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Oon Jin Teik

Become – High Profiles
August 17, 2018

It’s hard to separate the man from the mission when it comes to Oon Jin Teik. As the CEO of Singapore Sports Hub, he bears the hefty mantle of having to corral its diverse and broad-ranging assets (which include a mall, an arena, aquatic centre, water park and water sports centre, library, museum, Indoor Stadium plus the landmark National Stadium) into a prodigious 35-hectare huge vehicle of choice for the nation’s sports, entertainment and lifestyle needs.

Jin Teik is something of a golden boy in the Singapore sports scene—he represented the country in swimming at the 1984 Olympics, and was also previously CEO of Singapore Sports Council. While he has certainly come a long way from the pool, he is still treading in challenging waters. A joint 25-year public-private partnership (PPP) project between the Singapore government and four equity partners (SHPL), the Sports Hub has come under much-publicised flak since its launch in 2014. Issues ranged from a costly yet sandy grass pitch to leaky roofs , a poor sound system, high venue costs, as well as rounds of musical chairs among senior management with numerous resignations and two changes of CEOs.

It’s easy to lose sight of the larger picture when one is faced with such a huge and somewhat problematic task. But Jin Teik is singular in his purpose. “When my Chairman rang me to ask if I could [first] take on the acting role [of CEO], I had only one simple question for him: whether he would let me focus on two objectives—firstly, national interest, and secondly, shareholders’ returns. Those were my mandate.”

This focus is evident even when our conversation steers towards his family and memories as a national swimmer. Somehow Jin Teik circles topics back to his work at the Sports Hub, citing his motivation to create more opportunities for Singaporeans and Singapore to stand on the world stage in sports. “I truly believe that there is something Singaporeans can get out of this—I’ve seen the small wins in the right general direction, in spite of all the criticisms. People need to know that they have a huge asset that they can grow with here, though we're far from the end point. My hope in doing this interview is to let everyone know: Let's play together here—there are lots of opportunities to be successful.”

A Candid Conversation with Oon Jin Teik

CEO, Singapore Sports Hub
Text by Teo Ren Feng
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

TEO REN FENG: The Sports Hub has come under much scrutiny and a good amount of criticism in the 4 years since its launch. Why do you think the project’s reception by the general public has been so fraught?

OON JIN TEIK: First, the extensive study of it and strategising for the Sports Hub was done very, very deliberately to help Singapore address the next 25 years ahead. Singaporeans in general still may not understand where we are headed to. I say that because we are almost the first ones in the world to execute this sort of integrated model. There are similar new projects in Hong Kong and so on now, where they are also starting to see its value. So perhaps there is a lesser-known understanding of it. We can do a much better job at communicating and making the project more accessible—creating a sense of ownership among Singaporeans for the place.

REN FENG: What are the actionable plans for these goals to happen?

JIN TEIK: As a standalone unit on our own, we cannot reach everyone. But we are working with many partners, whether it is the Health Promotion Board, the Football Association, commercial partners, etc.… different agencies that hit diverse target segments. We aren’t complacent that we are doing a fine job within a short period—this has to be a very big engagement strategy for us. We’re also taking a portfolio approach, which means that while there are commercially-oriented events that you need to pay for like the International Champions Cup, we also work on events for non-commercial reasons, especially when it involves the community. For example, we had 5-6 weeks of football festivities—match screenings and activities—just to celebrate the World Cup. It was completely free besides the beers you might want to drink. The purpose was to give Singaporeans the chance to celebrate football. We absorbed a big cost by doing that, but we see it as part of our portfolio.

REN FENG: You mentioned earlier that Singaporeans “may not understand where [the management] is heading to” with the Sports Hub. What do you think is the misunderstanding that Singaporeans have about the integrated model—the gap between what they expect, versus what you are delivering?

JIN TEIK I wouldn't call it a misunderstanding… The old national stadium and indoor stadium which used to be on this site were single standalone venues. We are trying to do a lot more by providing and integrating everything under the sun—sports, entertainment and lifestyle. One of the residents in Tanjong Rhu told me that it felt as though a giant spaceship had landed in his neighbourhood, occupying such a huge space. Nobody knew or bothered to find out what was being built inside, so when they finally saw it come up, they were impressed. Upon entering, they found it to be big and spacious, which made him realise that what we were doing was for real. He told me that his property value had gone up and there was more content in the neighbourhood, as well as amenities like supermarkets. I think the Sports Hub is like a small city that has undergone 3 years of building, before opening for operation—there needs to be an introduction to this new precinct. So it is about creating familiarity, a better understanding, and accessibility.

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At the end of the day, the NDP is something we want to do; I certainly want to host it, as it is a matter of national pride.

REN FENG: How soon in the future do you expect the Sports Hub to have greater engagement levels with the general public?

JIN TEIK: We had about 200 events last year with around 2.4 million attendees, and the footfall of people coming in and out of the hub is around 15 million—some being regulars. But we can still grow the numbers, since we haven't really promoted ourselves outside of Singapore. That said, we're giving ourselves a first phase of settling down and working out any teething problems, and the next phase which will last 2 to 3 years, will be about reaching out and engagement. I believe the numbers will keep growing automatically then.

REN FENG: The first and only time that the National Day parade was held here in 2016, there were limitations posed by the structural design of the stadium: heavy vehicles were missing from the parade, attendees could not view the fireworks and flypast, and the Red Lions could not parachute into the stadium. These were all besides a tripling of the venue cost.

JIN TEIK: I can't comment too much on the NDP because it is MINDEF’s property. What I can say is when I worked with the government under the Sports Council (now Sport Singapore), MINDEF was involved in the process from day 1 of this project’s conceptualisation. They knew and saw where things were going...

REN FENG: So you're saying that the design was not an oversight?

JIN TEIK: No, it was not an oversight, and everybody knew that this was going to be an integrated model. I cannot speak for MINDEF, but looking at history, NDP has evolved. Venues have changed, and at some point it was even decentralised to the heartlands. So the event has gone through different models, and the 2016 model was an entertainment model. We can't possibly have one model for over 20 years—there's also a product life-cycle at the end of the day.

REN FENG: Do you view criticism of the National Stadium’s inability to accommodate what are ostensibly key facets of the parade, simply as a reaction against change?

JIN TEIK: Let's put it this way—as a Singaporean, I also enjoy watching the Red Lions and the flypast. So I cannot say that Singaporeans were wrong about it. Wherever the parade is held, MINDEF needs to set up a lot of props from scratch. Our venue is a receptacle ready with the necessary people and systems, and we’re also a 55,000-seater capacity venue, which was what MINDEF was very keen on, because every show done doubles the chance for Singaporeans to attend. So we offer different plus points as well as a different model. NDP 2016 focused on multimedia effects which made for a very different experience (almost like an indoor concert or family entertainment show) that one would not be able to create in any of the other venues.

REN FENG: When do you next anticipate that another NDP will be held at the National Stadium?

JIN TEIK: Today, MINDEF can choose either the Padang, The Float at Marina Bay or the National Stadium—and decide how and when they want to use them. These 4 years, meaning last year until 2020, because of the International Champions Cup, the NDP had to be hosted elsewhere. After 2020, it is up to MINDEF to decide again. We are told that we are still in the running, and will be selected when the time comes. At the end of the day, the NDP is something we want to do; I certainly want to host it, as it is a matter of national pride.

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The only reward that I got for representing Singapore was a low-quality pink towel, with the words "Singapore Swimming" printed on it in red. I used it once and have kept it since then.

REN FENG: In your interview with Sumiko Tan, you said that you saw your role at Hyflux as "flying the Singapore flag", and joining the Sports Hub as part of your national duty too. What makes you such a patriot?

JIN TEIK: I don't see working in the public and private sphere as very divergent, because regardless of whether I am in the private sector or not, I have to perform these 2 steps: draw people in with the right content, and commercialise the experience. This is a government project, a PPP (Private-Public Partnership) project where the private sector designs, builds, operates and finances it for 25 years, before it returns to the government. So besides attracting tourism, our government would like to see a lot of Singaporeans embrace this as a national icon and be happy here. And to attract people, we've got to be doing something right first. That means offering content and continuously innovating—to be fresh. Once people are happy and smiling, my other hat tells me that I've got to commercialise this effort—I have to monetise opportunities that are reasonable, and if there's a match of supply and demand, that's where I meet my profit and loss responsibility. It's a synergistic effect.

On patriotism, maybe it's just my background as a national swimmer from young. Then, we didn't swim because of a monetary reward placed in front of us. If anything, my entire sports career was 100% funded by my parents, until I received a scholarship to university—during the last part of my journey. And that was challenging, because the sport consumed a lot of money. There was nothing to acknowledge our efforts. The only reward that I got for representing Singapore was a low-quality pink towel, with the words "Singapore Swimming" printed on it in red. I used it once and have kept it since then. We didn't even get a t-shirt at the time, just a towel. But there was pride in receiving it, and competing for Singapore. It was all intrinsic motivation. When you competed, you competed for the flag—there was nothing else to motivate you. I went to the Olympics in 1984, when it was held in Los Angeles, and it was a different world for me. Those memories are still very lucid—I wondered why we didn’t have the level of facilities that they did. So when I had the chance to join the Sports Council and lead this project, knowing that I had the chance to provide youths with the facilities that we never had before... gave me goosebumps. We also get to entertain people with all our content and more; money can't buy such an experience and there’s pride in doing it for fellow Singaporeans. That's how I feel, and that's why I'm still here.

REN FENG: What would you be working on, if not for this?

JIN TEIK: I don't know. I think I would be in a regular job with a more peaceful life and have more time for my family and friends. My weekends would be more relaxed too. Here, my weekdays are filled with meeting after meeting, both externally and internally, and the weekends are packed with events. I’m not here every day of the week, but I can't simply leave it to the team when there are big events, and do my own thing. My life revolves around this now, so I can't imagine otherwise.

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REN FENG: It's not easy to achieve a good balance between parenting and work.

JIN TEIK: If I said it was easy, my wife would kill me. [laughs] We had a "Dads' Day Out" event recently, and while I was working and mingling with the crowd, I saw people with their children… which struck me that I was working alone, while my own kids were somewhere else. There’s no fun in realising that. It hurt me, because I'd been looking at this event from a work perspective, but not as a parent. Moments like this sometimes come along and slap you in the face—making you realise that there has to be a better balance in your life. I don't think my kids would come along with me though… they're pretty grown up now. [laughs]

REN FENG: What's the hardest part of being a working father to 3 sons?

JIN TEIK: That they have to come to the Sports Hub when they want to meet me, I guess? They are independent or they seem independent at least. But sometimes there's a softer side to them that I don't see because I'm not around much. I try to keep the lines of communication with my wife very open, so that I know when to drop things at work and be at home. But it's very, very difficult, especially when things are constantly humming at work. If something goes wrong here that affects the public, social media will be abuzz within minutes. And at some point, the finger-pointing exercise will turn internal, and someone will be upset. I have to be accountable for it at the end of the day. So I try to prevent situations from happening which means paying extra attention to all the details. Just the act of scrutiny can avoid problems, which means a calmer life for everybody involved.

REN FENG: Why is the work so time-consuming?

JIN TEIK: Simply because this project is so complex and big. Don't get me wrong, I've got a leadership team, who're all just like me. They work alongside me because one person cannot cover all aspects of this 35-hectare project. Our team, partners and their leaders do the same thing. I have very senior people who come down during off-hours in their t-shirts and jeans and walk the ground too, because they know they have to do it. So it's a team effort—we have to be out there and that's how we work.

REN FENG: With what frequency do you conduct your walkabouts, and how do you ensure that everyone gets your attention when needed, in such a large enterprise?

JIN TEIK: I think I might meddle too much in people's work sometimes. [laughs] Jokes aside, I hope the team understands that my 'busybody-ness' is nothing more than a concern to help them get to the desired end state. It’s my belief that you can always intervene with better solutions or corrective action to prevent problems. And it's not because I don't trust my team, but if I have to lead them, I also need some grounds to understand what they're doing. Understanding our stakeholders includes our staff and one can't do it in a vacuum, especially in a place like this. I can't see it any other way.

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REN FENG: It is hard to rally such a large team.

JIN TEIK: Yes, especially when your scope is very broad, and the land area is so large. There are many things happening like people smoking where they're not supposed to, or boxes being stacked up in the middle of a mall's walkway. I keep focusing on doing the right thing always. I believe that the small steps are important—because the small things will address larger issues—indicating how serious we are. I hope that by leading by example, it will encourage our staff to have the same level of commitment in looking after our interests. 

REN FENG: When was the last time you received direct feedback from a non-office or managerial staff?

JIN TEIK: Every single day. The last feedback I received was when I was walking [to this interview] from the carpark, and some staff asked me why there were lots reserved especially for certain individuals. They felt that the prime spaces kept for VIPs would result in customers having fewer lots to park—and they‘re right. It was a good conversation to have. They were questioning the policy and logic behind it. One could take it the wrong way, implying that I was not managing things well, but I can't be managing every single part of the Sports Hub. I need our people to be my eyes and ears… and to question how things are done, even though it is not in their scope of work. Because if they can do so, that means that the public will too. A lot of the time, complaints arise from misunderstandings between us and the consumer, such as when customers don't believe that tickets for a particular event can sell out within minutes. They’re upset and need someone to blame, and we try to do what we can. But the same system has certain concerts which sell slowly, and you don't hear any such complaints. We are always finding ways to improve and communicate better.

Taking responsibility for your actions and focusing on solving the problem, are more important than worrying about your reputation.

REN FENG: Would you agree that learning where you've gone wrong is important in the course of growth?

JIN TEIK: Yes.

REN FENG: When did you last admit that you were wrong?

JIN TEIK: There was an incident around 2 years ago, where I took the hit for our football pitch, as Chief Operating Officer. The pitch hadn’t gone down well, and I came out to openly admit that we had got it wrong, and intended to address and fix the issues, regardless of the cost. So far, I think the solution provided has been good, and we’ve gotten very positive feedback on the pitch for the last few games. There are no shortcuts—if you do something wrong and try to avoid it, no matter how much you try to tell the world that there aren’t any problems and give excuses, your own people won't believe you anymore. Taking responsibility for your actions and focusing on solving the problem, are more important than worrying about your reputation. Life goes on, so you just fix it and move on. And you must also apologise. [laughs]

REN FENG: Why do you think it is important that your staff sees your ability to admit mistakes or failures?

JIN TEIK: I want them to know that nobody's perfect. I take responsibility for the team's work and don't single an individual out as the problem. We have a team and maybe someone makes a mistake—sometimes it’s not even a mistake but simply things not going right—but the boss has to take responsibility. By doing that, you start to command some trust and respect, because it means that people won't be on the defence with you.

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REN FENG: What do you hope your legacy will be at the end of it all?

JIN TEIK: Jim Taylor was my boss at my first job with Dupont. He was a big sales director and my mentor, and one of those really senior, old-school, cigar-smoking figures. Every so often he would bring me around, talking and coaching me in all the principles and tricks to being a good salesperson, and he always said: “When you interact with customers, behave the way you want your obituary column to read”. That makes a lot of sense—behave the way you want people to think of you, and treat people the way you'd like to be treated. It can be difficult sometimes because everyone has their personal agendas, and sometimes these agendas can overshadow doing the right thing. Conflicts arise due to that, especially in working life. It's a daily challenge that I have to be focused on.

REN FENG: Is there anyone that you admire or consider a mentor?

JIN TEIK: It might sound corny, but I was interviewed by a reporter when I was much younger as a swimmer. Then he asked me who I admired and wanted to meet, and I told him the person was Lee Kuan Yew. Today, my answer is still the same. He’s someone who put his heart and soul into building something, and doing things the right way. And that's just the way it should be—having follow-through till the end. The second figure would be my late father, who lived a very simple, frugal life. He was a dentist who didn’t make big bucks, and my brother and I were incurring costs like nothing with our swimming practices and tuition. He saved everything for the family and told us he skipped lunches for good health, when in fact he was really trying to save money. We were in a very tough financial situation growing up because our parents wanted to afford us all the opportunities. I only found that out later and sometimes I wish that I could go back in time to share some of my salary with him today.

REN FENG: What values do you hope you've shown your sons by example?

JIN TEIK: Two of my sons were joking one day, because my wife and I had been discussing how early the CEO of CapitaLand, [Lim] Ming Yan was retiring. He’s around the same age as me. My sons overheard the conversation and said: “It definitely won’t be you lah. There's no way you will retire.” Call it commitment or passion or whatever…I'm not here to praise myself. But my time, actions and everything are committed to getting the Sports Hub working and humming along. Sometimes my sons come along for events and tell me that everything seems to be going smoothly, and wonder why I seem to have so much to attend to. But it's the behind-the-scenes that people don't see. Hopefully what I'm imparting is not negative, but a value where one sees things through to make it work and happen. Ideas are one thing, but implementation and being committed to delivering is something else. Simply touching the surface doesn't do it for me… maybe I'm a bit of a perfectionist.

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap