On Finding Happiness

Philip Yeo
SPRING Singapore, Chairman since 2007

On Finding Happiness by Philip Yeo

Dear Young Officer,

I like to tell young people that if they do what they love, create opportunities for others and boldly make new friends, they’ll surely succeed and be happy. These are lessons I’ve distilled after nearly 40 years of public service.

Follow your passion

Choose a career path that fits what you already like to do and have passion for.

If you’re going to spend eight to 10 hours a day at work – do something you enjoy!

In primary school, I had a neighbour who retrofitted used car engines in his makeshift garage. Curious, I would pop over and get my hands dirty helping him clean out the greasy parts. Then, at St Joseph’s Institution, I headed the aero-modelling club; making, flying and crashing model planes. Taking up engineering in university was a natural pursuit for me.

When I returned in 1970 after graduating from the University of Toronto on the Colombo Scholarship, the Public Service Commission posted me – an engineer – to the Ministry of Finance’s Budget Division.

After a month of bean-counting, I begged for a transfer to an engineering job – anywhere! That landed me in the Ministry of Defence for 15 years. It was followed by 25 years at the Economic Development Board and A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research). As an engineer, I love building and creating systems and have been fortunate to have had jobs and opportunities I truly enjoyed.

Create opportunity for others

In 1970, the British Far East Forces, the largest employer in Singapore, had begun its withdrawal. At the ripe “old” age of 24, I was given the responsibility to find jobs for the 70,000 retrenched.

From then on, it’s been my personal mission to identify and build new industries to create jobs. To spot emerging trends, I read avidly, discuss with officers involved, and talk to local and international industry leaders. I never stop learning. When genetics was an emerging technology, I asked NUS Science staff to create a week’s crash course on “Genetics for Dummies” for me and 14 others.

Creating opportunities includes investing in people. So I set up scholarship programmes in all the organisations that I have been involved with.

It’s satisfying to see the young people I interviewed and selected, grow and develop. It’s even more satisfying to see them contribute in their career, in their community and to Singapore’s development.

Make new friends

The final lesson is to make new friends. Don’t be afraid to look up amazing people and befriend them. In this Facebook and LinkedIn generation, it is even easier to get to know people you respect and can learn from.

In every organisation, I try to build relationships. Many investors and talents I helped attract to Singapore have become personal friends.

Years ago, after learning of the strong Chemistry Department of The Scripps Research Institute and reading up on the work of its department head, Professor K C Nicolaou, I visited him in San Diego in 2001.

His office had artefacts from ancient Greece, including a replica of the sword Alexander the Great used in his world conquests. I broke the ice by discussing the conspiracy theory of how Alexander was killed. K C then followed on with stories of Alexander’s conquests. This “connection” subsequently led to him coming to Singapore to help set up the Synthetic Chemistry Lab at Biopolis.

Looking back on my career, what’s memorable are not so much achievements, it was the fun in all these jobs. It’s fulfilling to see new opportunities generated for others. Finally, the friendships built along the way made it an enjoyable journey! That is what lasts.

    Nov 8, 2011
    Philip Yeo
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