Teo Chee Hean: A Man of Good Ideas

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean chats with Loh Chee Kong on the importance of pushing ideas through, leadership and altruism in public officers, in our new series, A Cuppa With…

As a young Naval officer three decades ago, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, 55, was lamenting to then Minister of State for Defence Yeo Ning Hong about how “difficult” it was to see his ideas through.

Mr Teo, who is now also Minister in charge of the Civil Service and Minister for Defence, recounted: “He told me, ‘Look, if you feel you have a good idea and in the end, it doesn’t get implemented, it’s your fault, too… Either you did not feel strongly enough about it, or you were not able to make a sufficiently good argument why this proposal that you have was such a good idea.’”

Teo Chee Hean

Those words have stuck with Mr Teo as he rose up the ranks, first in the Navy, and subsequently in politics – ingraining in him the belief that a person has to take some of the responsibility when his idea fails to come to fruition.

And Mr Teo has this advice for young officers who sometimes feel that their proposals are hitting a brick wall: It is not just what idea you have, but also how you sell it – and sometimes it can even mean letting others take the credit for it.

“Sometimes you have a good idea and the way to get it implemented, is for the other person to become totally convinced that it was his idea in the first place... Then he will passionately pursue it, believing that it was his idea,” said Mr Teo, half in jest.

But you achieve what you set out to do. Better still, if you can persuade everybody that it was their idea collectively, they will all buy in and do it

"Organisational Dynamics"

Ultimately, in order to effect change and move proposals forward, a public officer should not only have sound ideas, but also learn to understand the “organisational dynamics”.

Citing SPRING Singapore Chairman Philip Yeo as an example, Mr Teo said: “If you look at a person like Philip, it’s not [just] that he had ideas but he was able to persuade people of his ideas, and understood how to bring about change in organisations and get his ideas implemented.”

A former President’s Scholar and Singapore Armed Forces Scholar who decided after his GCE ‘A’-Levels that he wanted to pursue a career that was “socially useful”, Mr Teo also stressed that the onus of igniting and sustaining the passion and drive of public officers is on their immediate bosses.

Not only do leaders set examples, they also shape an organisation’s working environment and culture, he noted. In short, leaders can either stifle or spark the passion public officers have for their work.

“Leadership is very important... It gives the people who work in the organisation the sense of mission, the sense of purpose and lets them know that they are appreciated for what they have done,” said Mr Teo, who shared that during his years in the Navy, he had been inspired by his superiors such as former Permanent Secretary (Defence) Lim Siong Guan who rose to become Head of Civil Service.

Citizens, Too

At the individual level, Mr Teo believes that people who are drawn to the Public Service have “a certain amount of altruism”. The public officer must get satisfaction from seeing others happy or better off as a result of his work.

And that quiet – but immense – sense of satisfaction would be felt by all public officers, not least those working in sensitive departments such as the intelligence services. Said Mr Teo:“For those kinds of jobs, you derive your satisfaction from knowing that what you have done has served your country and kept the people in your country safer. And nobody will ever know, not even your closest friends.”

And regardless of rank and stature, all public officers would keenly feel the impact of their work, he added.

“Every public officer is a citizen also,” Mr Teo said. “He has a family and they benefit from or are affected by the policies that are laid out and executed. So each of them, if you like, is both a producer and consumer of public services.”

Asked to comment on the level of passion for their work among the public officers he has come across, Mr Teo noted that some officers will be very passionate about their work. Others will take a more functional approach that means they “do their job because it provides them with a decent living and a good salary to help them bring up their families”.

Said Mr Teo, “They do their work well, and they enjoy their jobs because they have good workmates and a good workplace – I think that’s fine, too.”

But he has certainly come across those who view their work as a calling.

“I’ve met officers, a few specific persons I know, who work in the area of work inspection and safety. They are not necessarily high-flying officers, but they are very motivated and passionate. They go about their work very meticulously because they know that what they do really has an impact on the lives of their fellow public officers and members of the public,” he added.

“So these are very inspirational people because of their sense of duty… which comes from realising that the job they do is an important one, it means something to somebody if they do their job right and do their job well.”

Teo Chee Hean Cuppa

So what do you usually have in your cuppa?
I used to drink large amounts of coffee when I was going to sea. But when I stopped going to sea regularly, I started to drink large amounts of tea. Then I concluded that I really didn’t need to drink large amounts of tea either, so now I drink water mainly.

What is your favourite beverage?
English Breakfast Tea.

Where do you normally head for your cuppa?
I don’t normally head anywhere for my tea or coffee. I have it either in office or at home.

    May 7, 2010
    Loh Chee Kong
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