Search for replacement for NKF chief 'could take months', say observers

While the NKF is a charity, the complexity of heading one of Singapore's largest non-profit healthcare groups makes it no less - or even more - challenging than running a hospital.
While the NKF is a charity, the complexity of heading one of Singapore's largest non-profit healthcare groups makes it no less - or even more - challenging than running a hospital.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The search is on for a new leader at the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) after its chief executive officer was sacked for a personal indiscretion. But replacing him will not be easy and could take months, say observers.

While the NKF is a charity, the complexity of heading one of Singapore's largest non-profit healthcare groups makes it no less - or even more - challenging than running a hospital, say leaders in the charity and human resource sectors.

And those equipped to take over the hot seat vacated by its former CEO Edmund Kwok will have to be eminently qualified, preferably possessing experience in running a sizeable healthcare facility.

Besides strong leadership and administrative skills, the new leader must have a heart for patients, given the charity's work in providing subsidised dialysis, said those interviewed.

On top of that, the ability to withstand the public scrutiny that comes with a high-profile job is required.

This means the search for the NKF's next boss could take months - or longer, they said.

Human resource practitioners estimated that there are fewer than 500 people here with the necessary expertise and experience to be considered for the job. These include those in senior management roles in healthcare institutions.

Law don Eugene Tan, who sits on the board of a charity that runs three nursing homes, said: "The chief executive has to be a strategic planner, a deft executor of plans, a charismatic fund-raiser and have a heart for beneficiaries - almost a polymath administrator."

Such a qualified candidate will not come cheap.

Besides, medical charities have to compete with the private and public sectors for leaders and must offer competitive packages to attract talent, said those interviewed.

Ms Anita Fam, who sits on non-profit boards like those of the Assisi Hospice and the National Council of Social Service, said: "You don't have to pay top dollar, but you have to pay a fair dollar. You can't attract people of calibre if you pay far below the market rates."

The NKF declined to reveal Mr Kwok's salary when asked, nor would it say who were among those being considered to replace him.

Mr Kwok was previously the vice-president of oncology at Parkway Healthcare and held positions at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the Institute of Mental Health, among others.

The NKF has close to 1,000 staff, almost 4,000 patients - with more to come - and an expenditure of about $97 million in its last financial year that ended in June.

National University of Singapore Business School professor Ho Yew Kee, who sits on several charity boards, pointed out that most of the other large medical charities pay their top staff between $200,000 and $500,000 annually.

Those interviewed noted that while these salaries seem large, the donating public must take into consideration the responsibilities and complexity of running a huge outfit like the NKF.

Both Mr Kwok and his immediate predecessor came with a wealth of experience in the healthcare sector.

When former NKF chairman Gerard Ee was looking for a chief executive to replace Mr T.T. Durai, who had to step down in the wake of public outrage over his misuse of donations and lavish pay package, he had 13 applicants to chose from.

In the end, Mrs Eunice Tay, the former chief operating officer of the National Neuroscience Institute, got the job.

Mrs Tay, who is legally trained, retired in 2013.

She was succeeded by Mr Kwok, who has a Master of Science in healthcare management from the University of Wales.

In the wake of Mr Kwok's sudden sacking, Mrs Tay has been asked by chairman Koh Poh Tiong to assume CEO responsibilities until a new leader is found.

Mr Ee said of the demands of the top job: "Running the NKF will be increasingly complex in the future with the growing number of patients and demands made on it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2016, with the headline 'Search for replacement 'could take months''. Print Edition | Subscribe