The original Tech Maverick in Gov
Mobile smartphones, desktops, laptops, notebooks and tablets represent a dizzying array of options for today’s savvy tech consumer.
On average, each Singaporean uses an average of 3.3 computer devices and surfs the internet every day, finds a global study called Consumer Barometer that was commissioned by Google in 2014.
We all have supercomputers in our pockets, essentially.
Few people are aware that back in the early 1970s, Singapore already had a handful of computers.
But rarer still are the ones who can recall that each model was the size of a washing machine and had a then-astonishing capacity of no more than a few hundred megabytes!
This anecdote was shared by Mr Philip Yeo, Chairman of SPRING Singapore, who recalls fondly this nugget from Singapore’s history archives.
Accounting for Computers 101
A pioneering civil servant who earned his stripes under the mentorship of the legendary former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr Yeo has achieved international fame for his unorthodox methods of accomplishing what is best for Singapore.
Mr Yeo sums it up wryly, “I have not been known for seeking approval from the Ministry of Finance (MOF) throughout my career.”
This was a reference to his time as the director of the logistics division at the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).
It was the early 1970s, and the MOF data processing department had just bought an ICL Mainframe Computer—the only computer in the civil service then, Mr Yeo remembers.
Displaying a type of foresight that became his defining characteristic, Mr Yeo knew that technology would be integral to thrusting Singapore into the 21st century.
To get around the red tape required to buy computers, Mr Yeo confessed to classifying the purchase of computers as ‘small accounting machines’, a category that includes the humble calculator.
“At MINDEF, I bought several Nova-General and HP Minicomputers, not mini in costs, in those days, to equip my logistics supply bases, and also the Chartered Industries of Singapore and Singapore Automotive Engineering organisations, at both of which I was Chairman.”
There, he also bought the first International Business Machine 4341 Mainframe Computer for MINDEF’s Manpower Division — under the classification of a ‘large accounting machine’, he says with a laugh.
It would be these ‘accounting machines’ purchases and other decisions that led Mr Yeo, who was then the second Permanent Secretary in the Defence Ministry, to serve as founding chairman of the National Computer Board (NCB) in 1981.
Back to the Future
Here’s a short history recap and a game of six degrees of separation.
Formed as a result of a study conducted in 1980 by the Committee on National Computerisation, which was headed by then Senior Minister for Education Dr Tony Tan, NCB was given three major statutory functions: to implement the computerisation of the civil service, to coordinate computer education and training, and to develop and promote the computer services industry.
In 1999, NCB merged with the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore to form IDA, which was tasked to develop Singapore into a regional centre for computer software development and services.
In October this year, IDA and the Media Development Authority (MDA) of Singapore were both restructured, resulting in the formation the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) of Singapore — and also the Government Technology Agency (GovTech), which counts leading the digital transformation of public service delivery as one of its key missions.
But back to Mr Yeo’s career.
After serving various appointments in MINDEF, including the position of permanent secretary for defence in 1979, he left to assume the appointment of chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB) in 1986, where he redirected EDB’s focus from traditional fields to new areas of business such as biomedical science, semiconductors, aerospace and speciality chemicals.
Development and Research
It was at EDB where he made some strategic decisions that, while raising eyebrows at the time, eventually paid off.
“I ‘con-vinced’ the Jurong Town Corporation to launch Jurong Island in the mid-1990s, followed by the one-north Biopolis and Fusionopolis projects in Dec 2001 and July 2003,” he quips, pun fully intended.
Today, Singapore’s position as a global chemical hub has grown in tandem with the extensive development of the artificially-built Jurong Island, which houses many of the world’s leading energy and chemical companies.
Similarly, the Biopolis and Fusionopolis biomedical science hubs are the beating hearts of Singapore’s science and technology landscape, with several government agencies, publicly funded research institutes and research labs calling them home.
As chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Mr Yeo has also been an influential force in the nurturing of young talents in the science and technology sectors.
“From 1994 to 2000, the National Science and Technology Board had spent S$6 billion on R&D, but with zero investment in human capital. When I took charge in 2001, I launched the PhD scholarship programme in July of that year, with the ‘misuse’ of the R&D multi-year budget,” he muses.
“To pull this off, the Minister for Trade and Industry Mr George Yeo had successfully pleaded with then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong [to fund science scholarships for Singaporeans],” Mr Yeo adds.
To the next Generation
Having kickstarted the A*STAR National Science Scholarship programme that has trained more than 1,000 Singaporean PhDs scientists to date, it is befitting then that Mr Yeo also has a PhD degree to call his own.
In 2011, Mr Yeo was conferred an honorary doctorate by the National University of Singapore (NUS) to celebrate his many contributions to Singapore’s information technology, semiconductor, chemical and biomedical science industries through the nation’s formative, post-independence years.
Many top international universities have also given Mr Yeo honorary doctorates. They are the University of Toronto, Canada (1997); Karolinska Institutet, Sweden (2006); Imperial College London, UK (2007); and Monash University, Australia (2011).
During the NUS commencement ceremony in 2011, he extended some sage advice to the graduating students, symbolically passing the baton to the next generation of technology mavericks.
“As I look back on my career, what have been memorable for me are not the achievements, neither are the advancements,” Mr Yeo advised.
“What has been memorable is the fun I have had in all the jobs I have held! That is what lasts.”
“In short, my advice to you is if you do what you love, create opportunities for others and boldly make new friends, you will certainly succeed and be happy.”
- All photos courtesy of Mr Philip Yeo.