1. Group president of GIC.
2. Founding chairman of Honour (Singapore), which aims to foster a culture of honour for the well-being of the nation.
3. Believes that honour and “other-centred” living is vital to Singapore’s continued success.
4. Co-founder of The Leading Foundation, which sponsors awards for excellent early-childhood and special-education teachers in Singapore.
Singapore is known for many things – efficiency, cleanliness, size, fear of losing out – but honour is not one of them. Not the kind that’s associated with medals, badges or swords but, according to Lim Siong Guan, “what you offer the other person, regardless of his response”. And it’s essential to our future.
In his latest book, Winning with Honour in Relationships, Family, Organisations, Leadership, and Life, co-written with his daughter Joanne, he stresses the need for honour and “other-centred” living in order to succeed. While immediately applicable to an individual, Lim believes honour is also vital to Singapore’s continued success. “Our trustworthiness is what attracted foreign investments in the first place,” says the group president of Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC.
It will take a while to rewire an inherently selfish society that’s been prioritising progress over graciousness for the last half a century, but Honour (Singapore), a non-profit organisation Lim chairs that seeks to promote the culture of honour here, is going strong in its efforts.
Since it was launched in August 2014, it has been holding CEO forums and symposiums that encourage leading with integrity. It also launched a film initiative, supporting young filmmakers in producing a series of short films that reflect the different perspectives of honour, especially among the younger generation.
Jack Ma, principal of e-commerce giant Alibaba, recorded a video for the Symposium citing ‘special interest’ in the topic.
He is, after all, aware that the world belongs to the millennials now – a generation often criticised for having poor work ethics, if any – but doesn’t lament the fact. “The wonderful thing about millennials is that they are motivated by ideas and ideals,” the 69-year-old says. “But this means they demand superior leadership capacity from those they work with and for.”
He continues: “Many Singaporeans yearn for the ‘kampung spirit’ because it sounds nice. They want their neighbours to look out for them but don’t realise their neighbours are waiting for the same thing, so who’s going to start? You can agree with such statements in an intellectual way. But whether you can feel it, if it can draw your instincts, that’s another story.”
“(Many) want their neighbours to look out for them but don’t realise their neighbours are waiting for the same thing, so who’s going to start?”
He’s certainly internalised the concept. While people put up walls to hide their innermost thoughts, Lim puts up force fields that deftly deflect attention away from him and onto the community and the issues it faces. It’s not that he’s diffident; it’s just that his entire life’s philosophy centres around others.
“Having to look at things from another’s point of view came to me right from the start,” he says, recalling the numerous times in his illustrious career when he had to supervise or manage staff with decades more experience. “I had to make myself useful and beneficial to them, thinking of what they need to get their job done well. I believe the most important question all of us should address in our jobs is: How can I help you do your job better?”
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He admits that constantly putting other people first is, of course, challenging. “This isn’t how the world works, many would say. But we have to try and see what happens, rather than declare ‘my neighbour doesn’t do it, so why should I?’
“If we realise the good we are doing, it won’t be as difficult to stay focused. That’s what allows you to take the lows, that there’s a purpose in honouring others first. So much of what we’re trying to bring out will appeal to the millennials because we’re getting them to think about the purpose of what they’re doing, rather than simply be slogging for a monthly salary.”
Even now as the top dog, he replies everyone’s e-mail quickly and is never too proud to consider or take a suggestion. He even takes the train to work. While some leaders inspire with charisma and bravado, Lim leads with humility, wisdom and encouragement — a grammatically sound Yoda, if you will.
It isn’t entirely selfless. He lives this way because it makes him happy, and if more people did the same, the more happiness can spread.
He says: “Even if you don’t do anything out of the goodness of your heart, you can at least recognise that there are benefits to a strong company and community, such as stability, bonuses and so on. Think of it as enlightened self-interest.”
In 60 Seconds
Unwinding, to me, means: That the mind does not cease thinking, but finds rest moving from one idea to another. So I take a nap, watch TV with my grandchildren or walk to the MRT station. I switch from thinking about societal problems to a GIC problem or an Honour challenge, getting inspiration from unexpected situations.
The one thing that annoys me is: People who have the capability but donʼt exert themselves. Itʼs not about complacency; itʼs about not living up to your full potential. It really upsets me so I try to create situations where people can discover themselves. The only way to discover if something is impossible, is to try to do it. But people are risk-averse because they think there are safer ways. They are not building their future.
I enjoy reading: About the future, the changes taking place in geopolitics, where geographies of countries can determine so much of their future. I hardly read fiction.