Persevere, Come Hell or High Water, Tan Wee Kiat

Persevere, Come Hell or High Water, Tan Wee Kiat
A letter from Dr Tan Wee Kiat

Chief Executive Officer, Gardens by the Bay 
Chief Executive Officer, NParks (1995-2006)


Never having been a young public officer, I would not presume to offer advice to any. When I first joined the Civil Service, I was already 40. A cautionary telling of this pilgrim’s progress through perilous passage in public servitude, however, could perhaps offer some titillation rather than platitudes.

In the early 1980s – after having been in the US by myself since I was 17 – I decided to return home. Having served nine years in helping to set up and run a new and innovative botanic institution in the second-ranking position, I had hit a glass ceiling: I was the wrong cast for the lead role in a conservative WASP (white Anglo- Saxon Protestant) community.

At that time, a clarion call had been sent to all expatriate Singaporeans to return and help a nascent nation grow. I was curious to see if I could make it there. My conscience, too, started poking. My parents had given me freedom to pursue my dreams overseas, and it was payback time.

Alas, Singapore was much less welcoming and more provincial than now to prodigal sons, especially those who were long in the tooth, and bearing degrees from (gasp!) the US of A! Back in the day, American degrees had less value than expired 4-D tickets. If I accepted employ with the Civil Service, remuneration would be based on my Cambridge O-Level results.

This offer would ensure that I would stomp off in high dudgeon. But mid-life crisis, and that strange sense of obligation towards parents and motherland prevailed. I would serve five years come hell or high water at the then Parks and Recreation Department.

As a lowly regarded newcomer, would not receive much support for the ambitious plans I had to rejuvenate the Singapore Botanic Gardens in the mid-1980s. Eliciting support and assistance from Mrs Pamelia Lee of the Singapore Tourism Board, I prepared the Master Plan for re-development. This document was sent to every member of the Cabinet without passing through the normal channels of protocol and approvals. This prevented it from any bending, folding or mutilation.

If this proposal had not found favour with the powers that be, I have no doubt that my civil service career would have ended. Instead, it led to the creation of the first National Parks Board, which would come under my purview if I stayed on in the Service.

From this, I learnt I could make the impossible happen, because “impossible” is sometimes merely a substitute for “What for? Why bother? What’s in it for me?”.

By 1990, the slow wheels of bureaucracy had ground me down. Offers from the private sector seemed more appealing. But eventually, I found reason to stay and became the first Director of the pioneer National Parks Board.

So persevere regardless of hell or high water: if you don’t like your job, find positive ways to shape your portfolio such that you increase perceivable value, hence raising your own stock.

Five blissful years of exploring new ways to engage young and old in the objectives and mission of the National Parks Board with a passionate and dedicated staff then ensued.

In 1995, there was a new proclamation: NParks was to rejoin the Parks and Recreation Department, reconstituting the current supersized model. My protestations to no avail, I had to acquiesce to being the excised tail being re-attached to the dog, and start wagging the creature.

It took at least half a decade before resistance to the new DNA from the tail was arrested in the parent body, and the reformed organism started functioning as one.

Learning points during this period: grit your teeth without biting off your tongue; be prepared for change, look for the positives, sally forth with no regard to your rice bowl.

Now here I am, a relic way past my shelf life, but recalled to the trenches because a germ of an idea – a midsummer night’s dream – a moment when the Government seemed to take leave of its senses, resulted in the formation of the Gardens by the Bay.

I see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for my exit. Hopefully, I will leave behind a bearable burden to a staff ready to take up the cudgels. And hopefully, I have not wasted your time with this narrative.

    Mar 7, 2014
    Dr Tan Wee Kiat
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