This week’s blog post features an early Siong Guan’s interview with ACS Echo, a quarterly magazine published by the ACS Board of Governors. Siong Guan was educated at the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS), Singapore, where he was the top student as well as head prefect. After graduating from ACS, Siong Guan he was awarded the President’s Scholarship to study at the University of Adelaide, Australia, where he graduated with First Class Honours in Mechanical Engineering in 1969.
Echo: Mr Lim, can you please share with us your experiences when you were schooling in ACS?
Mr Lim: ACS gave me a lot of opportunity for experience and exposure, be it in running societies, learning to work with others or lessons in leading. My time in the Boys’ Brigade (BB) was particularly impactful: I rose to the rank of Colour Sergeant and was the drum major. The BB was where I learnt how the demands on the leader means both taking on responsibility as well as offers a deep sense of fulfillment in doing something important and worthwhile through people and with people.
Echo: What were the forces that drove you to excel in school and to become a President’s Scholar?
Mr Lim: I never pushed to be top boy or President’s Scholar or anything. It was just a matter of doing as well as I could in whatever I had to do. This applied to every situation, whether in studies, prefectorial duties, helping fellow students, or whatever. I think too many people mistake “excellence” to mean “outstanding”. To me, “excellence” simply means being the best you can be. So if you are capable of 100 marks but scored 90, you have done only a 90% job; but if you are capable of 70 marks and scored 70, you have done a 100% job.
Echo: In school, did you have plans for a public service career?
Mr Lim: I am possibly one of the most “ambition-less” people you can find. I certainly had no plans like wanting a career or other, I think most parents at that time felt that a public service career would always be a great idea because it offered security. We need to recognise that having a job was a most valuable thing for our parents, and so making sure their children had a good education so they could find a good job was the greatest contribution they could make for their children’s future.
How I landed up in the public service was straight and simple: there was no way I could have got to university, whether local or abroad, without a scholarship. My father was a taxi driver, my mother a schoolteacher. When I was offered a Colombo Plan Scholarship to Australia, it was a great opening for getting to university. It could just as well have been a scholarship to Canada or the United Kingdom or wherever. As they say, “beggars cannot be choosers”.
With the scholarship came a bond, which was ‘good’ as it meant you would have a ‘guaranteed job’. It never occurred to me that a bond was a burden or something to be broken. When you take something from the government, it is totally fair to give back, no questions asked. Incidentally, just to show how much the issue for me was simply to get a scholarship to university, I did not know where I would be going to in Australia when I left Singapore; the group of us went to Sydney, where we had a kind of introductory programme for a couple of weeks, and then only did I learn I would be going to the University of Adelaide.
Echo: Would you say that the ACS brand of education has something to do with preparing incumbents for a public service career?
Mr Lim: No. If we look at the list of Permanent Secretaries and CEOs of statutory boards, there are certainly many more not from ACS than there are from ACS. But there is one thing absolutely critical for me personally in my work, and that is the “fear of God”. I came to God through ACS, though people can come to God in a multitude of ways, and we all must very much hope that ACS is not the only way because the reach will be far too small.
The public service summarises its core values as Integrity, Service and Excellence. It is one thing to join the public service and subscribe intellectually and even by action to these values. It is another when you know that the driving force to observe those values in the way you lead your people run your organisation and relate to those around you, is the inner motivation based on being true to Jesus Christ and His Word. The statement I strive always to make in my words and my actions is: I can be trusted because I am a Christian; I seek to serve to the best of my ability because the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 10:31 “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”. As a public officer, I must treat all people equally, irrespective of race, language or religion, but the drive to serve with excellence and the way I treat people comes from Christ.
Echo: What advice can you offer to our young students to help them chart their lives and careers?
Mr Lim: Learn all you can. Stop complaining. Do something. Look at difficulties and obstacles as opportunities to learn new things. You can never forever be on top. And you will never forever stay down. Be humble in achievement. Be circumspect in failure. Forgive. Honour your parents. God has given you talents. Do not waste them. Jesus loves you. Follow Him.
Echo: Can you share with us some of the challenges you faced in your illustrious career and what you have learned from them?
Mr Lim: Perhaps the most important thing I have learnt in all my years of work in the public sector is the centrality of people for all things, though I am sure this applies to all organizations, not only the government. People can make or break organizations. They can make the workplace either energizing and challenging, or enervating and boring. The deepest challenges are therefore leadership and the management of change. How can we create an environment where everyone is doing the best he or she can do, and feels there is the chance to be the best he or she can be? This is a never-ending challenge, for which we have to recognise that people are not just physical and mental beings, but are also social, emotional and spiritual beings.
Echo: Do you have any advice to offer students aspiring for a career in the public service sector?
Mr Lim: The public service offers wonderful opportunities for self-development and for contribution to your fellow citizens. Where else can you find the chance to do something that affects so many people in so many different ways for so many years into the future? If you keep chasing the material things of the world, or the things that simply are nice and convenient and comfortable to you, you will soon discover that life has little meaning and purpose because you are spending your time and energies on yourself. The sense of purpose and fulfilment lies in contributing to the lives of others. Be “inner-driven” but “other-centred”. Some will find the opportunities for this in the public sector, some in the private sector, some in the people sector. See where your aptitudes and interests lie. But seek, most of all, to be sure that God will be pleased to find you wherever you are.