He does not sing karaoke, has no interest in mahjong and gets bored by the mere idea of spending hours on a golf course.
Philip Yeo has only one hobby: reading. He reads on the road and he reads at home. One of his favourite childhood memories was renting a boat, sailing off the north-east coast of Singapore and spending an entire day in the sun reading alone.
His dream home is one shaped like a mushroom with the circular perimeter a floor-to-ceiling library so that he can sleep, eat and live completely surrounded by books.
“While people of my age are chasing a little white ball, I read,” he said.
His insatiable appetite for the written word accounts for the success of the former economic tsar of Singapore.
For more than two decades from the mid 1980s, he led the city state’s powerful Economic Development Board, in charge of drawing investors, creating jobs and in that process, largely determining the direction of the country’s economy.
He drove Singapore’s economy on a relentless upward charge, ensuring it always stayed ahead of competitors by nimbly moving from electronics to wafer fabrication, from chemicals to biomedical.
It was possible because of an incredible network which he forged around the world, being on a first-name basis with most of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
That ability to connect was very often down to his broad knowledge acquired from reading. Colleagues who worked with him for years called him “an oracle”.
He is able to pick up on any topic and engage in a meaningful discussion. During the interview with This Week in Asia, for instance, he danced effortlessly between the US presidential election and Pokemon, the history of Okinawa and radical Islam.
Before he visited Iran in 2004 for the first time, he loaded up on the history of the country, its civilisation and even myths. That allowed him to connect quickly with his hosts and he succeeded in drawing Iranian scientists to Singapore.
When he was leading Singapore’s biomedical adventure at the turn of the century, he read medical journals, books, magazines and even Genetics for Dummies to improve his knowledge of the subject.
His pace of reading surprised many.
National University of Singapore president Tan Chorh Chuan, who worked with Yeo on the biomedical push, added in a soon-to-be published biography of Yeo: “He’s an avid reader and reads at an incredible speed. He can read a whole book in one or two days.
“He also has highlighters in his bag, which he uses to highlight portions of the book that are significant to him. It’s not as though he goes through the readings without understanding. He was able to master enough of the domain knowledge [on biomedical matters] very, very quickly. He was very, very impressive.”
Yeo, who now runs his own firm offering economic development services to countries such as Colombia, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia, reads across many subjects.
His current picks are the Ottoman empire and drones, so as to better understand the troubles in the Middle East.
“I usually read a few books at the same time,” said Yeo, who turns 70 in October. “When I get bored with one, I move on to the other, searching for a dessert which will excite me. But I will always return to the book and complete it.”
When he is on the road, he relies on his iPad Pro, which he has converted into a phenomenal portable library of books, journals and magazines.
The tablet houses his favourite Economist, New Yorker, Foreign Affairs and Wired magazines, along with thousands of articles which the former school librarian diligently and systematically filed away.
There is a folder named “Education”, for instance, with some 20 sub folders titled “Graduate Education”, “Gender in Education” and “Computer Education” and so on.
It allows him to easily find and send out articles to friends, to whom he is a one-man wire agency.
“As long as I have wifi, you can leave me anywhere in the world and I will be happy,” said Yeo, who sits on the board of Kerry Logistics and Hitachi, among others. “I’m never short of reading materials.”
Peh Shing Huei is the author of ‘Neither Civil Nor Servant: the Philip Yeo Story’, which will be launched in Singapore next month