Conversations with Dean Tan

By Julian Rocero and Soong Hung Hao 

Dean Tan is a Deputy Director (Kallang Alive and Industry Development) at Sport Singapore (Sport SG), where he oversees the development of Singapore’s sports industry. He holds a Master of Business Administration from the Alliance Manchester Business School, and previously graduated with a Bachelor’s in Applied Economics from the Nanyang Technological University. Having lived and worked in various places around the world, including China, Iran, and Dubai, he shares valuable experience about pursuing an overseas career, insights from his time at Sport SG, and advice for aspiring students.

I have two portfolios, one in infrastructure and the other in industry development.

With Sport SG being the national body that promotes sporting lifestyles in Singapore, we have to provide the right infrastructure for Singaporeans. We look at how to rejuvenate aging infrastructure and bring in new infrastructure to fulfil our sporting ambitions. For instance, plans to develop Singapore’s first velodrome (high-performance cycling bowl) have been in the works for some time.

Secondly, we are developing the industry to provide sporting and fitness activities in the market. We provide the public facilities, but also encourage businesses to establish their private gyms and studios to fulfil different requirements for the residents in Singapore. In this sense, we do provide seed funding for proposals. This acts as an incentive, because if they do unfortunately fail, they have a cushion that makes the fall more bearable. We do these things to aid the industry to develop new business models and different propositions.

In my university days, I specifically set out to gain overseas experience, and I was very intentional in charting this path. I mainly pursued various overseas internships, such as through the Asian Business Fellowship. It provided funding for students to try a two-month overseas internship at a Singapore-grown firm with operations overseas. This helped me open my horizons as I realised that our classrooms are but a microcosm of the global context; with this understanding, I made conscious choices to seek out opportunities that would enable me to work overseas. At this point, I had not yet narrowed in on a particular sector – I was more focused on building my breadth (amongst different fields) since I had the runway to do so. Along the way, I am sure that you will find ways to specialise in certain fields, but when you are in your developmental stages, you should grab the adjacencies.

My time overseas began in Guangzhou with Yeo Hiap Seng (now Yeo’s), a Singapore-grown beverage company. I then returned to Singapore to work with the Port of Singapore Authority, which was when I began developing my interest in trade, logistics, and investment. My time there granted me many learning opportunities. A particularly memorable instance was 9/11 – it was a one in a million, unanticipated event that brought every façade of the economy and society to a grinding halt, and to recover from the loss in confidence took much time and effort. Another learning opportunity was shift work, which exposes you to various operational challenges that help you evolve into a person who is not afraid to get their hands dirty. For example, I distinctly remember when a prime mover was unable to start their engine, blocking off the entire container yard and delaying operations in an ever-busy port. How does one use their resources to resolve this situation? What can be done to divert traffic to prevent longer tailbacks with other undesirable impacts on other operational areas? These unique situations require quick thinking and problem solving on my side. Another benefit of working in a port with a strong presence of international personnel was that I encountered many colourful personalities and learnt how to deal with them accordingly.

After PSA, I went to Shanghai and I worked with Pacific International Lines (a Singapore-grown shipping line), helping the company become the liaison with Germany and Shanghai. After that came an opportunity to work in a port environment in Iran. That experience particularly impressed upon me the talent within their labour force; with many undergraduates doing engineering by choice, they are able to effectively remedy national problems efficiently.

To be honest, I do not have the best answer for you, but I do believe some things are simply about the willingness to try and having an open mind. Being open to the fact that you do not know, and being vulnerable about this fact, can be a very powerful motivator to keep asking questions. Stay open to learning opportunities, and never be afraid to ask questions, even if we may think they are dumb questions. At least we have tried our best to uncover what we do not know.

I can apply this even now, in my current context. I view my personal and professional development as the letter “T”, where my specialisation represents the vertical and my breadth represents the horizontal. My specialisation would be in international business, particularly my knowledge about trade, port operations, warehouse processes; even how to unpack a pallet and inspect a container. But I also need my horizontal applications, which is where keeping an open mind is essential. While the current application of my skill set is in sport, if there is another field that piques my interest, I would be willing to try that for some time. Why not?

COVID-19 is definitely one of the largest hurdles the industry has had to tackle. With sporting facilities having to abide by Safe Management Measures, team sports naturally have their restrictions. My challenge is now to bring team sports back safely and gradually in stages, and in a way that does not jeopardise public health. I am happy to say that we have broken through some barriers, allowing approved private venue operators to commence team sports beyond the prevailing social group size of five. Naturally, the safety of Singaporeans remains our top priority when it comes to the resumption of sport.

Obviously, it cannot be a bed of roses and there will be thorns along the way. It is all about how you identify these issues or disagreements and work around them. Regardless, I count myself fortunate that whenever I survey the room, I am always looking at passionate people who believe in sports, fitness, and wellness. Sports present a timeless narrative of underdogs winning, rivalry, championships, etc and naturally, I am drawn to it and so are my colleagues. The downside, however, is that when you are too passionate, you may be blinded. You may be unable to make the most pragmatic decisions, so that is a thorn. I am glad that SportSG always strives to be a better organisation to serve the people.

I am always motivated by the people that I have the opportunity to be able to interact with. For example, I am motivated by the two of you [interviewers], who are volunteering your time to join the dots in a way that reflects the experience that your interviewee has gone through. My answer links back to my first point about staying open; I don’t think I have a figure in mind, as long as we stay open in our perspectives and in the opportunities to learn from others, we actually find people that we work with to be motivating factors and can bring positive energy.

The hardest lesson I learned is that we should not be afraid to over communicate. Over communicating, in my terms, means finding different ways to convey the same message to ensure everyone is on the same page. This was especially relevant in rolling out advisories to the public, as it may be dangerous to assume that everyone is able to easily understand and execute instructions. There was some confusion among the public with regards to earlier advisories, and in crises like these, the people need to be confident that they will have a clear flow of information from the authorities, and we have to ensure that we deliver on that. To resolve this, clear and concise information must be made accessible to the public.

This is an important question that we are often asking ourselves. Under Sport SG, our academies and clubs offer training programs, for instance, for kids from seven to twelve to be coached by ex-national football players. Our government is also aiming for intangible outcomes that perhaps businesses may not be too intentional about due to the need to pursue P&Ls (profit and loss). Social mixing, for example, brings people of different backgrounds and races together. Children with special needs or disabilities are also included in these activities to ensure that they are given a fair opportunity to enjoy sport and fitness. Overall, it is important to us that these social outcomes are achieved.

Personally, I felt the teaching in university was just one part of the jigsaw puzzle. The skillset I am currently equipped with, I feel, stems from developing the horizontal that I spoke about earlier, and also from the overseas experience I went through. I also like the work I do now in the public sector, which enables me to be involved in policy development. Getting my hands dirty and feeling the impact of a policy places me in a very privileged position that allows me to learn every day.

If a Year 4 were to be looking at this transcript, I would be asking them; have you gotten any internships already? If they replied no, I would tell them time is not lost, but there is some catching up to do. If the question then is do they get into sports, I would go back to my earlier point that you do not have to be too fixated on where to start. The relevance will come if you keep an open mind and remain motivated in your endeavours. Obviously, if you are lembek (slacked) about it and are not being intentional with your learning and questions, the whole world will pass you by even if you choose the best sector to begin with. To sum up, two words I would like to highlight is to be open and intentional. Being intentional means you take steps to make opportunities happen; it is not about just sitting back and putting your legs up.