2019-01-06 05:00:00 2019-01-07 04:59:00 SPH 2 Lee Tzu Yang is pleasant, polite and answers every question I put to him as best as he can.

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Lee Tzu Yang is pleasant, polite and answers every question I put to him as best as he can.

But he gets visibly uncomfortable when the conversation veers too much into personal territory.

The retired chairman of Shell companies in Singapore wears many hats, including chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC).

In August last year, he took over that role from former senior civil servant Eddie Teo.

The PSC oversees the appointment and promotion of senior public servants, and also decides who gets government scholarships. I'm here to find out his plans for it.

Lunch is at the members' lounge on the commission's premises on the eighth floor of the National Library Building in Victoria Street.

At 64, Mr Lee looks fit and, at certain angles, you can still see the football and rugby player he was in school.

We have met once before, at a dinner when he was at Shell. He had struck me then as unassuming and quiet, someone who would rather listen than speak.

He leads me to a table where our plates have been filled with nasi briyani from Makanan Bollywood, a restaurant at the basement of Peninsula Shopping Centre.

The rice is fragrant and the chicken tender.

I ask if he's a foodie.

He says he likes food but is not knowledgeable about it the way some of his friends are. "I'm just a consumer. Don't come to me for recommendations," he laughs.

We're meeting in December and so chit-chat about holidays.

I ask if he has been to anywhere interesting and he says he had attended his elder daughter's wedding. Where was it held?

He lets on that it was in the United States.

"It's quite a trip. Long trip. Absolutely jet-lagged," he adds.

HE RETIRED from Shell in 2014 after 35 years at the oil-gas giant, 14 of them as chairman of the Singapore unit.

He had a reputation for being well respected and well liked. A former colleague says he was always on top of the many things on his plate, not one to lose his cool and was courteous to colleagues.

"Most people who work with him do so out of respect for him, not fear or dread of him," says the former colleague.

A friend of his describes him as a person who is quietly confident without being pushy, and with an interesting, multi-layered mind because of his wide interests.

Even while busy at Shell, Mr Lee was in many public service roles involving the economy, education and the arts.

He was, among other positions, founder chairman of the School of the Arts and chairman of the Casino Regulatory Authority.

Besides the PSC role, he is currently a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers and the Legal Service Commission.

He chairs the board of The Esplanade Company, as well as the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

He is also chairman of the Founders' Memorial Committee, which is conceptualising how the values of Singapore's founding generation of leaders can be remembered.

His first few months at PSC have been very interesting, he says as we tuck into the briyani.

"I've always been interested in people issues. PSC is nothing if not to do with people."

I ask how he came to the PSC role.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had approached him, he replies.

"I was intrigued. When I retired from Shell, the things that I knew I was going to miss was not so much the strategic brainstorming and thinking about big concepts, but more the dealing with people issues," he says.

"I've always considered myself kind of a meddler in people's issues," he adds self-deprecatingly.

Even as Shell chairman, he was involved in recruitment and made it a point to meet new staff at all levels. He also did a lot of coaching and leadership development work.

"That's always been my hobby."

I tell him I've heard he was a very good boss.

"I don't know what 'good' means but I was certainly very interested in people" is his reply.

He believes that managers should take a role in leadership development activities for their staff.

"Partly because it lets them know their staff better in a holistic sense as opposed to just the task that they can achieve, but also because they learn their own weaknesses and strengths," he says.

"Usually when you see somebody else, you say there but for the grace of God I would do the same thing, but now that I look at it from a distance, I can see that I could do it better or I could do it worse."

I ask him to describe his leadership style. He demurs and goes on to point out there are many different styles and "I won't want to say that one style or another style is going to win out over another".

What he does advise is this: "You have to be yourself. People have to believe you. If you're not yourself and you think that in order to be effective, you have to do something which is against your own instincts, you probably won't do it very well."

There will be people who are more task-oriented and those who are more people-oriented.

"They both can be effective. It depends on how balanced they are and how well understood they are by the team and how well they communicate with the team.

"Because in the end, it's not just about the leaders. It's about how the whole team appreciates and works with the leader. So if you change every day, of course then your team gets very confused."

I try again and ask what it means for him when he says "be yourself".

It's better for others to say, he replies.

What have you heard then?

He laughs: "What have I heard? I've heard that I'm patient probably to a fault. I should stop listening to some people perhaps earlier than I should, than I have." GIVEN his private sector background, I'm interested to know if he has been struck by or shocked by anything about the way the civil service is run.

"I'm actually somebody who's quite difficult to shock," he says.

The differences between the private and public sectors are "less real than we imagine".

Like the public sector, private sector companies, especially those that want to be around for a long time, must worry about issues like sustainability, talent and renewal, as well as their place in the community.

"You have to be accepted and you have to be valued for, in many ways, more than just what the services or the goods are that you sell to the community."

And like the private sector, there are parts of the public sector that must care about the books and at least break even, if not make a profit.

The difference between both worlds might be that the level of accountability increasingly being demanded of the public sector is probably of a higher magnitude than the private sector. Then again, companies like Facebook now face accountability demands too.

Still, he says, "the public sector has never been able to dodge the bullet" on accountability.

This is why the PSC is looking for people "who are minded to do things that are in the greater good for the community, but who are not just bleeding hearts".

"They must also be concerned about cost and efficiency and so on. But their hearts must be in the right place for the public sector.

"I think that's a very, very important part of it."

What he hopes to bring is his experience in evaluating and developing people.

On the scholarship aspect of PSC's role, he has been quite impressed by the applicants he has interviewed, describing them as "much more composed, confident, I'd say aggressive" than generations past.

These young Singaporeans are "not only talented but they are very practised and they are very well prepared for interviews".

Part of the challenge for the PSC is to look beyond the facade and identify the real person and his interests.

Currently, applicants go through a process that includes tests, questionnaires and exhaustive interviews.

The PSC will be introducing new technology in the selection process. One is game-based assessments, which are not widely used yet. These are basically online assessments where people perform a series of digital tasks.

How they react is correlated to the psychology of why they act in that way. "Very often there are no right or wrong answers. It just gives you a better profile than maybe an interview and so on."

These tests can be done many times involving different tasks and the results reveal qualities like a person's risk tolerance, the ability to learn as the game changes and perseverance.

These new tools allow for more cross-referencing. Cost per head, they are also cheaper than hours of laborious interviews, the businessman in him says.

They will also allow the PSC to deal with a greater cohort of applicants and look at a wider range of skills and qualifications.

He is aware the usual Singaporean instinct will be to now think of ways to "win" in the new selection system.

"That really is not what I'm trying to do," he says. "I'm not trying to get people better at gaming the system. I just want people to be themselves, but to understand a bit more about what we're looking for when we ask the questions."

The PSC's emphasis in recent years of getting scholarship holders from more diverse backgrounds will continue, and it is also looking more broadly at polytechnics.

He adds that while co-curricular activities are important, the commission is very interested in students who are involved in activities outside school.

"What motivates them? What have they learnt from these activities and what keeps them going at these activities, because that's authentic. That's not programmed and that in a way indicates their ability to deal with the world as it changes."

Beyond scholarships, he is looking at issues like the criteria considered in the appointment and promotion of senior public servants, and ensuring a talent pipeline.

WHILE he has never been a civil servant, it wasn't an unfamiliar world to him.

His late father, Tan Sri Lee Siow Mong, was a senior civil servant from the late 1930s to 1980 and among the earliest recruited into the Straits Settlements Civil Service, eventually serving both in Singapore and Malaysia.

Among other positions, the elder Mr Lee was permanent secretary for education (Singapore), general manager of the Public Utilities Board (Singapore) and general manager of the Employees Provident Fund in Malaysia.

He was also a long-time president of the China Society in Singapore, which promotes appreciation of Chinese culture.

Mr Lee's late mother was a housewife, and he was the youngest in a family of three boys and two sisters. One of his sisters is the poet Lee Tzu Pheng.

The family grew up in Bukit Timah and he studied at Anglo-Chinese School.

As the youngest, he was doted on and benefited from having older siblings. He had access to books beyond his age, for example. "I had a reasonably happy and advantaged childhood."

He did well in his studies, was a school debater and played football and rugby.

You must have been head prefect too, I joke.

Yah, he says, laughing. He was in fact head prefect.

He went to the London School of Economics and Political Science, the first of the siblings to study abroad. He wasn't a scholarship holder. "In fact, at the time, LSE was not a favoured government destination for scholars."

The 1970s were a politically active period in Britain and LSE was active in both left-and right-wing causes.

Which camp was he more aligned to? "I was probably more on the left," he says, but he wasn't active. "I just made myself useful in the halls of residence so I was able to ensure myself a place there."

He returned with a degree in economics, did his national service and got a job in Shell in 1979. "I was looking for a job, I just wrote to a whole bunch of companies and I accepted the first one that looked good and decent, which was Shell."

This became an HR lesson he learnt. "It's not enough just to have a good brand and all that. You must also be efficient in getting back and being first back to the person who applies."

  • WHAT WE ATE

  • Mr Lee Tzu Yang became chairman of the Public Service Commission in August last year. To better gauge what scholarship applicants are like, the PSC will be introducing game-based assessments which will help uncover qualities like risk tolerance, the

    2 nasi briyani and 2 teh halia from Makanan Bollywood, #B1-06, Peninsula Shopping Centre, 3 Coleman Street

For a time, he even read the news part-time over radio and TV.

He and his wife Veronica, a housewife, have two married daughters - a lawyer and a dancer - and an architect son, none of whom was a government scholarship holder. They also have a six-month-old granddaughter.

He considers himself semi-retired but feels "it's only a term - I do work almost every day". He doesn't golf as it's too demanding of time.

Lunch over, he poses gamely for the photos before we say goodbye.

I follow up with an e-mail clarifying some facts and also asking if he could share some personal tidbits like a favourite author or whether he plays a musical instrument, which I had not thought to ask at lunch.

Not surprisingly, I get a polite reply that he will pass on this.

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