Keep Growing Conversations
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Keep Growing Conversations: What does it take to keep growing? Our AMD Soh Leng Wan shares his insights on lifelong learning and how he manufactures possibilities for Singapore’s future

Keep Growing – this is our clarion call within and beyond Enterprise Singapore.

It’s about breaking out of our comfort zones, challenging the status quo and continuously learning to become better versions of ourselves.

In this instalment of our Keep Growing Conversations series, we speak to Soh Leng Wan, Assistant Managing Director for Manufacturing who shares about his work, and life outside of it.

Soh Leng Wan, Assistant Managing Director for Manufacturing

Hi Leng Wan, you’re currently an AMD – Manufacturing at Enterprise Singapore. How do you best describe your work here?

A common thread that runs through the industries under my portfolio is the fact that they’re all tech-based. Beyond the manufacturing-related divisions, we also have the Healthcare & Biomedical division (Life Sciences industry) and the Infocomm & Media division (Digital industry).

Manufacturing, especially in the Singapore context, is no longer just about production, but the upstream activities of R&D and product development. Singapore’s focus on technology provides our companies with a distinct competitive advantage. And as the title of this series say, my job is to help them keep growing.

You’ve had diverse work experiences across various ministries and organisations. Did you choose your job or did your job choose you?

I have always been in the public service, rotating across various organisations over the past two decades. While I did choose some of my jobs, there were a couple that chose me instead.

For instance, my portfolio at the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) was handed to me. Fresh out of university, I was eager to join the team focusing on providing social support and assistance to low-income families. I was instead placed in the elderly division, where I visited various nursing homes and aged care facilities to better understand the issues they faced.

Afterwards, I joined the Ministry of Trade & Industry (MTI), where I spent three years working on manpower issues. Wanting to try something different, I decided to pursue my interests and joined the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), where I worked on national service policies for another three years. In fact, I am still volunteering as a national serviceman!

Following that, I had stints in both the Ministry of National Development (MND) and MTI, before joining Enterprise Singapore in 2021. The time horizon of the work at both agencies is quite different. At MND, long-term planning meant envisioning Singapore 50 years into the future. On the flipside, economic agencies like Enterprise Singapore, plan ahead for the next five to 10 years.

As a trained civil engineer, these different postings are like social, national development and economic infrastructures coming together to form a cohesive, experiential network. It has definitely enabled me to see things from various lenses when examining a problem or coming up with a solution.

Having been in the public service for over twenty years, was there a stint that stood out for you?

As a small island nation, our success doesn’t happen by chance nor overnight.

When I was part of the strategic planning department at MND, I learned the importance of deliberate planning and most of all, patience. Infrastructure projects take a long time to come to fruition and you can’t expect instant gratification.

Take the Long Island Project for example. The project started over a decade before I was even involved and yet, it is only in recent years that we are seeing it take shape and form. Another multi-decade project is the Paya Lebar Airbase Relocation project, which took over two decades of planning and will require another two more before full completion.

I like to term my time at MND as the place where dreams are made possible. It was a fun posting, surrounded by imaginative people who speak not just about constructing buildings and roads, but adding to Singapore’s vibrancy and way of life. It’s about creating possibilities for the future of Singapore. And the maps and drawings of buildings in my room are a reminder of that!

Manufacturing your future?

Can you share your biggest challenge in the course of your work and how did you overcome it?

Whether you’re in the public or private sector, challenges are inevitable. One common challenge is working on issues that fall within “no man’s land”. These are issues without clear ownership or a designated agency responsible for solving them.

The foreign worker dormitory issue in the 2000s comes to mind. Back then, foreign worker dormitories were an afterthought, and responsibilities across Government agencies were not as clearly defined. This occurred during my first stint at MTI, where I worked on Manpower issues. I witnessed the leadership of our ex-Chairman Peter Ong, who stepped up to take lead over the situation. This was how MTI organised the Whole-of-Government efforts, even though this issue did not fall under our mandate.

To me, this is the attitude of that the phrase “Whole-of-Government” should encompass. It is not just a buzzword, but about having the courage and will to step out of your comfort zone to take charge in order to get something that needs to get done, done. It’s not about hoping it happens, but making it happen. This lesson continues to guide me in what I do today.

Soh Leng Wan, Assistant Managing Director for Manufacturing

Enterprise Singapore’s mandate is to champion local enterprises to grow. How are we doing that for the Manufacturing sector?

Firstly, what we traditionally term as manufacturing, which is the act of producing something, has changed and evolved quite dramatically. The nature of production and the items being produced in Singapore has also shifted. Today, Singapore is no longer a low-cost manufacturing base. As such, while many manufacturing companies remain headquartered in Singapore, they only do their product development and R&D here. Due to labour, land and production costs, their factories for large-scale production are typically sited outside our shores.

At Enterprise Singapore, we are committed to strengthening our companies’ product development capabilities. This includes connecting them with our research partners to support them in developing new products. For companies looking to expand overseas, we also matchmake them with potential international clients through our extensive network to help them enter their desired market. We are also working with our Institutes of Higher Learning to train talent across different industries. On top of that, our Intellectual Property governance also ensures that manufacturers can have that trust and confidence that their innovations will be protected by the rule of law. All in all, it’s about creating an entire ecosystem for manufacturing to thrive.

Soh Leng Wan, Assistant Managing Director for Manufacturing

Thanks for taking us through a journey of your work. Let’s talk a little about what you enjoy doing outside of it?

I’m slowly rediscovering an old hobby of mine, which is long-distance running. Beyond keeping my body heathy, running helps me to destress and build up my mental fortitude.

Every year, I set a personal target to run over 1000km, which I try to hit by clocking over 100km in mileage every month. I managed to achieve this goal in the past two years, and I intend to do the same this year!

I may not have run every part of Singapore, but I have definitely run several roads less travelled. Part of my work involves visiting industrial parks and factories, which are usually located in the so called “ulu” areas of our island. So, when I finish my meetings and if the timing is right, I just get into my running gear and run!

Can you share some advice on how someone or an organisation can keep growing?

Always remain curious!

Curiosity is what urges you to keep learning and growing as a person. My advice to any officer or employee, regardless of position, is to keep reading to better understand your portfolio. There is no shortcut to this. Reading also helps you understand the past, preventing you from making the same mistakes today. To do your job well, you must understand something deeply. You must know your stuff.

It’s also important to talk to different stakeholders and learn from them. This is especially so in economic agencies, where understanding goes beyond subject matter knowledge to knowing how business dealings and structures work.