“Don’t let work define you”: Former COO of Sports Hub who battled insomnia and depression
by Janice Tai // May 14, 2021, 7:44 pm
Poh played a key role in conceptualising the Sports Hub project in 2001. All photos courtesy of Poh Yu Khing.
Spanning 35 hectares of land in the heart of the city, the Singapore Sports Hub is one of the world’s first fully integrated sports, entertainment and lifestyle destinations.
The $1.33 billion project combines world-class sporting infrastructure for football, athletics, rugby and cricket, with community lifestyle and entertainment facilities, such as an indoor stadium, aquatics centre, multi-purpose arena, retail mall, sports library and museum.
Its centrepiece is a 55,000-capacity national stadium that features a retractable dome roof. The stadium is the largest free-standing dome structure in the world.
“The preparation work needed to open and manage such a massive facility was intense.”
One of the key leaders behind the massive project was Poh Yu Khing, who spent 13 years of his life on the Hub.
As it was established under a long-term Public-Private Partnership agreement, Poh was initially project director for the Sports Hub while he was with statutory board Sport Singapore. Later, he moved on to the private sector where he eventually became the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Sports Hub.
Poh, who was then in his early 40s, started feeling the strain of the demands of the job a few months into his new role as the COO in 2013. At that time, it was one year to the slated grand opening of the Sports Hub.
The job was complex: Any construction delays of the Hub would likely result in a loss of millions of dollars in revenue. There was also a need to procure insurance for the infrastructure. Some potential issues, such as the size of the roof opening being not big enough to allow sufficient sunlight to ensure optimal grass growth for the football pitch, were also flagged.
“It’s like opening an Olympic Park where the requirements for each facility is different and there is no other such facility in Singapore. The preparation work needed to open and manage such a massive facility was intense and I did not have enough experience for that then,” said Poh, now 48.
Slipping into blue screen
With his mind continually thinking about ideas, solutions and contingency plans, Poh found himself saddled with insomnia at night. He would fall asleep for the first two to three hours out of exhaustion, but would later lie wide awake for the rest of the night as his brain fired on rapidly with things on his to-do list.
It was not the long working hours that stressed him out – by then he was used to that from the various jobs he had previously helmed. It was also the complexity of the tasks at hand. There were also other uncontrollable factors, such as the possibility of missing construction deadlines, that would have implications on the bottom line.
“The situation was like a computer having a blue screen when it hangs. If I don’t stop work, I was going to ‘hang’ soon.”
He was constantly tired at work from his lack of sleep. Desperate, he sought help from a psychiatrist who gave him sleeping pills. Poh took them but still could not sleep.
So, the psychiatrist prescribed another type of sleeping pills, but that did not work either.
Finally, he was given a third type – the strongest of the lot.
It was still not able to dull or calm him enough for sleep to kick in.
“The doctor told me that the situation was like a computer having a blue screen when it hangs. If I don’t stop work, I was going to ‘hang’ soon,” said Poh, who had suffered from insomnia for four months by then.
He was given two months of medical leave to remove himself from the source of stress, which was work, to get back to a normal sleeping pattern.
That brief period of enforced rest turned out to be no respite.
Instead, Poh experienced for himself the reality of Psalm 127: 1-2: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat – for he grants sleep to those he loves.”
Not only could Poh not sleep, the irony was that he literally had an unpredictable building project on hand that was causing him stress.
So the two months of medical leave gave him more anxiety than rest as he also worried about the potential consequences of his absence from work.
“Much of the anxiety came from having my security and significance tied to my job.”
Will the construction of the Hub go smoothly? Would he be fired from his job, having taken significant time off work just before the opening of the Sports Hub? Would he be able to find another job if so?
Questions and a cloud of unknowing shrouded him, and soon he spiralled from having insomnia to developing full-blown anxiety and depression.
“On hindsight, I realised that much of the anxiety came from having my security and significance tied to my job. I was in a senior position and working on a major national project. While that is something to be proud of, my identity cannot come from a job or what I do, as that may change from season to season,” said Poh, who used to be a “CEO wannabe”.
He had risen relatively fast on the career ladder in both the public and private sector, having been involved in other key projects in the past, such as the setting up of the Singapore Sports School. Others around him had teased him about being next in line to be the CEO.
All those dreams caused him further stress at the potential loss of job and financial security, and he sank into depression.
During that dark fog of a time, he did not touch his guitar. He could not pull himself out of bed to go for a run. These were activities he had once enjoyed tremendously.
When his wife dragged him out of the house for a meal, he would eat two mouthfuls and then no longer had the appetite for more.
Though Poh had once been an active Christian serving in church during his younger days, God felt distant to him during this deepest valley of his life.
“It was hard for me to feel the comfort, love and presence of God. I knew all the Bible verses and God’s promises in my head about peace and healing, but my brain and body didn’t respond to those verses. The Bible verses and my reality just didn’t match up,” said Poh.
He had a lot of angry questions for God.
It was a worrisome sight for his wife to see him sitting in the living room, banging the table. In his heart, he was crying: “God, if you love me, why can’t I overcome the depression?”
However, after regular visits to a psychologist, and with the support of his wife and church friends, Poh got better and was able to return to work — part-time at first, then full-time.
“I realised that the keys to building up resilience to workplace stress are not placing all your hopes and dreams solely on your work, and ensuring enough support mechanisms socially and spiritually,” said Poh.
“Why was it that I could not experience for myself the promises of God that I have read in the Bible?”
Shortly after he returned to work in 2014, he was “demoted” by being asked to take on a more junior role, while someone else took over his COO hat.
“The decision made sense because the portfolio was too big for me. I fully understood and expected it. But that did not mean it was not painful,” he said. “I questioned God about why He allowed me to be removed from the career trajectory I was on.” He left the organisation at the end of 2015.
By then, media reports also surfaced complaints about the Sports Hub’s overly sandy pitch and leaky roofs during events and performances. Event organisers also griped about the high cost of holding events at the stadium.
Though Poh later moved on to work in another organisation, he never forgot the questions he had about God and his faith that arose from that dark phase of his life.
“Why was it that I could not experience for myself the promises of God that I have read in the Bible? After so many years as a Christian, what do I need to do to deepen my relationship with God?” Poh wondered.
Though he had actively served in the worship and other ministries in church since his teenage years, his Christian life had become undeniably routine after marriage and in the midst of the hectic pace at work.
Stepping into the unknown
Fuelled by a desire to know God and his faith more intimately, Poh took no pay leave from work in 2017 to attend Tung Ling Bible School. It turned out to be a transformational experience.
“At that time, I had been a Christian for over 30 years. Yet there were so many basic and fundamental things I didn’t really understand or know about the faith. Though it is called a Bible school, what we learnt there was not so much a Bible study but getting to hear the real-life testimonies of how the lecturers and my peers had journeyed with God. That broadened my view of what God is able to do and how much we can trust Him,” said Poh.
His time there also left him with an important insight: The value of relationships.
“I was reminded that all things on this earth will pass away eventually and what has eternal value is our relationship with people, whom we hope to see in heaven again one day,” he said.
One year later in 2018, Poh felt God was calling him out of his salaried job into something else, but he did not know exactly what was next.
The verse that spoke to him during a church sermon was Genesis 12:1, where the Lord had said to Abram: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”
“Abram was told to leave what was familiar – his identity, community and security – into a land that God had not yet shown him. I was challenged by that as, for more than two decades, all that I had known was stable, salaried jobs. But my time in Tung Ling prepared me to step out in faith into the unknown,” said Poh.
Vortex of transformation
While serving notice for his job, Poh prayed and asked God what He wanted him to do next.
That year, he went to the Kingdom Invasion conference and heard international speakers such as Ed Silvoso speak about transforming the world through the marketplace.
“If we can bring Kingdom into the marketplace, we can see God’s global mission of discipling nations.”
“Work is such a dominant part of Singaporeans’ lives. We work long and hard. I believe that if we can bring Kingdom into the marketplace starting in Singapore, we can see God’s global mission of discipling nations being spread through the marketplace from Singapore to other cities,” he said.
He bought three marketplace-related books at the conference and devoured them in the next few weeks. This was unusual as he was not a reader, having read less than five books in the past 20 years.
He had always had an interest in marketplace ministry, believing that there should be no divide between the secular and spiritual aspects of life. In the past, when his wife was with the music ministry in Campus Crusade (now Cru Singapore), both of them were part of a band which would play the latest pop songs at a Ben & Jerry’s outlet.
“We wanted to use music as a form of connection with people. The music was secular but we would stay behind till the wee hours of the morning to talk to the young people and the staff there,” said Poh, who today is still friends with some of its former staff, mainly students on part-time gigs.
At the Kingdom Invasion conference, Poh heard Ed Silvoso speak about businesses needing to be the “vortex of transformation” in society. He felt his spirit stir and knew that would be the name of the consulting company he would set up: VoT Consulting.
“Through VoT, I hope to help companies get to the root of the problem at the systemic level instead of just addressing symptoms. That would bring true, long-term transformation,” said Poh, who had set up the company while still assuming that it could be an interim side-hustle till a full-time, salaried job came along.
But God had other plans.
In those years, Poh received prophecies that he would travel from city to city for God’s purposes and use his gift of administration for the Church.
Doors were opened for him to make several business trips to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia for his consulting work. This was unexpected as he hardly needed to travel for work in the past.
Para-church outfits such as Alpha Singapore and Resource Global also approached him to lead their key networks.
Poh became the coordinator for the Alpha Everywhere campaign 2019 in Singapore, a nationwide effort in the Year of Evangelism (as led by the LoveSingapore network) to provide more opportunities for pre-believers and new Christians to ask questions and learn about the Christian faith through the Alpha programme.
He also served as the workplace coordinator for Alpha Singapore, helping to seed Alpha Workplace runs.
Poh is also the Singapore city director of Resource Global, a global non-profit organisation that runs marketplace discipleship and mentoring programmes that seek to mobilise the next generation of leaders to have transformative Gospel impact in their local communities and workplaces.
As Poh went freelance and took up these assignments, his old fears of lacking financial security returned.
“If God is asking you to do this work, then claim His promise in Matthew 6:33.”
He confided these worries with Pastor Henson Lim, founder of Archippus Awakening, who is passionate about spreading the message of fulfilling one’s Kingdom assignments.
“If God is asking you to do this work, then claim His promise in Matthew 6:33 that He will meet all your other needs when you seek first His kingdom,” Pastor Henson told Poh, who eventually did receive allowances for his work from both Alpha and Resource Global.
“Since I was going freelance, I thought I would end up eating into my savings. But not only did I not dip into my savings, I managed to add to it,” said Poh.
Now, he takes time to seek God and hear from God when he needs to make major decisions in his life.
“I used to wonder at people who said, ‘God spoke to me this and that’. For me, I made decisions quite rationally instead. But, over the past three years, God has shown me that He truly speaks to me and provides for me in so many surprising ways,” said Poh.
Poh’s personal mission now is to equip marketplace Christians to actively live out their spiritual calling as disciples of Christ by impacting lives, transforming businesses and blessing society.
He does this by working on marketplace outreach via Alpha Singapore, as well as through marketplace education and mentoring by leading Resource Global and teaching a marketplace module in Tung Ling Bible School.
In addition, he does marketplace consulting work, helping to bring Kingdom into the marketplace by working with small business owners on their vision, strategy and organisational development. On the flip side, he also seeks to bring the best of marketplace practices into Kingdom organisations by supporting them to do God’s work with excellence and efficiency.
For instance, he is currently helping the management of YMCA review the strategic direction of its business units and social impact projects, including undertaking a feasibility study on revamping its hotel on Orchard Road.
Force for good
Poh tries to walk the talk in applying his faith and values even to his volunteer work.
Last year, he volunteered to help out at a Covid isolation facility, thinking that they would need manpower for temperature taking at healthcare institutions.
Instead, he was posted to head the administrative team that would run the entire facility.
Foreign workers were being quarantined in a hotel and he was tasked to put systems in place to track their movements and ensure that there was no mingling of infected persons with the rest of the workers.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. There is much work to be done.”
Poh ensured that the admin team performed their roles with excellence and efficiency, processing the data of some 2,000 migrant workers. They had an excel spreadsheet tracking up to 36 columns of data points for each migrant worker.
Yet, due to the sheer volume of data, hiccups occured.
When Poh discovered a mistake made by his admin team member, he took the person aside and talked to him privately. Then, he told the larger working team about the matter, taking responsibility for the error and apologising for it, without naming the person who had caused it.
“In applying our faith to the marketplace, often we have to balance the tension between aspiring to a high level of excellence and standards, yet having compassion in nurturing people,” said Poh.
Going forward, Poh is thinking about exploring another facet of transforming the marketplace: How do we see businesses as a force for good so that we can serve and uplift the less fortunate in society?
For a start, he has participated in a working group organised by the Alliance for Action for Lower-Wage Workers to brainstorm ideas to pilot in order to raise the profile, pay and working conditions of these workers.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. There is much work to be done.”