“Understand How Your Work Contributes To The Larger Mission”

Making a purposeful difference at work helped Permanent Secretary (Trade and Industry) Gabriel Lim rise through the Public Service – and that sense of purpose is something he wants all public officers to be able to feel. 
Gabriel Lim, Permanent Secretary (Trade and Industry)

When it was finally confirmed that the Trump-Kim Summit would take place in Singapore, the staff at the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) swung into action. They had just one month to prepare.

Volunteers from all over the MCI stepped up to help with media relations for what would be one of the most scrutinised world events in 2018.

Despite the rush, everyone’s teamwork and energy made the Summit one of Mr Gabriel Lim’s fondest memories from his time as MCI Permanent Secretary. Everyone pulled their weight, including putting in 18-hour days, he said.

Many officers had to cancel their annual leave in June. Family vacations were called off. Wedding anniversaries and children’s birthday celebrations had to be postponed.

The resulting Summit’s success and coverage of Singapore, however, made the officers’ sacrifices worthwhile.

Mr Lim said: “To see the positive media coverage of Singapore, not just of our skyline, but our hospitality, our ability to get things done, to work as a team and over-deliver... There is a sense of accomplishment because you know you played a part in making that happen.”

For Mr Lim, an alumnus of St Joseph’s Institution and Temasek Junior College who says that his school friends did not imagine that he would become a Permanent Secretary, his public service career has been defined by purposeful moments.

Career defining moments

His first stint in public service at the Ministry of Defence, right after he studied Economics at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics on a government scholarship, proved to be transformational.

He crunched and analysed data, and wrote reports that were read by then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Those reports informed Singapore’s negotiations with Malaysia.

Mr Lim said: “Mr Lee sent back some comments to the effect that the report was very useful. And I thought, my work can contribute to securing a better deal for Singapore. I’m doing something that contributes to the nation.”

This is still what drives him at work today. To the question of “what’s your purpose?” he replies straight away: “To create a better future for Singapore and Singaporeans.”

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Throughout his career, which sweeps across the Defence and Health ministries, Public Service Division, Civil Service College, and as Chief Executive of the Info-communications Media Development Authority, he has been able to do work that is not only challenging and satisfying, but personally meaningful.

Seeing the breadth of public service

A phase in his career that opened his eyes to just how much more he could do, as a public officer, was when he was Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong between 2011 and 2014.

He helped PM Lee handle government and public affairs, international relations, and his engagements with the private sector, communities, religious leaders, charities, unions, social services and others.

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Said Mr Lim: “It really allowed me to broaden my horizon and opened up my mind not just to how amazingly diverse public service is, but also just the sheer breadth of responsibilities. I realised I had much more to learn to be a good government official, to be able to contribute to all these fronts.

“That was singularly transformative, and a deeply humbling experience. I cannot begin to count how many times I went into the office and talked to PM, and just left feeling very despondent because I didn't know the answers.”

At the same time, Mr Lim felt a deep sense of pride, especially when he travelled overseas with PM Lee and saw how Singapore was perceived on the world stage. “It was a source of inspiration to keep trying to contribute to Singapore’s high international standing,” he said.

Linking work to purpose

Of his time at the MCI between 2017 and 2019, he is most proud of the strengthening of communications between the Public Service and citizens, including quality engagements via social media, and the setting up of Listening Points in the heartlands for public officers to seek the public’s views on policies.

A greater understanding of strategic communications is something he wants to bring with him to the MTI: “We're all working for the same outcome, which is a better future for Singapore, a better life for Singaporeans. It's important to be able to communicate that and engage the public, to be able to bring them on board, support us and work together with us to make this happen for all of us.”

As a leader, Mr Lim sees himself playing a critical role in drawing an obvious link between what officers do on the ground, and the higher purpose of making life better for Singaporeans.

quote
If you are unable to draw a link between the officer’s work and this grand vision of improving lives of Singaporeans then you ought to be asking yourself: “Should we carry on doing that piece of work?”

In moments of success, such as after the Trump-Kim Summit, the benefit to Singapore may be obvious. But for public officers to find meaning in their jobs, it is critical that they can see the link between their daily work and how it benefits Singaporeans.

It is necessary to do this often because officers sometimes forget. He said: “If you're tied up dealing with logistics work, pulling the night shift to prepare for an event and you're tired, and you've got a sick child at home, it's not always easy to understand what it is you do and how it contributes to the larger mission.”

On his part, he relies on several methods to keep inspiring officers. He may send an email or conduct regular talks with his staff to break down why they do what they do.

In the case of the Trump-Kim Summit, he was on the ground with his team and made sure that everyone, including staff at the media centre in outlying Sentosa, was taken care of with drinks and food. “Being there shows that you care and that what they do means something."

A bolder Public Service

As chair for the Public Sector Transformation (People) Committee, Mr Lim is aiming to strengthen the level and quality of engagement that public officers have with the Public Service.

This is a long-term effort, involving strengthening leaders so they can inspire their staff, empowering officers with the right training and skills, and creating a culture of transformation where public officers are “not held back by overly rigid structures, but are given a mandate to dream big, be ambitious and be bold”.

“What's important is that public officers feel inspired by the change they are effecting in Singapore and Singaporeans, and that this is a place that they not only want to work in, but would recommend other people to work in as well.”

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Before joining the MTI, Mr Lim had sent a farewell email to MCI staff that read: “Look out for one another and have fun, enjoy the purpose of your work because life is hard enough.”

For him, fun is indulging in his favourite local food – his go-to dish after returning from work trips is bak chor mee or yong tau foo noodles with chicken feet – and spending time with his family.

In looking out for colleagues, reducing unnecessary work such as “internal bureaucracy” is one way to help public officers enjoy their work’s purpose.

Ultimately, purpose is what justifies what public officers do. “If you are consistently unable to draw a link between the officer’s work and this grand vision of improving lives of Singaporeans then you ought to be asking yourself: ‘Should we carry on doing that piece of work?’”

Videos by Eric Lin

cuppa--i-learnt-not-to-take-things-at-face-value-

What’s your favourite drink?
Kopi gao siu dai

Where do you have it and how often?
Any coffeeshop, whenever I eat there

The takeaway: Quotable quotes

  1. Show your staff that you care and that what they do means something.
  2. If you cannot draw a link between the work officers do and the larger vision of improving Singaporeans’ lives, reflect: ‘Should we carry on doing that piece of work?’”
  3. “Look out for one another and have fun.”
  • POSTED ON
    Aug 8, 2019
  • TEXT BY
    Wong Sher Maine
  • PHOTOS BY
    Norman Ng
  • ART DIRECTION BY
    Yip Siew Fei
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