to me was just about looking good.” But she soon learnt that PR and communications is an integral part of policymaking and cannot be an afterthought, especially since HDB is about more than providing housing.

She explains: “It was a big task working to get people to accept upgrading... So I also learnt how to work better with the community, MPs [Members of Parliament] and grassroots leaders, and to understand how the community works.”

Ms Tan would spend 27 years at HDB, wrapping up her career there as its Deputy CEO (Estates & Corporate). Her proudest achievement was to have chaired the committee that led HDB to be the first public sector organisation to win the Singapore Quality Award in 1997.

In May 2009, she took over the helm of AVA and has been its CEO since. From planning homes to dealing with animal welfare and food security issues, the learning curve was a steep one for Ms Tan. She admits to doing “a lot of Googling” and research to understand about viruses, bacteria and animal feed to get up to speed quickly, in addition to learning from her AVA colleagues.

It didn’t help that there was an outbreak of the H1N1 flu (then known as swine flu) in the US and Mexico, in her early days as CEO. The flu epidemic raised serious food safety concerns of Singapore’s supply of imported pork, especially after the virus was detected in an imported sample.

“I had to get the facts quickly and decide what to do,” says Ms Tan, stressing the importance of communications once again. AVA had to reach out to the public, as well as importers, slaughter houses and supermarkets, to explain why the pork being sold in Singapore was safe to eat. It also had to reassure the public that all pork imports would be tested as a precaution.

She says with a laugh: “My PS [Permanent Secretary] told me, ‘It is your baptism by fire!’


Be flexible and empathetic

While the H1N1 situation was a tricky one, Ms Tan’s most difficult lesson had already been learnt much earlier.

She shares that she was a tough young officer who was all “head” and no “heart” when it came to implementing policy. When she started working in estate management operations, she would handle applications from the flat lessees and tenants and was adept at drafting rejection letters. Her lowest point was “taking back people’s flats”, which she did with cold efficiency.

She was a tough young officer who as all “head” and no “heart” when it came to  implementing policy

One day, an old woman, who came regularly to appeal to Ms Tan about keeping her rental flat, said something that changed her forever. “I [had been] very harsh to her, because I was very good at rules and implementing them, and used to think I was so clever. Then she said in Hokkien, ‘Ah mueh [young lady], I’m so ashamed to have to see you so often. Do you think I want to keep coming to see you?’”

Ms Tan realised then that her job wasn’t just about implementing regulations. “It’s about understanding people too, looking at their circumstances, having flexibility and empathy, and seeing what is the best that you can do for them. That’s why I adopted an engagement approach after that.”

The importance of empathy dovetails with her work philosophy of “being part of your troops, rather than saying ‘I’m the boss’”. So she follows AVA officers on inspections and visits AVA laboratories. “It’s important to be present,” says Ms Tan, who also organises “regular chit-chat sessions” with staff to get to know them better.

Constant engagement with animal welfare groups and the public is also important for the CEO. With difficult issues such as the putting down of Tammy the puppy and the trapping of wild animals near MacRitchie Reservoir surfacing, the need to communicate and clarify policies and regulations, as well as AVA’s procedures and decision-making process, becomes even more pressing.

“With NGOs [non-governmental organisations], we have started dancing together on the same floor, but probably not to the same tune. This will be a long process. Engagement is about finding mutual paths and commonalities together. We have to work together.”


What’s usually in your cuppa?
Tea or black coffee without sugar.

Where do you take it?
At home during breakfast.

    May 7, 2014
    Denyse Yeo
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