STB chief executive Lionel Yeo: Telling Singapore stories

Singapore tourism chief Lionel Yeo grew up with a love of reading and recognises the power of storytelling

Mr Lionel Yeo was about five when his father saw him reading for the first time and thought the little boy was only pretending to be lost in the world of books.

"Read to me," Dad said and his youngest child surprised him by reading aloud.

Looking back, Mr Yeo, 42, says one of his two elder sisters probably role-played being a teacher and taught him to read at their Tanglin Halt flat.

His father, a customs and excise officer for 33 years, encouraged his love of reading and they rented books by the pile.


  • WHAT: This interactive creative showcase comes home after touring Beijing, London and New York City this year. Experience the contemporary works of Singapore talents across disciplines including architecture, design, fashion, film, food, music and the literary, performing and visual arts.

    WHERE: Tan Quee Lan Street

    WHEN: Till Sunday, from noon daily. Check website for various closing times


    INFO: Go to

Storybooks were a magical door for "virtual travel" for a child from a working-class family - his father was the sole breadwinner and his mother, a housewife - that could not afford overseas trips.

"It was an economical way of passing time,'' recalls Mr Yeo, who was appointed chief executive of the Singapore Tourism Board in June 2012.

Literature still fills his life and he is a storyteller in his own style these days.

This year, notably, the Singapore Tourism Board steered the Singapore: Inside Out travelling showcase of more than 20 creative talents, telling the story of Singapore afresh in three cultural capitals.

The immersive, multi-sensory, non-mainstream showcase was set inside an intricate scaffolding structure - topped by a massive feather symbolic of Singapore taking flight - in Beijing's creative cluster 751 D•PARK in April; London's hip Brick Lane Yard in June; and New York's urban oasis Madison Square Park in September.

The works by Singaporeans have included art collective Vertical Submarine's contemplative mirror illusion, titled A Pier Is A Half- Hearted Bridge. Pastry chef Janice Wong created playful laksa-infused chocolate lollipops that visitors plucked from the ceiling for a taste of Singapore's varied flavours.

Verbatim theatre was part of the vivid mix, as well as dance, music, film, architecture, literature and fashion. Visitors have described the showcase as a garden of curiosities, praised Singapore for taking new paths and expressed hopes of exploring the country more often.

Mr Yeo says the idea was to take the SG50 celebrations overseas and reveal another side of Singapore in each free, five-day event. "People know our usual economic strengths, but there is also a less-told story of Singaporeans doing quality creative work across many fields."

For its homecoming hurrah, the showcase is being staged for 10 days in Tan Quee Lan Street in the artsy Bras Basah-Bugis precinct, from Nov 27 to Dec 6.

Mr Yeo has been sensitive to the power of Singapore storytelling since his Raffles Institution days. At 16, when he was interviewed for a humanities scholarship offered by the Ministry of Education, he made up an answer on the spot when he was asked: How would you design a literature curriculum?

The Gifted Education Programme student recommended the classical Greek plays, Shakespeare and modern literature for the first three semesters. "Then there must be Singapore literature for the fourth term,'' he recounts. "We need to know who we are, know our story and celebrate storytellers." He landed the scholarship.

Poet Alvin Pang, who has been friends with Mr Yeo since age 12 in Raffles Institution, says: "He was prominent as a prefect in RI, always charismatic and confident."

The two men were awarded Public Service Commission scholarships. Mr Yeo studied economics at the London School of Economics while Mr Pang read English at the University of York. They were colleagues for a while at the Civil Service College where Mr Yeo served as dean from 2007 to 2012 and Mr Pang edited its Ethos biannual publication.

Through the decades, Mr Pang, 43, says his "sense is that Lionel has always been Lionel''. He has always been authentic, very grounded, compassionate and is a charmer though he has became "a lot more serious" as a senior civil servant.

"I'm glad someone like him is in the civil service. I know how difficult it can be to maintain an enlightened point of view and keep a broad mind when there are so many pressures."

Finding creativity in tax policy

His strength is also a well- rounded perspective. "Lionel knows the value of a good book as much as a spreadsheet,'' says Mr Pang, who curated the literary segment of Singapore: Inside Out.

He says Mr Yeo comes close to being a Renaissance Man. Indeed, Mr Yeo worked on the 2000 Renaissance City Report, a cultural blueprint for Singapore to rise as a global city for the arts.

In his 20-year Administrative Service career since 1996, he has served in five ministries: the public service division in the Prime Minister's Office; trade and industry; finance; information and the arts; and community development.

However, he had wanted to be a copywriter or lawyer, not a civil servant. He took up a scholarship to study overseas, then discovered that he did like public policy and administrative work. "Alongside thousands of public officers, I am very motivated to do good and right by Singaporeans,'' he says.

"I think there's creativity to be found in any job, even working on tax policy. It requires creativity to review policies and reframe issues."

Among his creative contributions - positioning Singapore as a centre for wealth management services from 2000 to 2003, and negotiating a four-party free trade agreement with Chile, Brunei and New Zealand. To seal the deal, he put on trekking shoes.

In 2004, Chilean chief negotiator Ricardo Lagos Jr, son of a former president of Chile, found out that Mr Yeo, then the director (trade) in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, loved trekking. So they tramped in the foothills of Santiago and, resting by a stream, traded ideas on how to advance the negotiations.

Mr Yeo first trekked up Malaysia's Gunung Tahan with his junior college's Outdoor Activities Club. "I really enjoyed the rugged beauty and being in the elements. I was hooked." He has since trekked in Nepal and ascended Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Reading, certainly, is another passion. Actress Tan Kheng Hua, 52, a longtime friend of Mr Yeo and his wife Janice Koh, 41, an actress and former Nominated MP, says: "They are a family of readers."

Indeed, Mr Yeo, who also has an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says literature has been the most significant subject in his life and career, introducing him to the complexity of human relationships and the many perspectives inherent in a situation.

He is currently reading the Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe, which won the Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction in 2014. Some all-time favourites are Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

The Yeos have two sons, Max, 11, and Lucas, nine. Ms Tan says the two boys can converse like little academics - and do fun and crazy things too. "Lionel and Janice have so many interests - in the arts, sports, politics, people and more. Chatting with their kids on a wide range of topics is wonderful parenting."

Mr Yeo is a wonderful conversationalist, she adds, though when he is in the whirl of the theatre crowd, he is just as happy to be in a corner watching people. "He's steadfast, independent and pleasant. There are calm people who are disengaged, but he's not. He's in tune with the arts and very knowledgeable."

Ms Tan, who directed the promenade-style monologues in Singapore: Inside Out, says his love for the local is the real deal. "He goes to eat the food, listen to the music, watch the theatre, and hang out and get to know us."

She adds that Mr Yeo and his wife are very close. "They have a very deep respect for each other. They don't need to agree but they listen and offer honest, intelligent reflection. They expand each other's world.''

Mr Yeo met his wife at The Substation in 1997 at an after-party for an experimental play by spell#7. They married two years later.

He says: "We share an appreciation for what culture and the arts can do for a community, and the importance of Singapore voices in telling the Singapore story."

His decision to "go local" to promote Singapore is propelled by three trends and two narratives.

He and his colleagues were firstly mindful that sophisticated travellers now seek a combination of world-class experiences and distinguishably local ones. They explore a city in-depth, including its local cultural scene.

"I remember being struck by a Conde Naste feature on Singapore that saw it fit to write about high-end dining such as Restaurant Andre and also said visitors should try Maxwell Food Centre," he adds. That validated his sense that Singapore appeals as a global-local city. "We shouldn't just sell the global aspects of Singapore. We are equally proud of the Singapore experiences."

Next, social media is an unstoppable trend. "Every person is now an Instagrammer and travel writer. People post a lot about what they love about their home city. We must think of harnessing that energy to achieve more publicity for Singapore, from the eyes of residents."

The Singapore Tourism Board has given this a push with several new platforms, including TripAdvisor's Live Like A Local. In July, the world's largest travel site and the board launched the micro- site, hosted by TripAdvisor, that points tourists to the remarkably local - precincts such as Joo Chiat or independent brands including BooksActually, for instance.

A third trend was that by 2012 when he arrived at the Singapore Tourism Board, Singapore was at the zenith of its global-city aspirations and the integrated resorts were running successfully. The board felt it was timely to also invest in showcasing local precincts, creative talents and other hidden gems. "It puts a Singaporean face to the destination," he adds.

The idea of going local is also bound up in Singapore's dual narratives.

"There's the survival story - we overcame odds to survive and succeed, and we can never take success for granted. No one owes us a living. It continues to be an important narrative." This can be supplemented by the identity narrative. "It's about who we are, what makes us Singaporean and how we relate to the world."

While the survival story can be "quite harsh", he adds, the identity story is "a bit more celebratory in nature".

He elaborates: "Sometimes we need to take a step back and affirm who we are, celebrate our songs, our food, our fashion, our architecture. It helps to build a more cohesive society."

In telling the Singapore story, he works with industry players including Far East Hospitality chief executive Arthur Kiong, who highlights his "diplomatic style of leadership" and openness to new possibilities.

They teamed up as co-chairs of a panel to develop the hotel industry. Mr Kiong, 55, says that in just four sessions over two years, "Lionel got the best out of everyone and put together a coherent road map to address a very complex challenge - sustainable productivity growth for the hotel sector".

He adds that Mr Yeo is "quick on his feet" and can give an eloquent speech with no notes.

Mr Benedict Soh, 66, executive chairman of Kingsmen Creatives, who works with Mr Yeo at conventions and exhibitions, notices that the Singapore Tourism Board chief focuses on software. "We know we can build fantastic infrastructure, but our soft power lags behind in terms of arts and culture, for example. "

On what is next in the board's imprint on the Singapore story, Mr Yeo says there can be elements of Singapore: Inside Out in the future; the themes of creative talent and going local can persist.

At the same time, Singapore will keep a strong pipeline of major developments and new events, including a huge investment in the Mandai precinct and hosting the World Rugby Sevens Series.

He says: "At Singapore Tourism Board, we are quite mindful that we are enlarging the leisure options for Singaporeans too. We see that our work also contributes to increasing that sense of belonging and pride in our city. We are very motivated to do right by Singaporeans."

• Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2015, with the headline STB chief executive Lionel Yeo: Telling Singapore stories. Subscribe