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Lessons for Engineers, Past and Future?

Tan Sri (Dr) Francis Yeoh delivering his lecture

Kingston, England, 13 February 2004


On the occasion to celebrate “60 Years of Civil Engineering at Kingston” organised by Kingston University’s School of Engineering together with the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, YTL Group managing director Tan Sri (Dr) Francis Yeoh was the guest speaker. Setting aside his prepared text, the Kingston Civil Engineering graduate rose to share his experiences with his peers.  He said: "When I think of engineering I think of the civil branch of the profession. This is the one that provides the most concrete evidence – literally and metaphorically of the great triumphs of engineering achievement. The impasse the world seems to have reached poses a stark choice between the destructive and the constructive. Engineering by definition belongs firmly in the latter camp." Later in the evening, a dinner was held at the Kingston Guildhall where Yeoh was the guest of honour. He said, ”I am overjoyed to be able to meet many of my former professors, who made an engineer out of me. I am also thrilled to have met many of my mates from the class of ’78.”

Full Text of Speech Delivered By Tan Sri (Dr) Francis Yeoh:

It is an honour to be invited to address you and a pleasure to return to Kingston. Although I have to confess to feeling like an interloper being on this platform and having the temerity to talk about engineering to an audience far more qualified than I. I am sure you are up to speed with the almost bewildering pace of technology advance that has transformed the engineering profession since my day. It is only with some trepidation therefore I presume to address my betters on the subject.

In fact I am reminded of W H Auden “When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed into a room full of Dukes” I know the feeling. All I can do is bring a business perspective to the practise of engineering. A New Year and a New Millennium – is the time to contemplate where mankind is heading – the significance of engineering in the new global context, how and where it can make a difference.

My theme today is the relevance of engineering to society, and its contribution past, present and future to humanity. I do so in the belief that mankind has reached some sort of turning point in its affairs and that technology can play a pivotal role in returning us to a more secure and healthy environment – could even save the day. I also admit to a personal bias. When I think of engineering I think of the civil branch of the profession. This is the one that provides the most concrete evidence – literally and metaphorically of the great triumphs of engineering achievement.

Down the ages the legacy of each century has been its great buildings – mankind’s gift to prosperity. The Seven Wonders of the World were all engineering marvels – the Coliseum in Rome, the Great Wall of China, the San Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Hanging Garden of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Temple of Diana. A later list gives the Leaning Tower of Pisa and includes your own Stonehenge. The ancient Greeks and Romans built grand monuments that defined their culture. The Europeans built the great Cathedrals that traverse the Continent along the pilgrim route. We can all think of contemporary examples that stand as a tribute to engineering prowess. Off hand I can mention the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York, the Millennium Dome and I would like to add the Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the tallest buildings in the whole of the last Millennium – and surely amongst the most graceful. All these represent the pinnacles of human achievement and symbolize the nobility of man. From a professional viewpoint they combine artistic merit with ulitarian purpose, for ours is a practical calling. These are productive buildings. The advent of IT has created a new species of intelligent building – fully wired for electronic communication.

The focus of my talk will be on engineering in the modern world. I shall be offering Malaysia as a case study and interalia my own company YTL. But first the wider context. The new Millennium is being borne in on the twin forces of globalisation and technology. The steady invemental change of the past is now replaced with strategic, fundamental changes more rapid and profound than we have ever known. There are positives and negatives.

The positive side of this is that social and technological change has been enormously speeded up. Here engineering has a defining combination to make – as an applied science. It applies science for the control and use of power by means of machines. It is probably the most relevant of disciplines to mankind’s increasing mastery of the environment. Specifically it puts into effect those advances of technology through research and facilitates its transfer anywhere in the world. Technology cannot transfer itself. It needs to be midwifed. The Industrial Revolution took a long time to spread from the West. Today there are no frontiers to knowledge. This together with the professional expertise that goes with it can be exported to raise up those societies hitherto backward or deprived and allow them to achieve a dramatic leapfrog into the advanced world of the 21st Century.

I myself first became aware of the genius and extent of engineering in one single unforgettable moment, when the Americans landed the first man on the moon. I was young and idealistic and saw it as a dramatic promise of the brave new world we stood to inherit. We were able to share in the moment together as TV brought it into our living rooms – another exciting vista opening up of the future IT world.

In this century those same television screens gave us another spectacle of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers of New York – 9/11 changed our lives. Terrorism has always been with us historically but on a minor scale. Now it is global force harnessing sophisticated weaponry. Before long we were also plunged in a war which showcased the “shock and awe” of modern technology used for destructive purposes. There have been unlooked for by-products of globalisation and technology. For many of you the word ‘convergence’ will have a very technical IT related meaning. For the IT laymen it’s more likely to recall the convergence of disasters to which we have been subject.

The impasse the world seems to have reached poses a stark choice between the destructive and the constructive. Engineering by definition belongs firmly in the latter camp. Where terrorism demolishes, we build. W H Auden – and I quote him again, also said “The true men of action in our time, those who transform form the world, are not the politicians or the statesmen, but the scientists”. He himself was a poet.

The situation is critical. Alvin Toffer believes we are facing an ‘abrupt collision with the future’ I resort to my Chinese roots. The word for “Crisis” in Mandarin has 2 characters Wei Chi. One spells ‘Danger’ the other ‘Opportunity’. Your Dr. Johnson echoed the thought “When a man knows he has only 24 hours to live it clarifies the mind enormously”.

How can we clarify our minds? How can engineering help? It is a discipline I need hardly remind you, that is all about problem solving. Technology is one of the main drivers of change. But even change has a different connotation today. A word that is gaining currency in the corporate sector is re-engineering. When things are no longer going right companies seek to revamp themselves. The process of renovation is total – an entire and radical overhaul of their structure and processes to eliminate inefficiencies and redirect themselves. The aim is renewal – rejuvenation. Engineering study can in a way be said to have re-engineered itself. Responding to the growing complexity of modern needs – the multiplicity of demand, the emergence of totally new requirements, it has fragmented itself into ever-greater specialisation. There is now on offer Mechanical, Production, Civil Engineering, as before, along with some more esoteric studies in Aerospace Engineering and Computer Science to name but a few. Comparative newcomers are Software Engineering and Computing Information Systems Design to further and support the invasion of computer technologies.

If some things are going wrong with the world we need to re-engineer the global community. For this renewal we look to science and its limitless capacity to create solutions, even if it entails new wonders. As a Christian it is my belief the universe was designed and executed by a great engineering intelligence. What we have to do is to develop world-class engineering to meet world-class challenges.

For this we have to go beyond just technical competence. It is fatally easy to be in love with our own specialism – to be absorbed by it and practise it in comparative isolation. We need to look beyond for ways to put our core competencies at the service of mankind. We need to be creative in the way we apply our engineering skills. Two other important factors come into play – innovation and enterprise.

Historically, engineering has shown a mastery of inventiveness, for the betterment of man. The ancient communities of Mesopotamia and the Nile were transformed into fertile agricultural economics by the invention of the irrigation system. Mankind thereafter progressed from the agricultural age to the industrial age and now is in post-Industrial age and moving to the IT revolution – the Information Age of the IT Society and the E Way of life. The progression was facilitated by technological innovation.

There is a continuity of human existence and social development. This can even be traced through its hardware. Your state of the art computers reduced to a miniscule laptop were both born of a main frame that filled a whole room. It is said the prototype occupied 15,000 square feet. Now it sits in your pocket. These latest marvels of modern life go back to the humble typewriter and the adding machine, and ultimately to the Chinese abacus. The Chinese are great inventors as testified by that Yellow River Basin community in the North of China, civilised 2,000 years ahead of the rest of the world. Their engineers built the Great Wall.

I would now like to table my own country Malaysia as a case study in the world-class engineering needed to transform a whole society in today’s terms.

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Tan Sri (Dr) Francis Yeoh with Kingston Mayor, Cllr Dennis Doe, at the Mayor's Parlour

The driving force is our Vision 2020 which envisages a fully developed Malaysia within 2 decades of the 21st Century. The fulfilment of this mission relies on certain strategic, enabling industries tasked with creating the physical environment for an advanced society. Engineering and the life technologies were to the forefront this national purpose. The progress towards this today enhances our lives. YTL is playing its rightful role, it is a case of noblesse oblige. Our projects include the two power plants we own and operate, the fast rail link project from KLIA to the city and many other strategic infrastructural developments.

Other infrastructural projects undertaken by the public sector include Putrajaya, the new State capital. It was carved out of the jungle to be Malaysia’s new administrative capital. Built on a green field site from scratch it is Malaysia’s Washington, Brasilia or Canberra. Cyberjaya is the country’s IT city to ensure a paperless Government. Out to sea are the space age structures of the country’s oil and gas endeavour – platforms, drilling rigs, pipelines, offshore hard ware, produced in local fabricating yards. A sophisticated 3 train LNG plant and a trans-peninsular gas transmission pipeline, spanning 1700 kilometre bear testimony to Malaysia’s ability to master the complex disciplines of the international oil business. The country now exports its pipeline technology to Argentina and Australia. Petronas the national oil corporation operates in 34 countries worldwide on the back of the petroleum engineering expertise which made it a global player. Quite early on Petronas were able to demonstrate the desired world-class engineering.

These achievements are based on professionalism and innovation – the creative spirit demanded in the post Industrial era. The other specification for new age engineering was enterprise. For this I’d like to talk about my own company. You need to know where I am coming from – an archetypal Chinese family business which began life as a modest construction company. In the half century since I left Kingston this has been parlayed into a modern conglomerate of 5 listed companies diversifying over property development, hotels, power generation, transport, and latterly here in the UK have gone into the water business. We must be doing something right.

The business turned more and more to the life technologies – the provision of energy and water that sustain life on this earth. We have a preference for regulated utilities – which despite the name are not dull and boring but can be very exciting. We have never relinquished our reliance on engineering. At Wessex Water for instance we retained the professional management because we realised the value of intensive technical know how.

My father who started the business is of migrant stock – those hardy ancestors of ours who fled China seeking their fortune in the Nanyang (South Seas) arrived in an alien land typically penniless and without benefit of kin or education. The business was founded on enterprise. The founder, my father, did not enjoy the luxury himself of tertiary schooling but was determined the next generation would be armed with education. He insisted all his 7 children should go to university. It was a condition of being taken into the family business that you obtained a degree. The other condition was it should be practically and business orientated. Five of us did engineering. The tradition persists. My eldest boy is at Imperial College doing his Masters in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. My eldest daughter has graduated with an Architectural degree from Nottingham University and is doing a second degree in law in London. My other children and nephews and nieces will also be pushed to do relevant degrees in technical subjects to arm the group with further intellectual capital. If this is inadequate, we will outsource as practiced today.

I did Civil Engineering, which is hardly surprising. One of my oldest memories is of the pounding, dust, vibrations, and noise of construction sites where I was taken in the school holidays when other children were visiting theme parks. I was exposed early to the way civil engineering contributed to the functioning of society by providing the infrastructure and the life supporting services.

Then enter Kingston, which gave me a good academic grounding. I was later able to put to use in our own construction business. It helped me become a hands-on manager. I can still detect the amount of sand in concrete or spot sloppy contractor when I see one. Nor have I forgotten my field of study. You can take man out of engineering but you can’t take engineering out of a man. I like to think I conduct my business with the instincts and the disciplined approach drummed into me at university.

Success had nothing to do with a silver spoon although I had the good sense to be the first born so I was made MD at 24. It was no joy ride. But a Chinese family concern is a collective effort. My 6 siblings and I come together every Monday for our Cabinet meeting to discuss policy and strategy. The cabinet includes engineers and experts and professional managers commissioned to implement our road map. This allows us to combine business instincts and whatever entrepreneurial skills we may claim with the practical capabilities needed to implement our entreprenrial ventures. We have been able to grow at a sensational 42% compounded annual growth from 1986 to 2002. We have set new targets of 20% annual compounded growth from 2002 to 2020. So far we have outpaced this target on this increasing larger base.

The advice I would give to the engineer who opts for business is that he must embrace risk but combine it with hard work and thrift. This is the standard formula. The success ethic and the work ethic combined. We are inured to risk. After all if our forebears had been unwilling to take risks we would never have left China in the first place. This is the meaning of enterprise. To be alert to opportunity and seize it. But it must be calculated risk with all due diligence – Viability often rests on innovative financing in the first place then strict financial disciplines and cost consciousness. Your professional training will stand you in good stead here. As will your professional code of conduct. Good honest ethics, integrity are prime requirements of modern business. In a Chinese enterprise we would add the importance of trust in business dealings. Honesty in Chinese business coupled with our Christian faith, enforces a strict code of behaviour within a moral and philerraphical framework at the centre of which is the overarching virtue of trust. Trust to us is as potent as black letter law – the one categorical imperative. The rule of Law in the conventional sense is also strictly enforced in Malaysia. Our new Prime Minister is setting new benchmarks in public and corporate transparency and establishing new levels of trust in building a morally anchored society, which is all so very exciting.

All engineering should be practised with some kind of moral compass. I’d like to end with one important quotation and one story.

The first is from Albert Einstein “It is essential that the student acquires an understanding of and a feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and the morally good. Otherwise he, with spectacular knowledge, more closely resembles a well trained dog, than a harmoniously developed person”.

Engineers if their concrete legacy is any measure do appreciate the aesthetic values. Their professional code of conduct provides the moral framework.

It is also necessary to believe in oneself, to believe in the essential goodness of man and believe it will triumph over the abject poverty of the heart behind many of today’s atrocities. For those whose purpose is the betterment of mankind their effort ultimately will rest on faith. My story takes me to 1870 in Indiana.

The Methodists were holding a conference presided over by the Bishop. A scientist got up (I’ll bet he was an engineer) and predicted that one day men would fly through the air like birds. The Bishop was outraged, condemned the thought as heresy. In the Bible flight is reserved to the angels. The Bishop stormed out and went home to his two small boys. His name was Bishop Wright – his two sons, Orville & Wilbur. The good Bishop did not have faith in the genius of man that later these two little boys were to prove.

It is poignant to note that nowadays we can master the atom and nearly obliterate ourselves.  We learn the secrets of life only to develop techniques to destroy the unborn and the aging.  We unlock the genetic code and open a Pandora’s box of ethics. We harvest rain forests and create floods, harness internal combustion and melt the icecaps. We link the world on an Internet only to find that the most downloaded items are pornographic. Every advance seems to induce a greater fall. Yet today, most of all, we need another leap of faith.

As a Christian I see God as the Creator of the Universe and we are stewards of his wealth. Engineering draws on the canvas created by God. God writes the script. We are His potential powerful pencils. With His help I believe we will reengineer the world of man and return it to sanity and productive endeavour. World-class engineering standing on a strong moral foundation still has a pivotal role. Thank you for honouring me with your presence and lending your ears. I wish you well and all the choicest blessings from God.

13 FEBRUARY 2004









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