Mothership Q&A: A glimpse of S'porean Google employee No. 107 Tan Chade-Meng

Engineer, innovator and world peace advocate.

Belmont Lay| May 22, 11:27 AM

That is Taylor Swift. And the other guy is Tan Chade-Meng. He is a Singaporean and Google employee No. 107.

An alumnus of Nanyang Technological University before he headed to the University of California at Santa Barbara, for postgraduate studies in computer science, he is one of the tech giant's early hires who was part of the development team for its mobile search software.

So that makes Tan a software engineer. Or rather, was. These days, his job title at Google is "Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny)".

He is, by choice and happenstance, Google's cultural ambassador.

Having become wealthy overnight from the stock he received when Google went public, coding is, therefore, no longer part of his work.

These days, he is funding projects to aid the cause for world peace, centred on virtues such as compassion, mindfulness and happiness.

And have famous important people undergo the "Meng" photo op, where he takes photos with famous important people and vice versa, just because.




In 2007, Tan created a popular course for Googlers on emotional intelligence called Search Inside Yourself, teaching meditation techniques to build emotional intelligence founded on nerd-backed scientific principles.

The book with the same title is a best-selling self-help book.

And his ideas are going places. The 43-year-old will be in Singapore next month for Wisdom 2.0 Asia, a two-day conference on innovative and mindful leadership in the digital age, which follows the successful Wisdom 2.0 events in San Francisco, New York and other cities.

This is part of what US-based Tan does these days: Having set up and fund the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (Siyli, pronounced "silly"), it now offers mindfulness courses to the public.

Oh yes, and in January 2015, Tan is part of a team at PeaceJam Foundation, a non-profit organisation, that was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The campaign he co-chairs is called "One Billion Acts of Peace" -- where everyone is encouraged to carry out a billion acts of peace within the next five years. speaks to the Jolly Good Fellow to ferret out the Singaporean in him, what he could be doing if he weren't in Google and why we ought not to undermine Singaporeans.


1. First things first, what is one thing Singaporeans should know about the Jolly Good Fellow?

Tan: That the Jolly Good Fellow of Google is a Singaporean. We should never discount Singaporeans. For example, having worked with some of the best engineers in the world, I can tell you for certain that the best Singaporean engineers are as good as the best engineers from anywhere in the world.



2. As you know, Singapore has a reputation of being a pressure cooker society. As an advocate of peace and tranquility, if there is one thing Singaporeans should take away from Search Inside Yourself, what would it be?

Tan: It would be that success does not come at the expense of peace, tranquility, compassion and all other qualities of inner goodness. In fact, the reverse is true: the more one develops inner goodness, the more likely one is to be successful. For example, there are studies which show that you’re much more creative if you’re relaxed and happy, you’re a much better salesperson if you have empathy, and you’re a much more successful leader if you’re compassionate. Better still, all those qualities are highly trainable.



3. Is that also the message you are trying to bring to Singapore with the Wisdom 2.0 Asia conference you’re co-chairing?

Tan: Yes, definitely. Wisdom 2.0 is a very successful conference which started in the Silicon Valley that brings together top leaders in many fields (in tech, corporate, government, non-profit and wisdom worlds) to explore how best to thrive in the digital world. We are bringing it to Asia for the first time in June 2015, and it’ll be in Singapore. In Wisdom 2.0 Asia, our specific focus will be innovative, mindful and inspiring leadership in the digital age.



4. What would you be doing if you weren't in Google?

Tan: Maybe serving in the White House, or with the UN, or retired and playing golf all day. I joke that I'm serving 20 years to life in Google, and I'm almost 15 years into my sentence.



5. You are always seen around celebrities. Would you rather be known as a celebrity or an engineer?

I would rather be known as a great pioneer and innovator, especially one who made the benefits of traditional wisdom practices widely accessible to humanity using modern science and technology.



6. What are some of the traces of Singaporean-ness that is left in you? Kiasu-ism?

Still got my accent, leh. Also, hor, being born and bred in Singapore, I’ll always be Singaporean, cannot run away one.



7. Who is the perfect advocate for peace in Singapore?

Everyone, actually. In the past 50 years, Singapore became a shining model of success and prosperity. In the next 50 years, I hope that Singapore will also become a shining model of peace, joy and compassion.



8. Do you think a Singaporean will win the Nobel prize or an Olympic Gold Medal first?

It’s easy to answer this question by just looking at the numbers. From 1901 to 2012, a cumulative total of 856 people and organisations have received Nobel prizes. In contrast, there were 302 events in the 2012 Summer Olympics alone, many of which are team events giving out multiple gold medals (one per member of the Gold Medal team). Therefore, more people receive Olympic gold medals every 12 years than the total number of Nobel prizes given in 100 years. Hence, Singapore, or any other country, is statistically much more likely to win an Olympic gold medal than a Nobel prize.



9. If there is one thing you can change in the world right now, what would it be?

I like to see a world where every leader is wise and compassion, thus creating the conditions for world peace.



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