Dare To Disrupt by Professor Lui Pao Chuen

Prof Lui Pao Chuen

Senior Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2004-to date)

Advisor of National Research Foundation (2006-to date)

Chief Defence Scientist, MINDEF (1986-2008)
Dare To Disrupt by Professor Lui Pao Chuen


The Singapore Public Service has had some exceptional officers. What made them so? They had dared to break through the boundaries of systems with disruptive innovations; this requires foresight to anticipate future needs, and courage, to take risks in forging new paths forward.

I was an SAF engineer in my youth. I think defence engineers owe a debt of gratitude to our first Minister for Defence Dr Goh Keng Swee, for the trust he had in us. Dr Goh gave us his personal authority to conceptualise, plan, implement and deliver major projects. I remember I once timidly asked Dr Goh if he would approve the appointment of a prime contractor to develop a major system for the SAF. He replied no. He wanted us young officers to take on the project and to bear responsibility for it. Dr Goh said, “The experience gained in managing complex projects is as valuable as the project itself!”

There were few places in the world where newly graduated engineers were given such interesting projects that carried great responsibilities. With the trust placed on our shoulders, we worked our guts out not to let him down. Dr Goh wanted us to run like racehorses, and he had to rein us in from time to time, instead of having to whip us to run faster. We made mistakes and corrected them when they surfaced.

Our self-confidence grew with the completion of each project. We learned by doing, and by accepting responsibility. We bought specialist knowledge and expertise to fill the gaps, but we did not buy the responsibility. It was a privilege that had been entrusted to us, and we worked continuously to uphold that trust.

I want to encourage you to have the courage to take risks in forging a new way forward. Dare to break through the boundaries of existing systems.

NEWater is an example of having the foresight to anticipate future needs. Did you know that PUB ’s pilot plant to treat wastewater was built back in 1974? Then, the costs were astronomical; the plant unreliable. We had to shelve the idea, but it was not forgotten. We were waiting, for a technological breakthrough that would make water reclamation economically viable. In 1998, this breakthrough finally arrived. Professor Andrew Benedek commercialised his invention of the low pressure membrane; our costs plunged and our treated water was excellent. So, 26 years after the pilot project, our first NEWater plant was completed in 2000. And with NEWater, we have gained our independence from Johor water.

Finally, I want to encourage you to have the courage to take risks in forging a new way forward. Dare to break through the boundaries of existing systems. In 1972, PSA introduced a berth for third-generation container vessels, becoming the first port in Southeast Asia to do so. Based on container traffic at that time, there was no economic case for this investment. PSA faced scepticism. But they had assessed that container traffic would dominate the shipping world, and went ahead with construction. Soon after, container traffic did dominate the shipping world; our port was ready for the spike in cargo vessels, and PSA was proven right.

So, young officer, uphold steadfastly the responsibilities given to you, consider the needs of the future, and have the courage to break through systemic boundaries. And you, too, can be a disruptive innovator.

    Nov 16, 2012
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