No problem too big for Dr Fix-It

New head of engineering body wants to make profession more attractive, relevant

For Dr Yeoh Lean Weng, the newly minted president of The Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES), there is no problem so big that it cannot be solved.

This is a mantra he has adopted in his latest role and in his life as well.

Tell him the profession is losing its lustre, and the 61-year-old will gently disagree with a smile and, of course, an answer.

Correcting perceptions is key, says Dr Yeoh, who is director of urban solutions and sustainability at the National Research Foundation under the Prime Minister's Office.

"Who says the engineering curriculum is not attractive?" he adds, pointing to overwhelming subscription rates for the Renaissance Engineering Programme at Nanyang Technological University as an example.

The Straits Times reported in 2016 that the course, launched in 2011, has been oversubscribed by seven times in the past years.

Dr Yeoh, who was appointed as the 27th IES president on May 26, lauds the course for focusing not just on hardcore engineering solutions, but on a more multidisciplinary approach incorporating the liberal arts and business operations.

  • 5,800

    Number of members in The Institution of Engineers, Singapore.

"We need to design our courses to meet the changing needs of the economy," he says.

These are caused by digital disruptions in the form of artificial intelligence and data analytics, as well as the effects of climate change such as rising sea levels and depleting resources, he adds.

To overcome these challenges, he says engineering has to rely more on creativity and enterprise, and the IES will work with institutes of higher learning to redesign engineering courses.

Dr Yeoh's other suggestions in promoting the profession seem somewhat counter-intuitive.

One might expect him to bemoan the fact that many top engineering graduates pursue careers in other fields like banking, but he sees this as an opportunity.

What is more important to him is the cultivation of "engineering minds", and that bright students apply to engineering courses in the first place.

"IES must embrace these new realities," he says, adding that the organisation should also showcase engineering graduates who have done well in the business world and not just those who have succeeded in the traditional fields of engineering.

"This would be a more enlightened way," he adds.

Dr Yeoh's instinct is to look outside of the 52-year-old organisation to solve engineering challenges, which may stem from his background as a systems engineer trained to think holistically.

To create a more inclusive engineering community, he plans to sign up technicians and master craftsmen with Institute of Technical Education or polytechnic qualifications as associate members, though this may not go down well with all the 5,800 IES members, he admits.

The task ahead may sound like a daunting problem, but Dr Yeoh is in his element when finding solutions.

The youngest of four children of a taxi driver and a housewife, he says there was no electricity at his home in the Kovan area until his pre-university days.

Nor were there toys.

"But necessity leads to invention," he says, describing how he would, at age six or seven, fashion elaborate lanterns out of wires and cellophane paper, as well as make tops using palm seeds.

He even taught other children in the neighbourhood how to make them.

Later on, as a fresh engineering graduate from the National University of Singapore in 1983, Dr Yeoh's first job was as an electrical engineer in the air force, looking after aircraft communication.

"The technicians under me had at least 10 to 20 years' experience. They were sizing me up," he says.

He describes how solving a radio interference issue, which took him two to three months and required him to pore over an entire manual on the radio, helped him to gain their respect.

Dr Yeoh's problem-solving skills were later applied to a larger context.

In 2007, he was awarded the Defence Technology Prize for redesigning a sophisticated communications system for the military, which results in fewer delays when delivering messages.

Today, he is devising solutions on a national scale at the National Research Foundation, where he is in charge of solving Singapore's long-term energy, water and environmental challenges.

Dr Yeoh, who is passionate about cars, has even found a way to beat the morning traffic - by leaving his Jalan Kayu home at 6.15am for his office at the National University of Singapore every morning.

But there are some things he still leaves to others to solve.

Dr Yeoh, who has been married for 33 years to Madam Jenny Soh, 60, a customer service manager at ST Engineering, says jokingly: "My clothes are still decided by my wife."