Book launch to celebrate 20 years of weekly Sunday e-mails from Liew Mun Leong to staff

Mr Liew Mun Leong at the launch of his book titled Sunday Emails from a Chairman - 20th Anniversary Edition at the National Library on Dec 21, 2018.
Mr Liew Mun Leong at the launch of his book titled Sunday Emails from a Chairman - 20th Anniversary Edition at the National Library on Dec 21, 2018.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - As chief executive of the then Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research, Mr Liew Mun Leong once told staff at a meeting that he had been given three years to test out his plan to make the organisation a self-financing statutory board.

He said that if the plan failed, he would assume personal responsibility and resign as CEO. But a question from a staff member surprised him: "CEO, you are smart. You could jump ship if your plan fails. But what happens to us?"

"I was quite taken aback by this sentiment, but I assured the audience that I had full confidence that the self-financing plan would work," he recounted in an e-mail on March 11, 2018.

"I thought I could conduct 'hara-kiri', the honorary Japanese way to face the consequences if I fail! Staff didn't have to quit," he told his audience at the meeting, drawing laughter.

His time at the organisation was where he learnt to cut his teeth on leadership, using principles such as being sincere and authentic, assuming responsibility and having courage, he wrote in the e-mail.

This was among the stories, observations and reflections shared by Mr Liew, who is now chairman of Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong, in weekly Sunday e-mails to staff for the past 20 years.

His messages from the last two years have been compiled and published as the fifth volume in the Sunday Emails series, titled Sunday Emails From A Chairman - 20th Anniversary Edition.

Cultivating a spirit of leadership was one of the three themes in the book that resonated with Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Good leadership is key at all levels, whether in the private, public or people sectors, Mr Heng said at the book launch on Friday (Dec 21).

"As our challenges become more complex, the Government will not have all the answers. We need to harness the diverse strengths of our society, through leaders at different levels in different parts of our society," he said.

"With good leadership, we can secure Singapore's future as one people. We will be united by a sense of common purpose to galvanise whole-of-nation, whole-of-society efforts to take Singapore forward."

Mr Heng, who was the guest of honour at the event at the National Library, also highlighted the themes of engaging and developing people as well as embracing lifelong learning from the book.

In an e-mail on March 25 this year, for example, Mr Liew shared the lessons he learnt when CapitaLand ventured into China while he was chief executive. The company learnt to choose local partners carefully, after falling into traps with some unscrupulous ones.

"When Mun Leong shares his learning experiences, he in turn motivates his employees to embrace lifelong learning and find joy in continuous learning. This goes beyond employees attending training programmes," said Mr Heng.

The Sunday e-mails also help employees experience Mr Liew's personal touch and better understand his thoughts and concerns, he said. "I hope to see more leaders in the public and private sectors sharing their experiences and engaging their employees more closely."

Mr Liew, 72, said he was motivated to spend Sundays writing e-mails to his colleagues as a way to communicate closely with them, especially during times of crises in the business world.

For example, after Pidemco Land - which he was heading - merged with DBS Land to form CapitaLand in the year 2000, the company was hit by a series of global "perfect storms" such as the Internet bubble, 9/11 terrorist attack, the Iraq War and the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

"I wanted to share with them what was happening to the company, the industry's landscape both locally and globally, as well as the threats, opportunities, challenges and competition which we had to face together," he told some 150 guests including senior civil servants, foreign dignitaries and staff from Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong.

"I wanted my colleagues to understand what was on my mind, where I would be leading the company to next and how to get there. I use stories to relay this message," he said.

Mr Liew said he has received positive and surprising feedback on his e-mails, such as from a Chinese general manager who was moved to call his mother after reading one of his e-mails encouraging filial piety.

He said he will continue writing his e-mails as long as he has the energy to, as it has become a cherished hobby even though each e-mail may take up to five or six hours to write.

He believes the public will find the content useful as well. "Most of the subjects are more lessons for management, leadership and self-development, which are not just for staff but for everybody," he said.

Sunday Emails From A Chairman - 20th Anniversary Edition is priced at $29.90 and is available for sale at all major book stores. Royalties from the sale of the book will be donated to Temasek Foundation Nurtures to support programmes focusing on education and professional development.