“Like a Midwife Delivering a Baby”

Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports Niam Chiang Meng talks to Wong Sher Maine about organising the Youth Olympic Games in A Cuppa With…
Known to be publicity-shy and reticent, Mr Niam Chiang Meng takes several months to finally agree to speak to Challenge.
Niam Chiang Meng
And then, all preconceptions are blown away. The 52-year-old is disarmingly frank about this interview – “I have no choice, right?” – meets head-on all questions about the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) and even cracks a few sporting jokes.
We are in the Civil Service. We work 24 hours a day,

quips the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS).

This seems plausible, based on his work record. In nearly 30 years as a public officer, he has been Permanent Secretary of the Ministries of Law and of Information, Communications and the Arts, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority’s Chairman, the Housing and Development Board’s CEO, Deputy Secretary with the Ministry of Health and Vice President of News with the Television Corporation of Singapore.

It is a long way for someone who never wanted to be a public officer. “I wanted to be a lecturer in the university,” said Mr Niam, the recipient of a merit bursary. “I told that to the Public Service Commission and they said, the Public Service needs people too, you know?”

What he speaks about most passionately is a project he spent over two years on: the world’s first YOG.

From the time he and his team helped put in Singapore’s successful bid, through the recent conclusion of the 13-day games, he is clearly still fired up with adrenaline from watching the Games come to fruition.

It’s been wonderful and a huge relief, like a midwife delivering a baby.

“What we have done is quite historic. We will forever be mentioned in the same vein as Greece’s Athens and Chamonix in France,” said Mr Niam. Athens and Chamonix were the inaugural venues for the Summer and Winter Olympic Games respectively. And the Singapore 2010 imprint will be on the Olympic flag which is handed over to all future host countries of YOGs.

What some Singaporeans will remember, however, are YOG organisational lapses such as when volunteers fell ill from food poisoning or when people could not get tickets into sold-out venues with many empty seats.

“I suppose in a massive operation like this, I’m genuinely surprised that more things that could go wrong did not quite go wrong,” said Mr Niam. “The staff did a tremendous job. They managed to tackle most of the issues. I would say the important thing is how fast do you recover? We tried to recover very quickly.”

But what about the YOG budget? The $387 million spent, above the original bid of $104 million, cannot be recovered.

Niam Chiang Meng

Mr Niam, who first announced the expenditure on July 6 during a YOG briefing, to some anger from Singaporeans, said: “Yes, there was a gross underestimate, but that’s because we had very little information… we had nothing to rely on.”

He explained that as a world first, some Games requirements were firmed up only after the bid, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) consulted with international sporting federations. The competition formats for archery, basketball and rowing, for instance, were all changed. One thing he never expected: “We had to buy 38 horses for the Equestrian event. This was not the case for the summer Olympics and certainly not something on our radar screen!”

The YOG team also had to spend on costly equipment unexpectedly. One example: “Results had to be transmitted to the media centre within two minutes of event completion to meet World Junior Championship standards, which meant we had to buy or lease expensive equipment.”

The committee also had its hands tied on sponsorship.

When you deal with a huge animal like the IOC, which has years of history behind it, they have a whole lot of do’s and don’ts.

Companies keen to sponsor could not use words like “Singapore 2010”, “YOG” or even “Blazing the Trail” in their branding. Old Chang Kee, sponsor of all the curry puffs for YOG committee meetings, found out that they could not put up their brand anywhere.

Said Mr Niam: “The IOC wanted to avoid ambush marketing. All the venues must be ‘clean’, we had to strip venues. We wanted to use The Esplanade but we could not as there were existing sponsors everywhere.”

He hopes Singaporeans will focus instead on the spirit of the games. “There are many wonderful experiences. Seeing our athletes compete and trying their best with a never-say-die attitude. The sense of pride in our people when Singapore does well. ” Being a torchbearer himself for the Thomson Road stretch outside the MCYS building – “that was quite something, imagine, we got to be Olympic torchbearers. How many others can say that?” – remains a fond memory.

Outside of work, he plays strategy video game World of Warcraft and DOTA (Defence of the Ancients) with his sons aged 18, 16 and 13. “I tried to teach my wife that but I failed miserably.”

As for sports, he plays any racquet game – “anything that involves a ball”, from tennis to badminton to squash and occasionally, golf. He also rollerblades, and leaves you with a nugget about a senior politician he occasionally bumps into at East Coast Park, who took up rollerblading at the behest of his wife and children. “When he started, his bodyguard would walk behind him. When I next saw him, his bodyguard was behind him, on a bicycle! So, take up rollerblading! It’s good for strength and balance!

What’s usually in your cuppa?

Coffeeshop coffee with their roast beans, the stronger the better.

Your favourite flavour or brand?

Kopi si, kopi-O, kopi-kau.

Where do you normally have your cuppa?

At any heartland kopitiam. And please don’t convert them all to Starbucks!

    Nov 4, 2010
    Wong Sher Maine
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