Saturday July 21, 2012
Up close and personal with Yew Kam Keong
By LIZ LEE
A SCIENTIST, writer and speaker, Yew Kam Keong has taken on all these roles.
Growing up with those three ambitions, Yew has gone from being a civil servant in the science and technology field to a trainer promoting concepts about adopting innovation.
“I achieved all three,” says the chemist graduate from Universiti Malaya.
Yew had been a laboratory chemist for seven years and spent 24 years working at Sirim.
He was responsible for the conceptualisation, planning, implementation and management of the National Science Centre project under the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry.
Yew's resume also showed him as corporate communications head at a special unit in the Prime Minister's Department called the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology. As part of his job there, he prepared papers and speeches for the Prime Minister.
Upon reflection, he says: “I practically covered the whole spectrum of science.”
A member of Mensa, Yew has been officially acknowledged as Distinguished Talent on Creativity & Innovation by the Australian government in 2007.
Yew was also the only person from the British Commonwealth countries selected to be part of the panel of creativity expert advisers to Lego's global project The Next Generation Forum.
His role was to generate ideas for Lego's Next Generation Forum project which, unfortunately due to the 2008 financial crisis, did not take off as planned.
“The next generation forward is about promoting creativity to the children of the world. It was a social project and Lego looked for eight people (to be in the team),” he says.
During his two-year stint with Lego, he met established academicians from top universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I am the only one from a Commonwealth country and one of the non-academicians,” he recalls.
Aside from that, his illustrious career includes serving as an adviser to the president of the International Federation of Invention Associations based in Geneva and is now a member of the Commonwealth Partnership for Technology Management, a partnership of the government and business leaders based in London.
A business bloomed
A year after leaving Sirim to pursue his own goals in 1998, Yew started his company Mindbloom Consulting.
Under Mindbloom, Yew explored the opportunities in writing and sharing his ideas about creativity and innovation through training corporate employees and talks.
He has written nine books, with his bestseller You Are Creative Let Your Creativity Bloom published in six languages and its English version is now in its fifth edition since 1998.
Achieving the third part of his ambitions to be a speaker Yew has now the credentials of an international speaker, having given talks in more than ten countries such as UK, Mauritius, Germany, India, China, Zimbabwe, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, New Zealand and, of course, Malaysia.
This month alone, Yew has spoken at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman on a talk “To be innovative, don't start with creativity” in conjunction with the Festival of the Mind as well as at the Academy of Sciences Malaysia International Conference.
Last month, he was in India for the Asean SME India Conference.
Yew started out as a volunteer speaker at conferences, the Rotary Club and at school some 20 years ago.
“There is a passion burning inside me to speak and to share,” he says.
He has developed systems to help others be innovative.
“For the past 12 years, I have been carrying out conventional creativity training but I find that it is not very useful because it won't be put into practice,” he says.
“Once I met a participant of a middle management group I had trained and asked him how the training had helped him,” he shares. “He looked at me and said that it had made his life miserable because after the workshop, he got very creative with ideas at management meetings but every time he suggested something, his boss shot it down.”
Yew remembers the participant was feeling so demoralised that he started doubting himself.
“Then I gave him a quote by Albert Einstein to encourage him, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
Yew says that after the encounter, he makes it a point to always tell bosses that “whenever someone comes up with a ridiculous or far-fetched idea, don't be so quick to shoot it down”.
“Always respond with: That's very interesting, please tell me more and give the person a chance to explain his idea!”
Yew's impetus in life is to transform the world through innovation because innovation is the panacea to the world's problem.
“Whatever problem you have, if you know how to innovate, you can solve it,” he says.
When asked what he perceives to be his role in society, he says “I have multiple roles”.
“I call myself the chief mind unzipper,” he says, playing on his initials that he shares with the zip manufacturer YKK.
“In fact, they have been using my name for over a hundred years,” he jokes.
Yew believes that society needs to debunk the taboo of copying as that is the way the world develops.
“Look at the economic histories of the world. The copycat-ting stage is the most dynamic and fastest-growing economic development stage,” he points out.
“Everyone learns through imitation, yet it is such a dirty word,” he laments. “Why do we victimise copycats? We should make it a more acceptable word copycat.”
About a year ago, Yew came up with the concept of copycat innovation and is the first person to develop a seven-step methodology to being innovative.
He says there may not be many fresh things in what he writes but the ideas, repeated in one form or another by many motivational and creativity speakers, are put into a structure for anyone to apply.
“There is no point talking on and on about creativity and innovation in bits and pieces, as how are you going to make use of it in the end?” he asks.
He claims his inspiration is Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, but unlike Drucker, he did not agree entirely with the idea of using one's creativity to innovate.
Instead, Yew believes it is more efficient to innovate based on an existing idea. His attitude towards innovation is “because you'd be copying from the best of the world, why reinvent the wheel?”
“However, you still need intelligence, otherwise that's plagiarism. Inject your intelligence and creativity into something you copied and make it something better,” he says. “Copy and improve it.”
He strongly believes that people need to change their perception of imitation as a derogatory act.
He sees a lot of potential to harness creativity and innovation in the country.
“Malaysians have an incredible advantage because this is a multicultural country and that diversity is the bedrock of creativity and innovation,” he says.
However, he believes the environment could be less stiffling if Malaysians want to flourish creatively, noting that many have found opportunities to grow overseas instead.
“The campaign after campaign (does not mean much) if there is no systematic method of innovation,” he says.
Through a structured methodology, Yew believes the corporate world and governments could save billions while instilling a creative and innovative culture more efficiently.
Thirst for life
“I've always admired Richard Branson,” Yew says. “I want to live a life of adventure like him.”
At 62, Yew still has a lot on his dream list. He even made a short video of his life in the future, depicting the things he wants to achieve.
This thirst for living was also the reason for one of the most important experiences in his life climbing Mount Kinabalu twice in a day when he was 56 years old.
“It was fantastic. I couldn't believe it because I never go to the gym,” he quips.
Yew remembers the guide telling his group of elderly people that at the rate they were climbing they would never reach the top.
“I got angry. I'm spending money on the trip and I won't reach the top?” he says. With renewed motivation, he forged ahead and eventually caught up with the younger hikers.
Although he was exhausted at one point, he gave himself “mental commands” to push through.
“I told myself: YKK, don't you ever sit down until you reach the top and no matter how tired you are, just put one foot after another.”
And with that mental discipline, he overtook everyone to the top.
“It was surprising, the journey towards the peak became effortless and I managed to catch the sunrise at the apex,” he says.
When his group caught up, he decided to accompany them up again, letting him scale the peak of the highest mountain in South-East Asia twice in a day.
“It's all mind over matter,” he reiterates.
Aside from adventures, Yew claims he is also a learning addict.
“If I don't learn something a day, I feel uncomfortable,” he admits. “I learn a diversity of subjects, so I can give half an hour of speech on a range of topics at the snap of the fingers.”
Yew recalls lovingly of the time he created fairy tales at the spur of the moment for his daughters when they were young.
“When my youngest daughter was about five or six years old, she constantly asked me to tell her bedtime stories about why giraffes have long necks, why crabs walk sideways, why the tortoise has a hard shell, and so on.
“We lie down together on her bed. She will rest her head on my arm and I created stories for her on the spot,” he reminisces.
And perhaps Yew's collection of fairy tales has now been passed to his grandchildren.