Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Yam Ah Mee: Man with a PAssion

By Robin Chan, The Sunday Times, 17 Feb 2013

Every Chinese New Year, Mr Yam Ah Mee and his nine brothers and sisters gather for a boisterous celebration in one of their homes.

The 10 siblings and their families are a tight group, meeting regularly for birthdays, weddings and other celebrations throughout the year. Mr Yam credits the closeness to the trials and tribulations they shared living cheek by jowl in a Jalan Tenteram HDB flat with their cabby father and housewife mother.

His crowded home of "a football team and a referee" also led him to spend many hours at the community centre nearby, shooting hoops or playing badminton with relatives and neighbours.

That flat and community centre are long gone but they "shaped my life in many ways", he says in an interview with The Sunday Times.

"Maybe that is the reason I am so passionate about the community," says the 55-year-old chief executive director of the People's Association (PA), who is leaving the public sector after 36 years for the private sector.

It has, on any count, been a successful career. It began in the Singapore Armed Forces, which paid for his studies in Australia where he graduated with first-class honours in engineering at the University of New South Wales.

He rose to the rank of brigadier-general in the air force before heading for the Civil Service College to be its dean and chief executive. His next stop was at the Ministry of Transport as deputy secretary for sea and air, and then to the Land Transport Authority (LTA) as its chief executive.

But it is in his current posting that the hallmark of his life was brought into sharp relief as he set about bringing people together.

"Building social capital" was his paramount goal, he says, when he was made the PA's chief in May 2010.

It was crucial as Singapore was, and still is, facing challenges on three fronts: a fast-ageing population; rising expectations of the young; and increasing openness and diversity.

This swift change in demographics and societal make-up gave an overarching importance to the PA's longstanding role in strengthening social cohesion, he says.

To meet the new needs, Mr Yam shifted the PA's centre of focus from one-off events to programmes that can be sustained, and to engage youth in their communities and hangouts rather than strive to bring them to the PA.

Social media also took on a more prominent role as the PA extended its reach online, with the launch of its OurCommunity.sg mobile portal in 2010 as well as a PAssion card app in 2011, for users of its PAssion card, which offers PA members discounts and privileges at shops, restaurants and community centre activities and courses.

The results in three years are satisfying to him. The number of participants in its activities has risen from 1.1 million from April 2011 to December 2011, to 1.4 million for the same period last year.

The PA now has 32,000 grassroots leaders, up from 27,000 four years ago, and they have reached out to many people not just in the heartland, but also in private residential estates, where the PA has been less successful in the past.

Also, PAssion card membership has doubled from 600,000 to 1.2 million over the last three years.

But what of the apparent growing discontent as reflected in the results of the four elections he presided over as Returning Officer, and more recently, the reaction to the White Paper on Population?

Mr Yam is sanguine, saying the approach to building social capital must continue to evolve.

But he also believes the criticisms of a vocal minority can "distort" reality, and so "encouraging more in the community to speak up would give a much more balanced view of Singapore overall".

Singapore, after all, is much better off than many countries, he says, but it is a point often forgotten until Singaporeans are overseas. "Then, they say, 'Singapore is so good!' But when they are back, because of work and our expectations - because we are high achievers and go-getters - we get too critical of ourselves," he laments.

He beckons the critics and cynics to get involved in the community, to see for themselves how people of different ages, backgrounds and even countries have come together for Singapore.

Last year, of the 4,000 new people who joined as grassroots leaders, about 10 per cent or 400 were new citizens and permanent residents. "It speaks volumes," he says. "Only when they haven't availed themselves of such opportunities is there this feeling that the concerns are bigger than what they really are."

The 'model' civil servant

With his measured words, steady smile and hair combed neatly to the side, Mr Yam seems the epitome of the reticent and reliable public servant who can be trusted to do the job with care and caution.

It perhaps underlined his move in 2005 from the calmer waters of the Ministry of Transport into the crisis-hit LTA after a section of a wall for the Circle Line near Nicoll Highway collapsed, killing four workers.

Quietly, he rebuilt morale among staff, strengthened the safety culture and restored public confidence.

He was just as circumspect when asked about the long-held criticisms of the PA having a political role at the grassroots level.

It is a misperception, he says.

The PA is like any other statutory board.

"PA, or LTA, BCA, URA, HSA, SLA - we are all the As," he says, laughing, referring to the abbreviations for the Building and Construction Authority, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Health Sciences Authority and Singapore Land Authority. "And we are all government statutory boards, structured for a specific purpose."

The PA is strictly apolitical and does not allow party political activities, he adds. Volunteers are not asked which party they support, but only what interests they share and how they can benefit residents.

Then why does the PA not appoint an elected opposition party MP as a grassroots adviser?

His explanation: Just as the SLA or URA appoints people with urban planning experience to its committees, the PA's grassroots adviser should be a person best able to build a close bond between the Government and people, and vice versa.

"The Government of the day is the People's Action Party, so they pick PAP people to do it. I think that is the nature of things."

Mr Yam's tenure also coincided with the affair between his former staff member and ex-PAP MP Michael Palmer that led to the most recent Punggol East by-election, his last as Returning Officer.

Even with that in mind, he says he enjoyed so much of his time at the PA that he cannot think of any particularly challenging moments in his tenure, aside from not having enough time to attend the multitude of events that sometimes took place in one day.

But Mr Yam's stiff and cautious demeanour belies a chutzpah uncommon among civil servants.

When he became an overnight celebrity for his deadpan and nasal delivery of the 2011 election results, he did not shy away.

Instead he openly embraced it, sportingly parodied himself and used the widespread interest to raise the profile of the PA.

He donned Indian bhangra garb for the Circle Line launch and danced in step with a 200-strong flash mob of youth for a National Day Parade event.

Earlier, while at the LTA, he sashayed down a catwalk for a fashion show in aid of charity.

These unexpected acts, he explains, were partly a show of support for his staff. But they also reflected his "belief that we must always be prepared to try new things and seek continuous improvement".

This dare-to-be-different disposition perhaps fuelled his decision to quit the public sector to try his hand at something new at age 55.

He will be managing director-designate of Sembcorp Design and Construction in April and will helm the building construction subsidiary of listed Sembcorp Industries when its MD Lim Kah Hing retires later this year.

With his widespread appeal and interest in the community, did he ever consider a future in politics?

"No, no, no. I'm a civil servant and now I'm going to the private sector... So I'm looking forward to learning new skills," he replies.

On his PA experience, he says it has opened his eyes to the fact that Singaporeans are a very caring and generous people. In turn, he hopes that more of them will open their eyes to see Singapore as home.

Referring to the message from Singapore Airlines as its plane descends on the island - To all Singaporeans, welcome home - he says: "I'd like to encourage everyone to remember: This is home, and home is where everyone has a part to play. It is for us to make our own future."


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