The Enterprising Civil Servant

Yam Ah Mee (MBA 1991)

yam_ah_mee_croppedMr Yam Ah Mee may seem like your typical Singaporean public servant who started in the military and then rotated through various senior postings within the Civil Service. While he may look every inch the Chief Executive Director of the People’s Association that he is, behind the smooth facade of the civil service Mandarin, is an entrepreneur-officer at heart.

A bold decision
When he became Dean of the prestigious Civil Service College in 2000, he shared the vision that it was important for the College to be responsive to the needs of its customers. He felt that the only way to do that effectively was for the College to operate on a self-funding basis.

As a result, the College boldly decided to borrow S$10.8 million on a commercial basis to fund its operations instead of relying on government-allocated funds.

The change to a self-funded basis was a radical one, and more than 30 staff who did not share his vision decided to leave the College.

A talent for improving organizations
Hoping to break even within a year, it turned out much better than expected. In its first year of providing training and consultancy services both locally and overseas, the College reported revenues of close to S$46 million. This gave the College a surplus of S$3 million, and allowed for the loan to be repaid within 12 months.

“By making the College self-funded, it forced the staff and trainers to be more sensitive to the needs of the customers,” said Mr Yam. He believed that if no one signed up for the College’s courses, they would have no course to teach. This motivated the trainers to fine-tune their programs to make them relevant and enhance the quality of their delivery.

Another example of his entrepreneurial side was shown during his tenure at the Land Transport Authority (LTA), where he served as their Chief Executive from 2005 to 2010. He oversaw the rapid growth of an existing consultancy wing within the LTA called MSI Global. The company offered transport expertise in many countries, allowing LTA staff to hone their skills and develop their experience outside of Singapore. As a measure of its success, MSI Global increased its net worth from S$600,000 in 2005 to S$22 million in 2010.

Managing work and study
He attributes his entrepreneurial streak to his time at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Business School, where he completed his part-time MBA in 1991. Apart from learning basic business skills such as business management, financial management, strategy formulation, and operations management, he also networked with fellow students who came from multi-national corporations and government-linked companies. “The mutual learning was very valuable,” adds Mr Yam.

Doing his MBA was not easy for him. At the time he started, he was a young Major in the Air Force, and he was usually two hours late for class because of work obligations. He would rush to get to NUS from his camp. “I would arrive in uniform because I had no time to change,” recalls Mr Yam.

On one memorable day, he found himself stuck in a meeting that started at 5 pm when he was supposed to be taking his marketing and business examination at 6 pm. He could not afford to miss either the meeting or the examination, so he decided to take a calculated risk. He left the meeting halfway and arrived two hours late for a three-hour exam. He was fortunate to have an understanding professor who allowed him to take the paper. Despite everything, he managed to score an A.

Serving Singapore in many capacities
At the helm of the People’s Association since 2010, he is looking to help the organization achieve its goal of building and strengthening bonds within the community.

Giving back to the community is something close to his heart. Despite his busy schedule, he has always been involved in various organizations, and he currently serves as a Member of the Board of Governors for the Hwa Chong Institution; is a member of the Management Board for the Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing Processing (CRISP); is a member of the National Arts Council (NAC); is a Council Member of the Singapore Sports Council (SSC); is Chairman of the SSC Audit Committee, and is a Member of the NUS Advisory Board for the Centre for Strategic Leadership (CSL), among others.

He hopes that young people will harness their energies and contribute to society. His message to youth is that they can make a difference, both individually and collectively. “Never give up on your dreams and ideas despite your youth,” encourages Mr Yam.

To learn more about Yam Ah Mee, click on the following link:

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