He cuts a fatherly figure with his affable demeanour and calming presence. Had it not been for the high ceiling, polished furnishings and skyscrapers visible through the window of the room from which the interview was held, it is easy to forget this man is in a seat of power – he is the Group President of Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) Private Limited.
Mr Lim Siong Guan was appointed to helm the organisation in September 2007. Propelling the organisation forward in an era where economic maelstroms could strike without much forebodement, Mr Lim reveals how he rose to the challenge of overseeing the management of Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund: “The first thing that you always need is a good team -- people who know their work, people who are great professionals, people whom you can trust and know the value of the organisation.”
“The next most critical thing is people having enough humility to understand that we can’t predict the future, that the future is uncertain, that if you have successes today, it doesn’t guarantee that you have success tomorrow. You have to think in fundamental terms, you have to be questioning all the time - what is happening around, what might turn bad, how you are going to deal with something if it turns bad.”
With the rise of China as the undisputed economic juggernaut, Mr Lim is optimistic the world’s most populous country is the place for businesses to look for growth opportunities. Giving the prognosis that China is moving in the right direction, he elaborates: “It is on a good track but it is a large country and governance of large countries is not so simple. There’ll be ups and downs, there’ll be hiccups along the way, but the directions are right and are good.”
Mr Lim is the epitome of how meritocracy breaks down barriers in social mobility. Born to a taxi driver father and a teacher mother, attending university would have been impossible if not for the President’s Scholarship he was awarded. He graduated from the University of Adelaide with a First Class Honours in Mechanical Engineering and was posted to work at Kim Chuan Sewage Treatment Works as an engineer. A year later, he was chosen by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee to work at the Ministry of Defence and was swiftly catapulted into the upper echelon of civil service. At 34, he was appointed the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and was subsequently the Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance. He was the Head of the Singapore Civil Service from 1999 to 2005. His other offices include chairmanship at the Singapore Economic Development Board, Inland Revenue Authority and the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.
Although he has captained many ships, his philosophy towards working and learning remains unchanged over the years: when things don’t work out the way one expects, they should not be viewed as mistakes but learning opportunities. “My frame of mind is always this -- everything that didn’t quite work out is an opportunity to learn and to be better the next time.” He is a firm believer in the idea “you learn as you do and if you don’t do, you don’t learn.”
Having spent a large part of his life in management positions, the 65-year-old relates especially well to the view of management guru, Peter Drucker, on what leadership is. “He (Peter Drucker) said, the only definition of a leader, is a person who has followers. In other words, if you don’t have a follower, you are not a leader. You can be called a commander, you can be called a director, you can be called the head of a unit, you can be called any of those titles but you are not a leader.”
This September, the old boy from Anglo-Chinese School will be having a 50th anniversary reunion with his school-mates, the cohort who took their GCE ‘O’ Levels in 1962. On a sombre note, he ruminates over how a significant number of his school mates in the cohort have passed on. “I suppose we come to this 50th anniversary in celebration of friendship and also, perhaps, in recognition of, for each one of us, our own mortality.”
Reflecting upon his own mortality, he wistfully breaks into a gentle smile before saying: “To me, the greatest satisfaction is having done something for other people’s lives...if I can look out for people and care for them in many ways, and know that the best care you can give to people is to help them have right attitudes, good values and create a moral compass for everyone.”
In that instant, you almost forget -- once again -- you are in the room with the same high ceiling, polished furnishings and skyscrapers that are visible through the window.
Join Mr Lim Siong Guan as he speaks at the Distinguished Business Leaders (DBL) series in Shanghai on 24 August 2012. Register your place now!