Up Close & Personal With Two Outstanding ACSians

Two ACSians made the headlines recently when Mr Lim Siong Guan (Pre-University Class of 64) passed the Head of Civil Service baton over to Mr Peter Ho (Pre-University Class of 72). With the handover of the top civil job to Mr Ho, Mr Lim continues to be Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance. The move was part of the Singapore Government’s ongoing renewal process in the civil service.

Despite their challenging responsibilities and busy schedules, Mr Lim and Mr Ho kindly agreed to share their experiences and thoughts with the ACS family of schools and community. 

 Mr Lim Siong Guan – A Great Developer of People

A President’s Scholar, Mr Lim Siong Guan is widely known as a great developer of people and for his enthusiasm, sincerity and strong principles. During his 36 years in the civil service, he has contributed significantly to the nation, and was the driving force behind the ‘Public Service for the 21st Century’ (PS21) movement and the ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’ programme.

Here’s how our chat with Mr Lim went …


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.

 Mr Peter Ho – The New Head of Civil Service

Mr Peter Ho held various SAF/MINDEF appointments after he graduated in 1976 with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree in Engineering Tripos from Cambridge University, UK, on a Singapore Armed Forces scholarship. He was Permanent Secretary (Defence) from 1995 until 2004, when he was appointed Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs and for National Security and Intelligence Coordination.

When we caught up with Mr Ho recently between his busy schedule, he kindly shared his thoughts on his schooldays and career with readers.

The Formative Years

I spent twelve years in ACS, first in ACS Junior School at Barker Road, then in Secondary School, and finally in Pre-University.  I left ACS more than three decades ago at the end of 1972, but I remember my schooldays with warmth because the school provided a nurturing environment.  ACS shaped my outlook and gave me a good educationThe teachers were dedicated and believed in teaching as a vocation.  They were people who inspired and were role models for all of us.

Not Quite the Model Student?

I studied quite hard in school, but I was not a model student.  Many years after leaving ACS, I recall meeting my Pre-U economics teacher, Mr Ong Kim Kiat.  To my surprise he remembered me when I introduced myself.  But not in the way I would have liked, as he remarked, “Oh, you are the boy who used to sleep in my class!”

Teachers - Imparting Knowledge and Building Characters

I wish I had paid more attention to economics, just as I wish I had applied myself to Chinese.  We had excellent teachers who did their best to impart knowledge to us, if only we took our schoolwork more seriously.  In my generation, Mr Ernest Lau, Mr Lenn Wei Ling, Mrs Lee Gek Kim, and Mr Wan Fook Weng stood out as strong characters and able teachers.  They were tough, pushed us hard, and would tolerate no nonsense from their students.  But we knew that teachers like them had our best interests at heart, so we looked up to them with a mixture of respect, awe and affection.  Looking back, I think the teachers built character by helping to give us confidence in ourselves.  They were not just looking to build academic excellence, but teaching us through word and action, what was right and what was wrong.

Scouting – Building Confidence through Adventure

I was an enthusiastic scout – first as a Wolf Cub in Junior School, then a Boy Scout in Secondary School and finally a Venture Scout in Pre-University.  Scouting took me out from a rather sheltered home life and provided me with a bit of adventure.  So there was an expedition to Mount Ophir, and the privilege of taking part in two jamborees, one in Australia, and a World Jamboree in Japan.  Scouting helped to build up my confidence, and also made me a bit more daring.

Choosing a Career

I do not suppose that ACS education specially prepared me for a career in the public service.  There was certainly no career counselling in those days, and I had not given any serious thought to being a civil servant.  When I was in school, I first wanted to be a doctor.  Later on, I realised I had no bedside manner, so I decided that I wanted to be an engineer.  So engineering was what I applied to do in university.  I think I surprised myself when I accepted an SAF scholarship in 1973.  I never fancied myself a soldier, and despite the fact that I enjoyed scouting, I did not think I could cut it in the military.  In some ways this proved to be an honest assessment as I was rejected as a National Day Parade contingent commander for lacking smartness in my military bearing! 

A Career in the Public Service

But what ACS education did give me was the confidence to face whatever challenges life brings.  Certainly, my career after school followed many bends in the road.  After service in the SAF, I became Deputy Secretary for Policy in MINDEF, before being posted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Deputy Secretary.  I returned to MINDEF as Permanent Secretary, and after nine years, I was appointed as Permanent Secretary in the Foreign Ministry.  In all these jobs, I felt that I had the opportunity to make a difference and to contribute to the nation.

Valuable Lessons Learnt

In more than three decades of public service, I learnt a few important lessons. 

  1. The first lesson is that action is always preferred to inaction.  In an often-chaotic world, action – though not foolish action - reduces uncertainty and complexity. 

  2. The second is to listen to that little voice.  Some call it intuition.  Time and again, I have discovered the cost of ignoring that little voice which is the wisdom of experience. 

  3. Third, I always try to remember that there is always someone smarter than you.  This means listening to others and considering their point of view. 

  4. Fourth, keep an eye on the big picture, the bigger the better.  To me, this is the only way for you to judge the correctness of a decision.  Keep an eye on detail, but only so that it does not derail the big picture. 

I suspect that these lessons hold true wherever you are.

Career Opportunities

After leaving school, like I did many years ago, every ACS boy and girl will have to decide what he or she wants to do.  Today, with the headstart in life that ACS has provided, there are many opportunities open to them.  I do hope that some of our ACSians will give serious consideration to a career in the public service.


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