Pursue interests that may seem useless: NUS head

Discover oneself and world with art, travel

WHEN severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) began spreading here in 2003, a few people suggested that Tan Tock Seng Hospital be shut down to all but those with the virus.

While they were ignored by many, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, then head of medical sciences at the Ministry of Health, chose to listen to them, a decision now lauded internationally as the right one.

The lesson, he told his audience yesterday at the Fullerton-St Joseph's Institution (SJI) Leadership Lecture series, was that a good leader never discounts contrarian views.

Now the president of the National University of Singapore, he was speaking at the Fullerton Hotel, giving the third in an annual series of four lectures organised by the school and sponsored by the hotel.

Each lecture is given by an alumnus of SJI who has had a major impact on Singapore and Singaporeans.

The first two lectures this year were given by National Kidney Foundation chairman Gerard Ee and DBS Bank chairman Peter Seah.

Yesterday's lecture was attended by around 120 invited guests and students, including representatives from community groups, universities and professional associations.

Prof Tan received the Public Service Star award in 2003 for his role in leading the public health response to the Sars crisis.

It had begun in February of that year, when a woman who had been infected while travelling abroad returned to Singapore. The virus eventually spread to 238 people, 33 of whom died before it was contained in May that year.

Referring to that period of his career as 'crisis leadership', Prof Tan said that he had to make high-stakes decisions with incomplete information.

Other than listening to the views of the minority, he also said that identifying critical issues and weighing different views helped him make decisions during that difficult time.

He also encouraged the audience, made up mainly of students, to pursue interests that may be seen as 'useless'.

For him, these so-called 'useless' pursuits were art and travel.

'They were powerful stimuli for discovering myself and the world around me,' he said.

The twin pursuits gave him a multidimensionality that translated into the important traits of self-knowledge, self-reliance, resourcefulness and resilience, he said.

He shared photographs of his travels, including some depicting less well-travelled places like Tibet and Tajikistan, and the artwork he had created of the scenes he saw abroad.

He also encouraged his audience to find something that excited them.

'It can be anything - but it must be something that takes you out of your comfort zone,' he said.

'The value of things like art and travel should not be seen in utilitarian terms of how it helped your career - but whether it made your life richer, more interesting, and more enjoyable.'

He took questions from the audience after his lecture, which was on topics ranging from his experience during the Sars epidemic to his thoughts on his current role as a university head.

He also cautioned his audience not to confuse leadership with appointments.

'It's what you do in your position that defines if history will remember you as a leader,' he said.

The last speaker in the series has not yet been confirmed.

In conjunction with the series, The Fullerton Hotel Singapore donated $250,000 each to the SJI Scholarships Fund and The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund.