I joined the Singapore Economic Development Board (aka “EDB”) on 5 October 2009, and left on 31 July 2022. When I tell people that I was at EDB for almost 13 years,the most common response I get is “wow, that is a long time!” And it was!
In the 13 years, I did multiple things:
- I started out in the Energy, Chemicals & Engineering Services (ECES) team. This team oversaw the development of Jurong Island, Singapore’s energy & petrochemical complex inspired by BASF’s Ludwigshaven complex. That was where I really got to wrap my head around a truly complex system, in my daily work. I was involved in an initiative to re-examine the national hazards and risk assessment framework for large hazardous projects. Eventually, this led to the creation of a new government department to manage risk, after I was posted to India.
- From 2012 to 2015, I was posted to Mumbai, India, as a Centre Director for Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad. This was primarily a sales role, with sales targets that I frankly never met. But it was a very good experience, as it was during this time that I came across the budding startup ecosystem in India, and also started thinking about what startups were/are.
- From 2015 to 2018, I returned to Singapore, and was a Head (line manager) in the Strategic Planning team. I co-led the Secretariat of the International Advisory Council meetings for two years, and was also involved in the Create initiative to help large corporates create new ventures (it is now the New Ventures division in EDB). The Create initiative also got me exposed to design.
- In 2019, I was sent by EDB to study interaction design at CIID in Copenhagen. I completed the year with the IDP 2019 cohort.
- From 2020 to 2022, I was really a jack of all trades. At various times, I was a design researcher, service design manager, webmaster, product manager of a manpower scheme (I know!), manager of product manager, prototyper (my favorite thing), design thinking instructor, design workshop facilitator for a new strategic initiative, and helping to initiate a new product innovation team before I left.
If I were to summarize my 13 years’ evolution in a single word, it would be leverage: I learned (not always successfully) how to use, design and create leverage across different levels of abstraction, from an industry & national-level, down to an organization/company-level, senior leadership-level, team-level. (A synonym for leverage is power: see my notes on Power here.)
But the main purpose of this post isn’t to humbrag (sorry if it comes across that way!) The main purpose is to explain what is the EDB. This is because I think most people have a very mistaken idea of EDB.
When I was in EDB, I was often irked to be labelled “government”. The other interesting thing that I observed was the frequent complaint by other EDBians about other government agency colleagues being “bureaucrats”. Initially, that sounded nonsensical to me, because EDB is a government agency. So aren’t all EDBians bureaucrats by definition?
After 13 years, my reply to my own question is an emphatic NO.
EDB is a beast that doesn’t fit in neat boxes & boundaries, just like its people. They are much more like frogs which seamlessly hop between the pond (public service) and dry land (private sector).
The Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) was created in 1961 as a government statutory board to oversee Singapore’s industry development. Back then, Singapore wasn’t industrialized, and the economy was largely trade-based. As Singapore had no native industries, the pathway to industrialization required Singapore to attract foreign investments as a start. Hence, from the get-go, EDB was primarily focused on investment promotion, and on behaving as the interface between large corporate investors and the rest of Singapore.
EDB’s position at the interface between private sector & the public sector meant that EDB officers often dealt with complex issues. Whereas financial institutions & businesses often focus on a single monetary metric, EDB officers regularly have to deal with multi-dimensional problems, by virtue of the number of stakeholders.
Suppose we have a MNC investing in a factory in Singapore. Everything that the MNC does in its investment can be boiled down to a single number, e.g. NPV or IRR, or EBITDA, or any other metric for profit, and ultimately how this creates enterprise value.
In contrast, on the EDB side, there are multiple concerns e.g. about human capital (including the number of Singaporeans in the workforce, whether we have enough pipeline for specific talent profiles), land allocation, the value of the jobs created (and whether those jobs go to Singaporeans), accessibility of supporting utilities, availability of the supplier ecosystem, potential partnerships with universities & research institutes, etc. If the industry is something intrinsically hazardous, then you also have to factor in environmental risks, risks to the system, etc. There is no SINGLE number or metric that can be used to justify an investment or not, because they are all very different dimensions. (Note that I’m just sharing a hypothetical example to illustrate some of the considerations. I’m not speaking on behalf of EDB nor is this representative of EDB’s evaluation criteria for investment projects) It’s really not as straightforward as calculating trading comparables based on a basket of comparable publicly listed companies, nor calculating a discounted cash flow valuation.
When I joined in 2009, especially on Jurong Island, the picture (back then) was complex, as Jurong Island is basically a tightly-coupled industrial ecosystem. That was why we needed to relook the risk framework in my strategic initiative.
Sometime at my six month mark, I suddenly realised that my strategic initiative to re-examine the national hazards & risk assesment framework was literally a life-and-death issue. If I pushed for the relaxation of risk assessment and the national criteria became too lax, people can literally die at work. But if I pushed the other extreme with my regulatory agency colleagues, investments don’t come in, Singaporeans don’t get jobs, and their families literally don’t get a life. (In the end, we landed on a third-way, by improving technical capabilities.) Quite a contrast from doing IPO or M&A deals, which basically make rich people richer.
Yet, at the same time, there was also a very clear economic reality we had to deal with in our work. If companies can’t make money through Singapore, there is no reason for companies to invest here. So it was not uncommon to talk to companies about their Singaporean workers & skill needs, but also about their partners, their suppliers, their target markets, their strategy, technology base, etc.
And we also discussed internally (extensively!) about the tradeoffs, and which companies we wanted to attract, and why. The Why often involved extensive discussions around the industry value-chain, and which parts of the value chain we wanted in Singapore, and which parts made less sense.
I was really lucky that I started my EDB career in the Energy & Chemicals team, as it was the team that really evolved the practice of industry development to a very refined degree. We also differed from many other industries, in that we actually had a platform and a platform strategy, before platforms & platform strategies were a thing.
And we were ahead of the time in dealing with constraints. One time, my ex-boss Julian Ho commented presciently that the rest of Singapore (and EDB) would face the same constraints that the E&C team faced on Jurong Island. Time has proven Julian to be correct. (And that’s all I will say on this!)
Sometimes the problems tasked on EDB officers can feel very surreal. I’ve heard of EDB officers dealing with company complaints about stray dogs (!)
The most surreal complaint I dealt with, went something like this in a phone call:
Company Exec: Hey PJ! -pleasantries-
Me: -pleasantries exchanged-
Exec: I’m calling about a very specific concern we have.
Me: Sure thing. Tell me, what’s the concern?
Exec: We are concerned about grass that is growing around our pipeline.
Me: -confused- I’m sorry. Did you say grass?
Exec: Yes. Grass.
Me: not marijuana? We are talking about GRASS-grass?
Exec: Not marijuana! -laughs- Yes. Grass-grass.
The exec then proceeded to explain that the grass-grass was a hazard during the hot season, especially since the pipeline was filled with flammable material. So it was a legit safety risk. But when I first heard it, I really thought I heard wrongly!
Being at EDB also gave me the exposure to Singapore’s interactions with the wider world.
Like many of my Global Operations colleagues who were posted overseas, I learned a very hard truth about Singapore’s place in the world.
To my fellow Singaporeans, please realise that the wider world REALLY doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us: we are just a little red dot in a larger world of 8 billion people, and if we disappear, the world will carry on! That is why we need to earn our keep, to stay relevant.
While in India, I got frequent questions from executives about why they should invest in Singapore when India was so much cheaper, and had so much more talent. It was sobering to realise that India had 12-15 million university graduates per year. We don’t even have that many Singaporeans, period…
The other thing about EDB is the culture, which is decidedly not-very-government-like at all. There was a very cooperative but competitive environment. I found it extremely liberating that people could be extremely sharp & argumentative, but never said no to an internal phone call asking for help. Our ex-MD KC once described the people at EDB as “cooperative type-A personalities”, which is quite accurate. People are nice.
But they can also unleash a VERY competitive spirit: the ONLY time that the Energy & Chemicals team went to play floorball, we went berserk when the ball hit the floor…we ended up with a bloody gash on someone’s forehead, a bruised thumb on another person, and a twisted ankle belonging to yet another colleague. The organizer of the game was “traumatised”, as she had never seen that many injuries in a single game before!
Many of the people I met at EDB were and are some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with, ever.
But perhaps the greatest gift that EDB gave me was the mindset of sincerely caring for others, by being on the receiving end of the care. When I first came to EDB in 2009, I was immensely scarred and skeptical and cynical, having gone through two lay-offs from organizations that believed in their own bullshit… so I was very guarded at first.
After a while, I came to the realisation that people here were humane. And bosses actually cared. Like how my former Head Eugene Leong would sit and go through my poorly written memos with me in-person, teaching and coaching me even as he complained that my memos “are always handed in just in time“. Or when my buddy Gerri was on a work trip and found out that her grandpa died, our AMD immediately told her to get on the next flight home. Or how my International Director Eng Keat immediately approved cutting short my training in Pune, India, so that I could fly back to my hospitalized father; Eng Keat also reassured me that the Board would cover the return flight cost. The list goes on.
It’s not the memos, fantastic projects which I secured, or any great accolades that I remember, but the small human kindnesses that EDBians share with each other that I remember.
That probably explains why Christmas is the craziest season in the office, because people pile HUGE numbers of gifts on each other’s desks and doors. During Christmas, it often felt like (now defunct department store) Robinsons’s moved up to Raffles City Office Tower, because there were so many Robinsons shopping bags lying around!
But I’m getting sentimental, so I’ll stop.
If I were to draw an analogy to describe EDB, EDB is much more like a humane, smart management consultancy, with much more skin in the game than most consultancies, which controls the supply-factors of production, and which can give incentives to companies.
Definitely not the same as most government agencies!