Lee Yuan Kun: Bidding tactics

It was his first major bid and he netted the World Congresses of the International Union of Microbiological Societies (IUMS) for Singapore in one single shot, and also in a year it was supposed to be held in Europe, not Asia. Nothing to do with luck.

How difficult was it to win this three-congresses-in-one event for Singapore in 2017?
Singapore was not on the map of these congresses as traditionally they rotate every three years among Asia, Europe and North America. Hokkaido hosted it in 2011, and Montreal this year, so it’s Europe’s turn next. Even if it’s Asia’s turn, countries with huge population would be the popular choice. Singapore is tiny and always seen as expensive and so far away. So when we first submitted our letter of intent to bid for the congresses, it was actually not very well-received.

But isn’t Japan expensive as well?
(Laughs) Perhaps it’s because Japan is more exotic. If you’re from North America, you probably see Singapore as another Westernised, modernised, cosmopolitan city. Thus we had to sell the point that Singapore is unique, at one go you get to see different cultures and, though it has a short history of nation-building, Singapore’s history itself is a long one. We got help from the various government agencies such as the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to give us all the supporting materials.

What’s the clincher though?
I believe what impressed the committee was our commitment to fully sponsor 20 young (Asian) scientists to attend the conference, and that’s thanks to the kind support of STB. We weaved the story that Asia is up-and-coming, the Asian scientific publication has shot up, mainly in China and (South) Korea, so it makes sense to bring the congress to Asia, and how this will benefit these budding scientists who may not have the opportunity to travel to Europe to attend.

Has this ever been done?
No, that’s why the bid stood out. In fact in the past, little or no support for young scientists was extended, whereas we went out of our way, which impressed the committee.

Take me through the bid process.
Ah, the process was long. Before making known our intention to bid, we needed to get to know the IUMS congresses, the board members, their philosophy – work the ground basically.

In an effort to get the bid, I worked to get myself elected into the council, so I’d have inside knowledge. This year, I became the president for IUMS (a three-year term). We don’t have an HQ, we’re a virtual kind of association: our secretariat is in Netherland, the treasurer is in Germany, I’m in Singapore and we have executive members from all over the world.

That you hold the presidency must be a great advantage for the 2017 congress and IUMS?
Yes, as president, I can help shape the successful outcome of not just the conference but the association’s progress. In recent years, for instance, we have championed an outreach programme aimed at reaching out to developing countries.

The association started out (championing) cutting-edge science but the fact is, it is the developing countries that need the most help with microbiology, especially infectious diseases. Individual countries work on their specific needs, WHO (the World Health Organization) works on health care, etc, but education is lacking in developing countries.

Yes, look at the Ebola scare.
Exactly, the reason it spreads is because people aren’t aware of hygiene and how (viruses) spread. That’s why outreach is needed. So being the president, I can help advance this idea further.

Why do you care to bid and organise conferences?
We (the Singapore Society for Microbiology and Biotechnology, of which he is also president) have organised conferences and received good feedback. We thought perhaps we could go for something bigger.

It’s not only the vision, but a mission and sense of hospitality. As organisers we arrange everything and I enjoy that. Although I’m a Singaporean, I realise there are many places that I have never been to until I organise conferences. And so why not share those with others?

You make a lot of lifelong friends and even working partners.

Do you find conferences being easily replaced by the Internet?
One of the reasons I organise or attend a conference is not so much about listening to speeches. It’s when someone says something that inspires you to think: Why was this not done before? Why can’t I do it? Then, you can even use other participants as a bouncing board so it becomes a discussion that stimulates the mind and the idea becomes bigger. Very often, it’s not a suggestion but something someone says that sparks of a train of thought. This you cannot get from the Internet.

This is so important for Singapore as we are so small and in my discipline, there are so few people to talk to.

So how many delegates are you expecting and have you decided on a venue?
Around 3,000 to 6,000 pax. The Pharma Code prevents us from using venues such as Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa so it’s down to Suntec Singapore and the Singapore Expo.

There aren’t too many venues that can accommodate an event of this size.

Is that the biggest challenge?
Finding sponsors is the biggest challenge. There are a lot more conferences and each wants sponsors.

A huge conference such as this requires heavy capital investment. That’s why the need to highlight why our conference is different and why it’s value-for-money for sponsorship. Knowing who our sponsors are – really getting to know them – is crucial.

How did you choose your PCO?
We shortlisted six and there were two rounds of presentations. We settled on MCI.
Some of the smaller PCOs were actually very impressive. But with a conference three years down the road, if we use a one-person operation, there is always the worry: what if this person is no longer there, what would happen? So we prefer to work with a larger company and have the back-up of an organisation, so that even if there’s a personnel change, there is continuity.

If it were a conference this year, I would go with the smaller PCO – you know you’ll get the personal touch; you know the person would personally follow up on things quickly.

Do you find it difficult to get new members into your association?
People are now different. They are more opinionated. In the past they look up to leaders; they expect you to lead. Now they voice out their opinions, and therefore we need to listen. Even if nothing can be done, as long as you listen, it will help.

So what do they want, apart from you listening?
It’s similar to trying to sell something in the market. We need to ask, what do people want? But, better still, create a demand for people that they may not even think of. Leadership today needs to sense people’s needs before they even know what they need.