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A good leader never discounts contrarian views: NUS head

A good leader never discounts contrarian views: NUS head

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Listening to minority views to shut down Tan Tock Seng Hospital during SARS crisis in 2003 now an internationally lauded decision.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome began spreading in Singapore in 2003, there were calls by a small group of people to shut down Tan Tock Seng hospital to all but those with the virus.

While this seemingly radical call to quarantine patients were largely ignored by others, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, then head of medical sciences at the Ministry of Health in 2003, decided to listen to this suggestion and implemented it.

The current president of the National University of Singapore, giving the third in an annual series of four leadership lectures yesterday at the Fullerton Hotel, said he had to make high-stakes decisions with incomplete information during that period of “crisis leadership”.

The result? On hindsight, the idea stemming from a minority and contrarian group to shut down one of Singapore’s public hospitals has become an internationally lauded decision to contain the spread of the virus.

Tan even received the Public Service Star award in 2003 for leading the public health response to the Sars crisis which started in February 2003, when an infected woman returned to Singapore from overseas and the virus infected 238 people, killing 33 before it was contained in May.

Tan also said seemingly useless pursuits such as art and travel gave him a multidimensionality that translated into important traits of self-knowledge, self-reliance, resourcefulness and resilience that allowed him to weigh different views, even those in the minority.

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”

This lecture series is given by alumni of St. Joseph Institute who have made an impact locally. Previous two speakers included National Kidney Foundation chairman Gerard Ee and DBS bank chairman Peter Seah.

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