Never a Dull Moment

Permanent Secretary for Public Service Division, Lim Soo Hoon, talks to Bridgette See about her family and her work, in A Cuppa With…

“GTG TTY TMRW”

When the SMS flashed on Ms Lim Soo Hoon’s mobile phone, she had to ask her elder son Samuel to decipher what his brother, Russell, was trying to say.

This, Ms Lim recounts, really showed the IT gap. “And they’re not even geeks,” she adds, laughing.

When she encounters problems with her computer, she prefers handing it over to her children as “they’re unafraid to explore and experiment, even if they have no idea what they are doing”.

But Ms Lim admits she would be “nervous” if public officers were equally adventurous when it comes to developing policies because, unlike messing with laptops, policy decisions affect lives.

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Sometimes what we put in place has a long tail, and it may take a while to unravel,” she says, stressing that officers must be mindful of the impact their actions have on others.

She recalls: “When I was in the then Ministry of Labour, one of my officers ran upstairs and said somebody was going to kill himself because we rejected his application to marry a foreign worker.”

You see how your policies can affect some lives adversely, even though in the bigger scheme of things, you know it’s the right thing to do.”

Ms Lim adds: “Yes, we want [officers] to take risks (for example, new methods of doing something or getting ideas are encouraged), but we need to be discerning of what we can try.”

Being a Busybody

Ms Lim began her Public Service career in 1981 with the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Since then she has worked at Transport, Manpower, Community Development, Youth and Sports, among other agencies.

Thirty years on, she remains passionate about her work. “I always tell people that to be in the Public Service, you have to be a bit of a kaypoh (busybody) because you’re involved in things that are beyond yourself,” says Ms Lim, who had a hand in the launch of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system and the Singapore Sports School, among other milestones of her career.

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The thrill and pride to have been involved in something that affects so many people is hard to describe,

she says, recalling that she was heavily pregnant while at the launch of one of the early phases of the MRT system.

“Someone said, ‘Please don’t give birth on the train!’” says Ms Lim, who delivered Samuel soon after.

Ground Experience

The policy maker thanks her stint at the Registry of Vehicles for letting her understand what operating at the ground meant.

Tasked to implement policies, she saw a yawning gap between policy makers and operational staff. Her staff said to her: “We told HQ it couldn’t be done but they didn’t want to listen to us so we got it done the way we knew how.”

This taught her a valuable lesson: If you want to implement policies well, understand the operational constraints, talk to the people who have to implement them, and modify your policy, if necessary, so that the desired outcomes are achieved.

“So I’m a firm believer of our Staff Suggestion Scheme, as people on the ground know the problems and solutions. They just need a platform to surface their views.”

Family Matters

Though she is the first woman to be appointed Permanent Secretary, Ms Lim says she is no Superwoman and she doesn’t believe such a person exists anyway.

“When my children were young, they used to think the woman in the kitchen they saw in story books was the domestic help, as they had never seen their mother cooking in a kitchen,” says Ms Lim, who prefers to “outsource” the cooking to her helper.

Her toughest test came in late 2004 when Samuel, her elder son, was diagnosed with cancer. Throughout the 10-month ordeal, the newly appointed head of the Public Service Division continued working from home or hospital. “I wanted to maintain some sense of normalcy for Sam and myself,” she says.

In 2007, Samuel had a relapse and again, Ms Lim had to slow down her pace at work, but never without feeling guilty about it.

“I’d be mad to put my work ahead of my son,” she says. “[But] it was a struggle for me. You can’t shirk your responsibilities, yet you know certain things can’t wait.”

She recalls, with bitter sweetness: “Sam saw me without my computer one day and he asked, ‘Mum, have you lost your job?’”

When the surprised mother said she was on leave to be with him, he said, “Ever since I knew you as my Mum, I have never seen you stop working.”

The boy’s honest words hit home.

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“It helped me to reflect and reprioritise,” says Ms Lim, still visibly moved by the recollection. “You ask yourself what’s important."

The very personal brush with cancer reaffirmed this senior public officer’s support for family and work-life balance. She counsels young officers who are torn between career and setting up a family to get married and have children first.

“Career can wait,” she says. “But certain things can’t wait. Babies can’t wait, and loved ones can’t wait.”

But now that she has an “empty nest” – with Russell, 19, in National Service and Samuel, 21, studying abroad – Ms Lim is again pouring most of her energy into work.

“I like my role and the challenges… There’s never a dull moment.”

What’s usually in your cuppa?

Coffee.

Your favourite flavour or brand?

No brand in particular but I like my coffee freshly brewed, strong, with some cream but no sugar.

Where do you normally have your cuppa?

I must have a cuppa at home before I get to work and one at lunch.

  • POSTED ON
    Jul 6, 2010
  • TEXT BY
    Bridgette See
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