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“Singapore Needs A New Narrative…”

19 July 2012

Catching up with the Chief Executive Officer of the National Environmental Agency (NEA), Andrew Tan, Elaine Ee learns about his desire to build meaningful connections, his impressions of former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, and his thoughts on an elusive work-in- progress – the new Singapore story. - Photos by John Heng

Andrew Tan believes good communication is vital. And that applies to the Government’s relationship with its people.

“I am personally in favour of a more open atmosphere for policy discussion and dialogue,” says the 44-year-old, who heads the National Environment Agency (NEA).

“It is timely we do so,” he adds, citing Singaporeans’ increased expectations of the Government amidst calls for greater discussion on key national issues.

“Singapore needs a new narrative going forward. The question is – how can we involve the public in this and work with them to develop this new narrative?”

But first, the way the conversation is held between the Government and people has to change. Currently, Mr Tan observes, members of the public often turn up at dialogue sessions armed with complaints, which leads to public officers defending their policies.

“It would be ideal if we have a dialogue amongst equals,” he says. “We’re not here to better one another but to solve the problem together… so we need to find more congenial settings for these dialogues. The process is just as important as the outcome.”

Keeping the trust

The Public Service, he says, has played a critical role in the development of Singapore. This has been made possible “because of the tremendous trust between the people and the Government… This has given the Public Service the room to adopt long-term measures to transform Singapore.”

But does the Government still enjoy the same level of trust from its people?

 “The trust is still there. It is very precious and should be preserved,” he replies. “We shouldn’t take for granted that this level of trust will remain. I think of late it has come under some pressure from recent events like flooding, train disruptions and rising costs of living.”

This is a time when exceptional leadership will be required to cope with a more vocal and demanding public, a time complicated by increased pressures on a small, densely populated city, he says.

Not only must leaders listen more to the people, they must also have the gumption to make tough decisions, and not bow to populist demands, he adds. At the same time, the Public Service needs to be nimbler in adjusting its policies to fast-changing conditions.

Inspiring staff

Mr Tan, who became CEO of NEA in 2009, believes that each of his 3,500-strong staff plays a crucial role in the evolving Singapore narrative where the environment is concerned. “Whether it is lifting up drain covers to look for mosquitoes, or telling people they shouldn’t litter, there is a larger purpose to all this – we are all part of the narrative to keep Singapore clean and green.”.

To help staff see the big picture, he finds time to speak directly with them as much as possible. “We’re a very large organisation… you have to reach out to these people in different ways. You’ve to walk the ground, show that you understand their needs, and win their confidence.”

The CEO motivates his staff by encouraging them to champion their own projects that can benefit the organisation. This means giving them room to propose new initiatives or explore innovative partnerships. The only criterion – they have to be passionate about the project.

When he was at the Ministry of Defence, Mr Tan himself was seconded to Singapore Press Holdings to help the former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew on his memoirs in 1994.

The trust is still there. It is very precious and should be preserved.

“I had the benefit of taking on projects like former MM Lee’s memoirs and doing a start-up like the Centre for Liveable Cities. These have given me good opportunities to develop my skills and a chance to work across several agencies from information and the arts, defence, foreign affairs to the environment.”

Altogether, Mr Tan spent six years working closely with the former MM , including three years as his Principal Private Secretary. This tops the memorable highlights of his 20 years in public service.

“I was struck by how simple a life Mr Lee leads and how profound his thinking was,” he recalls. “There is a huge contrast between his personal life and the amount of effort he puts into thinking about the future of the nation. He probably spends about 99.9% of his time thinking about Singapore’s future and maybe 0.1% on his daily routine, which he probably finds a chore!”

Carving out time

Mr Tan’s own time for himself isn’t in great supply either, since he devotes most of his time to work. His children, two boys and a girl, all aged under 10, attend NEA activities with him from time to time.

He has some personal time for himself every Sunday morning when he goes for a run. Even then, work is still on his mind.

“During my jog, I do three things,” he reveals. “First, I keep myself fit. Second, I catch up on my reading through audio books – for instance I listen to The New Yorker – and third, I do a cleanliness audit to see if our contractors have been doing their job and whether my chaps have been checking on the contractors. If something is amiss, I will send out an email thereafter.”

The emails dispatched, the rest of Mr Tan’s Sunday is strictly reserved for his family.

What’s usually in your cup?

Chinese tea.

Your favourite flavour or brand?

Doesn’t really matter. I call it the NEA-brew.

Where do you usually have your cuppa?

At meetings, it is usually the lesser of the evils, i.e. coffee.

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