Exclusive: Leading from experience

Despite an extensive background in senior management roles, Andrew Tan, CEO of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, does not forget his roots. HRM finds out how his experiences have had a large influence on his leadership skills.

Who inspires you?

I’ve worked in the public sector for over 25 years and it has been an exciting and fulfilling journey thus far. The role of government has never been more challenging as we face rising public expectations, a more globalised world, rapid technological change, and growing social divides. The chance to make a difference to the lives of people, society and the economy keeps me and my colleagues going.

What is your leadership style?

I would describe it as ‘situational’ as it varies from organisation to organisation. Every organisation is different in terms of challenges, organisational structures and, people and culture. Hence, you can’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. You have to adjust your style to suit the organisation and vice-versa, but you still need to stand for something. Every organisation looks to its leaders and senior management to set a clear direction; not just broad directions, but also, good strategies and – just as importantly – good execution. It is not easy to align all these together, but organisations do. You also need to stand for certain values such as being fair, objective, and transparent, which is particularly important for public sector organisations.

How do your employees describe you?

Probably as intense. I am a person who looks at the bigger picture and who pays attention to details. I believe in straight talk and being close to the ground. This allows me to know what people actually do on the ground, focus on outcomes rather than inputs or processes, help people to get their jobs done well, and to provide the support that staff need.

You have held a number of roles with government agencies. How did you find yourself working in this line?

We are essentially generalists and deployed to wherever the government needs us. It is a unique feature of the Singapore system where both junior and senior officers are rotated across the agencies initially in their early careers for exposure, but later on, they are placed wherever their skills and expertise can best make a difference. It has worked well for us because it encourages a whole-of-government thinking and allows officers to bring different perspectives to bear on a problem.

Every agency has brought new learning opportunities for me. I have worked across the defence and security, information, environment, and transport sectors. I have also had the opportunity to set up a government think tank, the Centre for Liveable Cities, and have worked on the memoirs of the late Lee Kuan Yew.

How has your work in the government sector helped hone your skills as a leader?

Being in government is very different from the private sector. In the private sector, the bottom-line is key. But for government, you are dealing with people of different needs, from getting them to change their behaviour to making wise decisions. At the societal level, this fosters a closely-knit and cohesive community, particularly in a multi-racial society as Singapore, and it creates an enabling environment for businesses to flourish.

From all this, you develop a sense of humility and empathy. This is because you need to be aware of what you can and cannot influence, and because you are essentially dealing with the lives of people.

Both aspects are important for leadership. But there is one more aspect: the survival instinct. As a small country, we need to be nimble and adaptable to changes around us, and every public officer in Singapore knows that nobody owes us a living. We have to make ourselves relevant to the rest of the world. So as leaders of public sector organisations, we have to make sure that our agencies remain attuned and abreast of the changes around us.

What are some key changes that you have made since your appointment at MPA?

Working with my team, I have sought to raise the overall profile of the maritime sector through greater publicity, outreach and awareness, fostering a stronger maritime identity, while at the same time, ensuring our port operations are safe and secure through our Safety@Sea efforts, building up the future pipeline of maritime manpower through our tripartite efforts, encouraging MPA’s stakeholders to leverage more on technology, as well as putting in place a multi-agency planning framework for the Next Generation Port at Tuas which seeks to be more efficient, intelligent, environmentally sustainable and community-oriented.

What is one unique aspect of MPA’s culture that not many know about?

MPA’s culture is based on a strong “can do” spirit that is motivated by the firm belief that only through close partnerships between the industry, government and unions can we achieve the aim of making Singapore a global hub port and international maritime centre

Are there any programmes that help employees’ career progression at the authority?

Apart from job rotations, cross-functional projects and international exposure, we also have in-service sponsorship programmes to support officers who are interested in pursuing a degree or master’s programme. We also introduced the progressive wage model to certain job types including our vessel traffic management officers and hydrographers. This encourages them to upgrade their skills with a clear competency roadmap so that they can progress to their full potential.

On top of being the CEO of the Maritime and Port Authority, you are also a member of several boards. How do you manage a good work-life balance?

One has to keep to a disciplined schedule, yet at the same time, also ensure that you have time to devote to your staff, colleagues and family. Thus, good time management is critical. You also need to entrust and empower your officers to do the right thing, knowing what the broad directions are, giving them guidance while not sweating over the small things. At the corporate level, I have also found it useful to organise tea sessions and various other activities to interact with staff.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learnt throughout your career?

The most important lesson throughout my career has been the need for passion, as it makes the difference between being average and extraordinary.

In the Maritime and Port Authority itself, passion is what drives and motivates us to ensure that the maritime sector in Singapore continues to grow. It is not just about the port but it is also about how we are able to grow a maritime cluster around the port.

Singapore has been a port for the longest time and the sense that we play an important part in the entire global trading system puts in perspective all the things we are doing, and gives us a sense of greater meaning.

In today’s context, especially within the younger generation, people assume that they are looking for any simple and ordinary job when actually they are looking for a chance to make a difference. Enabling them to do just that, is where passion is a key differentiator between an average organisation and one where you can encourage people to go the next mile.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your role at MPA?

What is most rewarding is seeing the organisation grow and develop, with people rallying around our efforts to develop Singapore as a global hub port and international maritime centre. The authority works closely with industry stakeholders to achieve this objective.

It gives me and my colleagues great satisfaction to see us growing our maritime cluster year-to-year and finding so many passionate people in the industry who are working with us to realise that objective.

Bio Brief

Andrew Tan was appointed the CEO of the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) in January 2014.

In his role, Tan is responsible for regulating, developing and promoting Singapore as a premier global hub port and an international maritime centre.

He also plays an integral part in advancing and safeguarding the nation’s strategic maritime interests.

Apart from his current position, he is also Singapore’s representative to the International Maritime Organisation.

Prior to Tan’s appointment, he was CEO of the National Environment Agency from 2009 to 2013. He was also a founding director of the Centre of Liveable Cities between 2008 and 2010.

Collectively, he has worked in several government agencies including the Ministry of Information and the Arts, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, and the Ministry of Transport.


Morale booster

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) places a large focus on employee engagement.

According to Andrew Tan, CEO, MPA, the organisation’s staff engagement framework is structured around four key engagement levers, which are:

  • WeShare

This is about developing a strong organisational culture through regular communication between senior management and staff. Here, both formal and informal platforms are available including work plan seminars, town hall meetings, intranet, CEO’s message and newsletters from various divisions.


  • WeChat

This leverages on several platforms to facilitate feedback and dialogue within MPA. These include walking the ground, dialogues and tea sessions with all levels of staff. Such platforms allow senior management to address problems and challenges faced by employees. They also give senior management the opportunity to encourage staff and to recognise their efforts.


  • WeCelebrate

In addition to the four major festive celebrations, ground-up initiatives are planned and executed by staff from cross-functional teams. Apart from getting together, these events allow colleagues of different ethnic groups to appreciate the different cultures. Various events like lunch outings are also organised by the staff engagement committee.


  • WeAppreciate

This is another platform where we show our appreciation to staff through various corporate awards, including long service awards, meritorious awards and other public service awards. Those who have done MPA proud are also recognised during an internal “Appreciation Hour” event. At this event, staff will personally receive a plaque and recognition from management.


Me  Myself  I

I like: Good conversations with interesting people with insights.

I dislike: Any form of complacency. If it ain’t broke, don’t touch it.

My inspiration: Reading up on the successes and failures of others. You can learn lessons either way.

My biggest weakness: Multi-tasking.

In five years’ time, I’d like to: Reinvent myself.

Favourite quote: “The buck stops here.”


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