Friday, 10 January 2014

Lim Siong Guan: What does being compassionate mean?

By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2014

FORMER top civil servant Lim Siong Guan yesterday called for a deeper consideration of what being compassionate meant, after "compassionate meritocracy" became the latest buzz term following last month's People's Action Party convention.

The ruling party had adopted a set of resolutions then, including upholding an open and compassionate meritocracy that gives equal opportunities to all.

But Mr Lim argued: "Anyone leading an organisation has an obligation to think about the long-term well-being of their people, not just what's today... then on that basis you decide what really is the most caring thing you can (do) for an individual."

For instance, if a person is "just satisfactory" at 35 years old, is it compassionate to keep him going for 30 more years in the organisation, he told reporters at his book launch.

"Is it compassionate to have him reach 45 years old, 50 years old, and suddenly you say, you're really not making it?"

He was asked if the principle of meritocracy may have been lost in translation between the first generation of Singapore's leaders and the present one.

S'pore must stick to its core values, says Heng
Success must be shared, children nurtured to full potential: Minister
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2014

WHILE the pursuit of excellence in Singapore will change over time, the country's leaders will not waver on two core beliefs, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

"What must not change is our belief that success must be shared, both in the making and the partaking, by all in our society," he said. "Nor do I see us changing our deep belief that the road to future success lies in developing and growing our young to their fullest potential."

Speaking at a book launch by former civil service chief Lim Siong Guan, Mr Heng cited the Singapore example to illustrate how a leader must identify and exemplify "that which is timeless" even as he helps his people navigate a rapidly transforming world.

Without a firm hold on the values that defined the first generation and continue to guide subsequent generations, he said, "there is only change without purpose, movement without direction".

The passing on of values from one generation to the next is a key theme of Mr Lim's book.

Titled The Leader, The Teacher And You: Leadership Through The Third Generation, it captures his thoughts on leadership distilled from a distinguished 37-year career in the civil service.

Speaking to reporters at the launch, Mr Lim, 66, said it is crucial for the third generation to be exposed to what the first generation went through, so they can choose the principles and values that are most relevant to the challenges they face. Otherwise, if the third generation retains 60 per cent of the principles and values of the second generation, which retains 60 per cent from the first, that means the spirit of the pioneer generation gets watered down to 36 per cent, he said.

His book is an attempt to fill some of the gaps by sharing not just what was done but the "spirit of it all", said Mr Lim, now group president of the Singapore Government's investment firm, GIC.

He declined, however, to give his assessment of the current public service under the leadership of Singapore's third Prime Minister.

But Mr Lim, who has been permanent secretary in ministries including finance, education and defence, said it is essential for the Government to convince people that every policy decision is "reasoned and reasonable".

While the former is rational, what people feel is "reasonable" is an emotional response. "You have to be able to demonstrate, communicate, convince people," he said.

Another reason for the book, which he co-wrote with his daughter, Joanne, who is in her 30s and managing partner of a public relations consultancy, was to document some of the "whys" in some public service practices that may have got "lost in the system", he said, citing the PS21 (Public Service for the 21st Century) movement he championed to instil service excellence and adaptability.

Yesterday, Mr Heng, a former top civil servant, paid tribute to his former colleague's brand of leadership. He joked that officers can be heard saying "this is very LSG" of certain values and approaches that Mr Lim advocated.

In line with the importance of leaders being teachers, Mr Lim has set up The Leading Foundation under the Community Foundation of Singapore.

Starting this year, it will sponsor four awards for teachers who are leaders in the early childhood and special education sectors.

Nail problems without hammering people
Former civil service chief Lim Siong Guan offers answers to life's hardest questions in his book
By Cheong Suk Wai, The Straits Times, 4 Jan 2014

The Leader, The Teacher And You: Leadership Through A Third Generation

By Lim Siong Guan and Joanne H. Lim

IN 1980, high-flying civil servant Lim Siong Guan met a Singaporean manager who had studied and worked so well in Japan that even the Japanese mistook him for a countryman.

Mr Lim, who was at that time principal private secretary to then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, asked the man what the difference between Japanese and Singaporean children was.

The latter replied that if a Japanese father wanted to hang a picture and asked his son for a hammer, his son would bring him a hammer. But then the father would ask him, "So where's the nail?" and the child would say, "I'm sorry, of course I should have brought you a nail too."

But, the manager continued, if a Singaporean father asked his son for the tool and then demanded why the latter had not given him a nail too, the Singaporean son would have likely said: "If you wanted a nail, you should have told me to bring one."

In a recent interview, Mr Lim recalled: "He said the Japanese child has been taught from a young age to think about the purpose of anything; that is, see the bigger picture.

"Therefore you must think not only of what or how to do something, but why. And he said maybe not so many Singaporean children are brought up with that frame of mind of asking why, because if you don't understand why something is (the way it is), you wouldn't know how to improve."

Time has, of course, marched on since Mr Lim's encounter with that manager, but it is among the anecdotes Mr Lim includes in his debut book, titled The Leader, The Teacher And You.

The golden thread running through it is how to find, and live, a life of purpose because that really is the way to be happy.

His punchy, smarts-packed book, to be launched next Wednesday, has been written with the help of his daughter Joanne, who is a Princeton University alumna in her 30s and managing director of public relations consultancy The Right Perspective.

His daughter, who declined to be interviewed on the book because "the ideas and concepts are my father's, and I am merely a facilitator", helped with the concept and design, putting in subtle yet significant details to hold the reader's attention.

So every page of their narrative is flanked by a page of key learning points in bold, as well as the occasional quote from such thinkers as Machiavelli, Mr Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of America's Visa credit card association (now known as just Visa), and former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee, who Mr Lim considers one of his two "master teachers" in Singapore, the other being former prime minister Lee.

The only segment that sags somewhat is Chapter Five - in which Mr Lim recounts the mission and vision of PS21, or the Singapore Civil Service's bid to transform itself from being sometimes preoccupied and plodding to being more agile and responsive to others - which reflects not on the service but the subject matter being written about.

Mr Lim's approach is refreshing because, contrary to the popular view of the average worker as a sometime shirker, he believes that almost everyone takes pride in everything he or she does, almost always wants to give his or her best to others and does not want to look stupid.

For those who buck that belief, Mr Lim highlights the cautionary tale of a soon-to-retire carpenter asked by his boss to build one last house. Miffed at such a latecoming job, Mr Lim notes, the carpenter delivers a shabby result - only to be told by his boss that the house was a retirement present for him.

The Lims have divided their book into three parts. The first, covering six chapters, is about Mr Lim's own life experiences. He does not dwell overly much on these, but still engages and inspires the reader deeply, not least because he is the son of a taxi driver and teacher who went from working in a sewage treatment plant to becoming one of Singapore's most trusted men.

The second part of his book has four chapters, which all focus on what leadership should be. He suggests that the best leader is one so unobtrusive yet effective that his followers wind up thinking that they achieved success on their own steam.

Mr Lim makes it clear at the outset that he means for this book to be read by all, be they stay-at- home mothers, emergency room nurses or secondary school students. He more than makes good on that promise, taking the tone of a benevolent uncle who has his reader's best interests in mind.

For example, he asks: When is the only time you should be angry at yourself? Answer: When you are not the best that you can be, he suggests.

What to him is failure then? Not learning from the past, not adapting to the present and not anticipating the future, he muses.

How could you best avoid crises? "Change in good times so that you change in good time," he says. Got a bad boss? Learn what not to do from him, and make sure you do not behave to others as your boss behaves towards you, he reasons.

Don't know how to write an appealing press release? Say what you mean from the heart, say the authors, and proceed to show you how.

Keen to pursue your passion? Then beware, he argues, because you may learn nothing new when you focus on what you already know and like.

Each of his points is very hard to practise, and so this book is not for wimps. As he advises in the book, one should take the escalator instead of the stairs, but then walk up the escalator because that would save the most time.

For good measure, he has included 12 challenges to you to make the most of your talents and circumstances. For instance, would you stop what you are doing to console others? Or turn the other cheek to detractors? Or give others a second chance? He would, and has, as many among his former colleagues will tell you. Above all, Mr Lim would ask them: "How can I help you do your job better?"

Which neatly underscores his philosophy of nailing problems without hammering those who have to deal with them.

FACT FILE: A Yoda and a Duracell bunny

FORMER Singapore Civil Service chief Lim Siong Guan believes that teaching is a very special calling.

As Mr Lim, 66, told The Straits Times in a recent interview: "There is something very special about the teacher ... who seeks to do his or her best to draw the most out of the potential of the child."

A few teachers are very special people in his life too, namely his wife Jennifer, his mother Mary and his sister Violet, to whom he has dedicated his book, The Leader, The Teacher And You.

His father was a taxi driver, and those in the know often cite the younger Lim as a model of meritocracy here.

Among other accolades, this old boy of Anglo-Chinese School was a President's Scholar, which took him to the University of Adelaide to study mechanical engineering in 1965.

Upon graduating with first class honours in 1969, he joined the Civil Service here and in his 37 years with it, was former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's first principal private secretary from 1978 to 1981; the permanent secretary in the ministries of defence, education and finance; and the head of the Civil Service between 1999 and 2006.

Over the years, his colleagues have come to call him an all-knowing, all-seeing "Yoda" and a "Duracell bunny who just keeps going and going after all around him have gone flat", as his former Ministry of Finance colleague Tan Kim Siew recalled in a tribute book to Mr Lim, titled Our Teacher and published by the Ministry of Finance in 2006.

Singapore awarded him the Order Of Nila Utama (First Class) in 2006, when he took early retirement at the age of 59.

But he hardly paused for breath because by October that year, he was made chairman of the Economic Development Board.

Since September 2007, he has helped steer the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, first as its group managing director and now as its group president.

But it is his imparting of life's deepest lessons to his former colleagues that they remember most about him fondly.

Those with him in the Ministry of Finance even published a book in tribute to him in the mid-2000s.

As one of them, Mr Pang Kin Keong, who worked with Mr Lim between 1994 and 1998, recalled: "With Mr Lim, it was never just another meeting. There was always a lesson to be learnt, in reasoning, principles, or simply about life in general."

Instructive excerpts from The Leader, The Teacher And You

Naughty or nice?

TOMMY simply cannot sit still in kindergarten... He disturbs other children in their work. Instead of taking a nap, he runs around the room. The teacher cannot control him, and thinks he is a real troublemaker.

On Teachers' Day ... Tommy had a present for her. It was a little box, wrapped with pretty coloured paper. She opened the box slowly and carefully. Inside was a caterpillar. The teacher thought it was a naughty trick. She became very angry and scolded Tommy. She threw the box into the wastepaper basket.

After school, the teacher found a little envelope. It must have dropped from one of the presents. Inside was a letter for her, from Tommy. The letter said, "Dear Teacher, here is a baby butterfly for you. I hope it will become a pretty butterfly."

The teacher felt very bad... Why? It was because she thought Tommy was naughty, and everything he did must be naughty.

Often, many of us are actually like the teacher.

For example, if someone has done something wrong one day, we think he will never be able to do anything right. No matter what he does later on, we don't care to look at it because we think it cannot be good.

Another example: If we see someone unable to walk normally because he had suffered from polio when he was young, we also think his brain may not be normal, so we do not include him in discussions, and we do not give him tough jobs. And then we wonder why his work is not very good.

Blind on a beautiful day

A BLIND boy sat on the steps of a building with a hat by his feet. He held up a sign that said: "I am blind, please help."

There were only a few coins in the hat. A man was walking by.

He took a few coins from his pocket and dropped them into the hat.

He then took the sign, turned it around, and wrote several words.

He put the sign back so that everyone who walked by would see the new words.

Soon, the hat began to fill up. A lot more people were giving money to the blind boy.

That afternoon, the man who had changed the sign came to see how things were. The boy recognised his footsteps and asked: "Were you the one who changed my sign this morning? What did you write?"

The man said: "I wrote only the truth. I said what you said but in a different way."

What he had written was: "Today is a beautiful day and I cannot see it."

THE first sign simply said the boy was blind.

The second sign told people they were so lucky that they were not blind. Should we be surprised that the second sign was more effective?

There are at least two lessons we can learn from this simple story.
- The first is: Be thankful for what you have. Someone else has less. Help where you can.
- The second is: Be creative. Be innovative. Think differently.
There is always a better way!

As enunciated in Apple's 1997 Think Different commercial: "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."

Doing out of the box

WHEN my first granddaughter was just over a year old, I saw her trying to take a small tube of toothpaste out of its box. Her little fingers did not have the strength to grip the tube to pull it out. She was very frustrated and shook the box around.

Suddenly, when the box was upside down, the toothpaste tube fell out. Now that she had gotten it out, she decided she wanted to put it back in. So she put the box upright, and put the tube in.

Then what did she do?

She turned the box upside down and made the toothpaste tube fall out again. She then put it back into the box.

What was happening?

She was having fun learning a new way to take something out of a box!...

But I was learning something important also...

WE can learn by copying what others do. It is a good way of learning. But it also means we will always be behind them.

If we want to be ahead, we must also learn by trying new ways, by experimenting, by "shaking things about" and watching what happens.

The point is to Learn by Doing. Don't just talk. Don't just think. Do!

Confucius, the great Chinese teacher and thinker who lived from 551 BC to 479 BC, taught something important about learning by doing. He said:

"I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand."

Do you find this to be true in your life? It is only when you do something that you really understand what you actually have to do, how to do it, and why you are doing it.

Taking it personally
His career in public service has been about defying the pundits who said Singapore wouldn’t make it. Former mandarin Lim Siong Guan hopes to pass this spirit on to the next generation
By Lin YanQin, TODAY, 11 Jan 2014

Pragmatism, rather than a desire to serve the public, drove Mr Lim Siong Guan to take up the Colombo Plan scholarship awarded by the Public Service Commission.

The son of a taxi driver father and a schoolteacher mother, Mr Lim — who went on to hold the post of Permanent Secretary in several ministries and eventually head the Civil Service — knew that without a scholarship, he could not have gone on to university.

Yet, when speaking to TODAY ahead of Wednesday’s launch of his book on leadership, which draws largely from his 37 years in the Civil Service, it is the subject of public service that makes Mr Lim sit up, lean forward and speak with more force, occasionally tapping the table for emphasis.

Asked what kept him in the service for nearly four decades, Mr Lim, now Group President of GIC, answers swiftly: “Because it was fun. What I find very interesting is thinking about the future. Strategising.”


For Mr Lim, 66, the success of Singapore is personal. Beginning his career only four years after the Republic became independent, Mr Lim, who worked for former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew as Principal Private Secretary and also for former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee, took pride in “defying the pundits”.

“I was driven by the idea of Singapore being a small place, (with) people saying, ‘How is this place going to survive and do well?’. To me, it was a very personal thing — we must prove the pundits wrong, there (was) no reason for us to think like that,” he says.

His book — co-written with his daughter Joanne H Lim — shares numerous personal anecdotes from the course of his career, and what he hopes will make an impression on young Singaporeans is “the spirit” of his generation. “The spirit of discovery, the spirit of trying, the spirit of learning, that is what we are trying to convey,” he says, over lunch at The St Regis Singapore’s LaBrezza restaurant.

In particular, he highlights the 21 years he spent in the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) as a “remarkable period of learning and experimentation” and quotes an adage of the late Dr Goh, who was the Defence Minister when he was the Director of Finance at the ministry, in his book: “The only way to avoid making mistakes is not to do anything.”


Is he concerned that the youth of today lack the drive of the pioneer generation?

Mr Lim, who firmly believes that success and survival are “two sides of the same coin” for a small country like Singapore, says that what the Republic needs more of is a “No 1” mentality and a willingness to take risks.

“There is a big difference between the No 1 mentality and the No 2 mentality,” he says. “No 2 operates on the basis of copying other people, letting them do all the groundwork, letting them do all the discovery and you go in and copy.

“The mentality of No 1 is distinctly different. There is nobody in front … (You) have to think for yourself. I think many things are possible in Singapore, but our people need encouragement and ... need to be prepared to think differently, to see mistakes as opportunities to do better the next time.”

This, he says, calls for leadership “with imagination”. “If we have leadership who are not held back by this sense of ‘We’ve never done it before’, and questions all the time ‘Why can’t we do this?’, and people can be motivated … Singapore can do great things.”

Education — to build children’s confidence and encourage independent thinking — is only part of the equation.

“If you don’t apply (what you learnt) in the workplace, you’re soon going to forget it anyway. I think we have to tackle the issue of what’s the workplace like — does a workplace encourage (innovative thinking)?” he says.


Asked whether today’s culture of criticism — amplified by social media — makes decision-makers averse to taking risks and innovating, Mr Lim responds: “If you look at it as, ‘I want to keep improving to be able to get the job done better’, then feedback and complaints can seen as, ‘I have to go in and find out (how to solve that)’.”

He adds: “At the same time, we are all human beings, we live on encouragement … people (should) also acknowledge effort, attitude and express appreciation that people have tried.”

An episode from his MINDEF days recounted in his book illustrates a lesson he learnt from Dr Goh, about how fear of telling the truth can get in the way of learning from past mistakes.

“Dr Goh once decided that SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) camps should plant papaya trees to enhance the use of land and provide an additional source of nutrition for the troops. As with any initiative, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) were established.

“Not all camps were successful despite their best efforts, because some terrains would not yield healthy papaya trees. However, rather than declare their failure, a few units took to buying papayas and papaya trees to keep up with their regular reports of the KPIs. The experiment was finally abandoned when it was plain that some units had perpetually young papaya trees!”

The experiment was a lesson in how honesty and integrity can “so easily be undermined” when people are afraid of telling the truth. “The opportunity to learn and correct poor ideas in good time was missed,” Mr Lim wrote.


But have the corruption scandals involving civil servants in recent years — the conviction of former Singapore Civil Defence Force chief Peter Lim in a sex-for-favours trial last year, the imprisonment of former Singapore Land Authority Deputy Director Koh Seah Wee in 2011 for cheating the Government of more than S$12 million — eroded public trust in the Civil Service?

Mr Lim’s response is measured. “The most important quality of government is trust and people need to trust government in two dimensions — that the government is aware of their concerns and is focused on helping the people the best way possible, (and) that the government has the competence to meet challenges and deliver the solutions. You need trust on both counts,” he says.

He notes that the public today expects to be heard and consulted to a greater degree than in the past. “In the past, the fundamental needs were much more easily identified and the Government could deliver in a much more direct way. Education — build schools. Housing — have the HDB (Housing and Development Board) build a roof over your head.

“Today it’s a lot more difficult, in the sense of the multiplicity of desires. Different people require a different degree of help. Different people have different aspirations for the future.

“Maybe people will have to recognise that they have to help themselves, because each of us has our own hopes and desires. And maybe the job of the Government is to enable you to get on with it and chase after your own dreams, rather than say that the Government has to deliver on that dream. Maybe today, the multiplicity of desires means it’s far too difficult (for the Government) to do that.”


With his deep-rooted belief in the importance of the role of government, did he have hopes that his children — he has three with his wife, Jennifer, and has four grandchildren — would follow in his footsteps into public service?

Mr Lim responds with a laugh: “Sometimes my kids tell me ... maybe I think (it’s) a lot more positive than it actually is ... maybe I believe in my own ‘koyok’, my own propaganda.”

At this, daughter Joanne, a branding consultant who is with us at lunch, chimes in: “No! He is really a wonderful dad, a very encouraging dad.”

Although he retired from the Civil Service in 2006 — he is emphatic that the old must make way for new blood — Mr Lim has scarcely broken pace since. He was Chairman of the Economic Development Board from 2006 to 2009 and has served in his current role at GIC since 2007.

Both roles suited his passion for thinking about the long term, which he says made him suited for his career in Government. At MINDEF, for example, the time from conceiving of the need for a weapon to putting it into operation could take 10 years, with the need to plan for contingencies and “think about what the future will be like”.

“Most of the commercial sector is never so (far-sighted),” he says. “That is the wonderful thing about government and, particularly, government in Singapore. It really gives you scope to think long-term and defy the pundits.”

Indeed, he is seemingly inexhaustible in his pursuit of excellence. “I don’t go into a job and think ‘I’ve made it’. I go into a job and I’m going to ask a lot of questions: Why are we doing what we are doing, and can we do better? And that is what keeps me going,” he says.

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