In October 2019, Copthorne King’s Hotel and M Hotel Singapore were enjoying an average 90% monthly occupancy, yet Teong Wah gathered the department heads for a crisis simulation exercise. So, when COVID-19 hit in January, he laughingly recounted how the department heads looked at him in mock horror and joked that he was the reason for this crisis! That is how he works, Teong Wah always keeps his sights on the next stage and the next possibility.
When he first started out as a commis (junior chef), he set his mind on becoming a Chef, and then an Executive Chef and so on, he never stopped aiming higher. Through those Teong Wah has worked in the kitchens, moved to restaurants and banquet halls, and room service, ending up finally in the boardrooms. He rotated through all these positions in a career spanning 30 years. “I know the pain of every worker. I feel the real pain. I still remember the pain your whole hand is going through after 18 hours of work.”
He has helmed hotels not only in Singapore but also international brands in six different countries. Over the years, he has navigated through four major crises that have impacted tourism. In 1997, there was the Asian financial crisis, 2001 saw 9/11 in the US, followed by SARS in 2003, and then the 2008/9 Lehman Brothers collapse.
Of the COVID-19 pandemic, he says, “This crisis has actually made us a lot faster. Whatever I wanted to complete in three years, I have managed to complete in one!” The journey though, to look after his team and staff and build what he calls the “muscle” to face the future, is one that began much earlier.
The inclusive work policy
Teong Wah is a firm believer of the labour movement initiative from way back in 2009, where job redesign, digitalisation, upskilling and reskilling, and employability initiatives have always been on top of his mind with inclusive hiring being an important segment. He subscribes to not only developing the cream of the crop but also those with disabilities and special needs. “My CSR is not about picking up garbage on the beach for one day. I refer to this as the one-day hero. Instead, I prefer to be an everyday hero.”
It is all about the people
“Emerging Stronger as a Nation” is a mantra that rolls off his lips easily. He believes in it strongly not because he works closely with Workforce Singapore (WSG), but also because of his experience overseas, where many a government will not help companies who are not from their own country. He is quick to add that nevertheless, it takes hard work on the part of employers and hotels. Although WSG and other agencies can provide the broad framework, the programme execution is not WSG’s responsibility. It is ‘us’, he says emphatically. “We need to take the next step, we need to implement.”
When faced with difficult decisions like downsizing, Teong Wah always looks at the bigger picture and as captain of the boat, he says, “If I have a boat which can take on about 140 people, but I take on 227 people, it will sink. So, I tell them the truth, which is simple and straightforward.” If the boat is overloaded it will sink – lock, stock and barrel – something Teong Wah will not allow to happen on his watch.
How MCIL partners WSG to enable employees to be future-ready
Teong Wah is acutely aware of how important it is to be relevant and employable as the workforce ages. As such, he looked into the future and moved the hotel towards contactless experiences and crowd management, as well as projects that are enabled by technology implementation. To equip his people with the relevant skills, he partnered WSG on the Hotel Job Redesign Reskilling programme.
WSG’s Hotel Job Redesign Reskilling programme is the framework that he uses. That means moving towards contactless experiences and crowd management, supportable job redesign projects that are enabled by technology implementation.
In November 2019, the Job Redesign Reskilling (JRR) Programme for the Hotel Industry was introduced. Since its roll-out, 56 hotels in Singapore have undergone reskilling and nearly 1,500 workers have embarked on new or enhanced job roles. In 2021, WSG relaunched the programme to support hotels while receiving up to 90 per cent of course fee funding and salary support under the three-month programme.
Copthorne King’s Hotel signed up for WSG’s Job Redesign Programme last year and had 23 trainees complete on-the-job training. The project focused on job enlargement, which included the cross deployment of Security and Concierge Executives to Call Centre Executives, Restaurant Manager to Banquet Manager, Sales Executives to Catering Sales and F&B Executives.
This year, the hotel has plans to embark on the programme, which would involve leveraging data to curate menus for diners by analysing consumer trends and designing promotions for revenue optimisation.
Facing the future
When Singapore went into Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) in response to a fresh outbreak of B1617 variant of the coronavirus, it was evident to Teong Wah that everyone’s capacity for dealing with the situation was faster and easier. He draws an interesting parallel. The Japanese people deal with earthquakes and tremors with great stoicism. He saw that rigour in his staff as restaurants closed, takeaways were re-booted, and staff redeployed with little or no hiccup.
Despite all that has happened, this Cluster GM is more than optimistic about the future. “The future is going to be great. It’s a bell curve and a question of time. I assume the next surge will be enormous and it will bring Singapore to a better place after this whole pandemic dies down.”
There is no better person to navigate this boat to the future and beyond than Kung Teong Wah.