Leading with Purpose

Leadership Lessons from

Mr Quek Gim Pew, Chief Defence Scientist, Ministry of Defence @ the Saturday Sharing Session on 22nd October 2016
Organised By Institute for Engineering Leadership

Article by Andre Theng, Student Reporter

Adapting and Learning

Mr Quek was inspired by his secondary school teacher, and as a student, was deeply interested in physics. Following his graduation from university, he was keen to do R&D in the Ministry of Defence, but was posted to do programme management. In spite of this, he made great effort to learn as much as he could, taking time to read up on the material when his bosses were away during the first 2 weeks of his posting. It proved to be a great learning experience on systems and multi-disciplinary technologies. He realised that the posting was in fact a blessing in disguise as it helped him to find out what he was in fact good at – system design and thinking. He would not have had the opportunity to learn systems if he had insisted to do R&D. He felt that one lesson he learnt from this was that one should be open and be prepared to explore new areas as one enters the workforce.

Throughout his career, Mr Quek has faced numerous challenges. He shared that he was appointed CEO of DSO National Laboratories a few years after it was corporatised. The impact of corporatisation was quite significant. One downside was that DSO took on more projects than it was quite ready to do. Mr Quek saw to the morale of staff, and worked through the issues to ensure that the organisation continued growing even in a time of crisis. To do so, he had to adapt his management style, realising that a style that may have worked before may not meet the needs of a more complex and diverse organisation.

His advice for students was to build a strong foundation while at NUS. During his time at DSO, he had to deal with a wide range of areas covering multi-disciplinary subjects beyond his training in Electrical Engineering – life sciences, computer science, mechanical and aerospace engineering for example. He encouraged students to go deep in their chosen specialisation while at the same time, to build a strong understanding of the fundamentals in the sciences, IT and engineering stating that this will help us adapt and learn even in areas we may be less interested in or familiar with.

Learning from Mistakes

Mr Quek highlighted the importance to learn from mistakes, in particular the ability to abstract and transfer the lessons learnt from one situation to another.

He shared his own failures to illustrate this. He related how a system for the Army was contracted to a company that had been working mainly with the Air Force. While the system performed well, the company failed to understand the difference between how NS men in the Army and regulars in the Air Force handle their systems. The NSMen operated in outdoors, in the mud and the rain, while the Air Force personnel operate in large, well-equipped hangers.

He said that prior to this, there was another project which was hampered by the different culture of the two teams that he brought to work together.

In both cases, the underlying problem was cultural – in one case it was cultural differences between teams, and the other, cultural difference between the contractor and the user. He said that we can learn a lot from mistakes and it is important that we can abstract out the lessons and apply the real lessons across different scenarios.

Mr Quek wryly commented that if he had had a choice, the next stage of his career would have been as an internal consultant for DSO to share all the lessons he had learnt. Case studies detailing successes were many but he opined that there was more future engineers and leaders could learn from mistakes.

Going Beyond the Constraints of an Engineering Training

Engineers by training are supposed to be problem-solving oriented. Their training is geared towards solving problems given certain set parameters. Mr Quek felt that while such training and mindset were invaluable in solving problems, engineers have a tendency to set limits too early. In contrast, physicists were trained to delve into the unknown and make sense of it. His advice to young engineers was not to set constraints too early when given a problem and to be willing to put these aside in order to explore new alternatives and venture further.

Finding Purpose

Above all, Mr Quek encouraged students to find purpose in their work, and in doing so, become better equipped to deal with challenges that would come our way. He recalled that early in his career, he had a boss that he had difficulty working with, but one who also made him question why he was doing what he was doing. He realised that what motivated him – public service, working for Singapore’s national security and defence – was far more important than the difficulty he had with the immediate boss. Mr Quek said “You must ask what your purpose is, you must identify with the role you are playing.”

In closing Mr Quek shared with the class what he tells his new staff during their induction programme – that how fast they rise in an organisation was dependent on their knowledge & skills, but how far they go depends on their values as an individual. He said “Expertise and knowledge can be trained, but your values and what drives you, are intrinsic and will allow you to go far in your career and life.”


Class Photo with Mr Quek Gim Pew, Professor CC Hang – Executive Director of IEL, and module lecturers Associate Professor Foo Maw Der and Adjunct Associate Professor David Kwek