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The True Measure of a Politician

I sometimes wonder about what life would be like if I become a politician in Singapore: Countless meet-the-people sessions to attend, weekends burnt with events & functions, being quoted out of context, and even getting trended online for no apparent reason.  These are possibly some cons of becoming a political figure in Singapore.

Not that I would.  In fact, I have had many friends and colleagues coming to me during the last General Election saying they won’t be surprised if they see my face in the next election. I asked why? And most replied ‘Well, you have the public persona and personality to move hearts and minds.’  I often grin and respond with ‘Will see? or ‘Perhaps’?

And in fact the notion of political popularity was a key factor in the results for some GRCs and SMCs during the last election. Nicole Seah, a twenty-something young feisty woman who popped up from nowhere, rose to internet fame because of her never-say-die attitude and her endless quotable quotes penetrating through the social platforms with a high virality rate.  The (almost) model-like male good-lookers like Baey Yam Keng and Teo Ser Luck have also been receiving substantial media attention and coverage.

Being a politician in Singapore requires much more than academic qualifications and grassroot connections. It’s also a social game that requires people to like you, not just in person, but also your online persona. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has upped his online game by posting random pictures of himself and sharing thoughts and stories. The stakes are stacked so much higher now. People are not only interested in what you know. Even more, they are interested in whether you care. On the social media front, it is not just about getting things done. It is about getting things done and making sure everyone knows you have done well.

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I was recently invited to a tea session with the out-going Labour Chief, Mr Lim Swee Say. Quite fortunate, I’d say since it’s likely his last tea session  before he leaves the Labour Movement.  In fact, word is just out that he’s moving on to a very exciting new portfolio!

Yes, he’s going to be the new Manpower Minister.

With his wealth of experience working with workers, I’m sure he’s the perfect man for the job. In fact, I think it’s good that MOM is helmed by someone who understands tripartism, i.e. he does not just know what the government and employers want, Minister Lim Swee Say understands the workers too. He has worked alongside unionists to fight for workers’ rights and to make workers’ jobs and lives better for 18 long years.

Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry President, Thomas Chua, also welcomed Minister Lim’s appointment. He said, “With Minister Lim Swee Say’s experience in NTUC, understanding (of) the needs of workers, and his years of experience in the EDB, we can expect even better coordination, together with (Labour chief-designate) Minister Chan Chun Sing, in looking after the needs of businesses as well as in workers’ welfare.”


Now, let’s get back to the tea session that I’d attended.

Before the event, I did a little research on him and it seems that on a few occasions, he had been on the receiving end of some negative media publicity due to some misquotes. This was a little surprising, especially after meeting him, as he is a very down-to-earth person with a very high likability factor. Well at least for me. Even during the three-hour or so sharing session, I was able to tell that he is a man with great passion and dedication towards his work, family, life and community.

Let me share my takeaways from the tea session.

On Older/Mature Workers

Minister Lim related how back in 2003, when he was Minister of Environment, he was the first to implement re-employment at NEA.  This is a little known fact; in fact, nobody knows about Minister Lim Swee Say was the one who had pushed for re-employment for the workers in Singapore.

Then later when he became the Labour Chief at NTUC, he pushed for more re-employment initiatives.

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During a work trip to Japan, he saw how the Japanese companies were engaging their older workers with sound re-employment practices. Instead of spending his time there cooped up in function room listening to seminars, he snuck out to check out how the Japanese carried out re-employment. When he came back, he talked to the tripartite partners and pushed hard for it to be done here in Singapore.

Minister Lim Swee Say is all about walking the talk. When he sees a problem, he fixes it. It reminds me to be on top of my affairs all the time. I am often swarmed with many issues to handle and even the best of us procrastinate sometimes.

As I was listening to him, I found myself making mental notes to myself to step up in making key and critical decisions whenever there’s a need for it.

On whether Singapore has Weak Unions

There was a Japanese lady at the same tea session. She shared how she was googling about Singapore before she moved here. She told us that online articles in her native language encouraged Japanese businesses to set up shops here, and alongside other favorable conditions was that Singapore has very weak unions, so it’s an attractive point for businesses to operate in Singapore.

Minister Lim thanked her for her comments, and proceeded to assert firmly that his own philosophy is that if unions have to resort to going on strikes to get what they want, then the unions are weak. That should be the last resort, and the best situation for all is to get what you want for the workers BEFORE having to go on strike. Strikes should not be seen as a demonstration of how strong unions are.

He prefers to look at the unions from the angle of whether they are effective or ineffective, instead of strong versus weak.  Some people are mistaken and think that being strong means speaking loudly, banging tables and going on strikes. It is more important to be effective and get your way, than to resort to threatening to go on strikes.

I fully agree and subscribe to his saying. Often times, strikes are destructive as they make situations worse when emotions are roused in the wrong way. Trust and the willingness to work things out in the best interests of both employers and workers can also be eroded through actions like strikes. In today’s social political landscape, I believe negotiating terms and issues amicably will be the best way forward. It is definitely better to have a management that is willing to sit at the same table as the unions to iron out workers’ issues.

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(This Japanese blogger, Aya, has blogged about the tea session here.)

On A Day in the Life of Minister Lim Swee Say

“As a natural child, I need to be happy. To make myself happy, I approach my life a little like four compartments, My Self, My Family, My Work and My Community’.”

–          My Self

“Golf is the only exercise I do. I enjoy playing out in the open and to be in the sun.”  SG gets ready to play golf every Wednesday at 5am, and he usually tees off at 6am, and finish by 8am or 8:15am.

–          My Family

“I want to keep my family happy.  I want my children to be happy.”

“And I keep my family ‘private’.”

He tries to make time for his wife. They try to have some couple time for a few hours every weekend. It’s usually Sunday mornings; he said it’s the best time to watch movies.

“We watch a lot of movies, usually the 11am or 12pm timing.”

And oh, he goes on a holiday with his family every year too. That’s the private time the family enjoys. Minister Lim is a family man, period.

–          My Work

“How do you enjoy what you do? You must believe in what you do, and to be effective in what you do.”

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“But I cannot do everything myself, so I try to build a strong team everywhere I go.”

“One philosophy I have when managing a team is that one must be prepared to live with certain weaknesses in order to leverage o the strengths.

–          My Community

When Minister Lim talks about his community, it includes the residents at the East Coast GRC (Bedok) where he is the Member of Parliament for. He spoke about the Pioneer Generation (PG) program, and the need to share with the elderly residents in his ward what the program is all about.

While song-and-dance activities may appear to be more popular with the residents, Minister Lim thinks it is important to create conversations with the residents and ensure that they understanding the PG scheme. So he chose to organize 80(!) resident sessions, one for each block for the ward that falls under his care, and through chit-chat sessions, he shared the details of the PG program. Since the sessions were deliberately kept small and intimate, he could answer questions and address concerns more thoroughly too.

Out of the four areas, I am the most impressed by his work mantra. Believing in whatever we do and be effective is crucial to our enjoyment in our work.  I am reminded that I need to build strong teams for my two businesses: The Influencer Network and Feet Haven Reflexology.  As a leader, I need to embrace weaknesses as much as I welcome strengths in people from my team.

The company is only as strong as the people I employ.  Just like how Minister Lim believes in harnessing the strengths of the people he works with in a team.

On Social Media

“I take what I do seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously.”

Minister Lim spoke about how he does not think social media platforms are a necessary evil. He believes that technology is neutral and he has nothing against social media, nor does he have any pre-conceived ideas about social media.  In other words, it has more to do with the people using it than Internet or the platforms per se. It is all about using social media responsibly.


Meeting Minister Lim was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Other than Ms Sylvia Lim who was my colleague at Temask Polytechnic Business School where I taught, this tea session was my closest encounter with a local politician.

I came out from the meeting with a different perception of political work in Singapore. I also saw that there is much to learn from the man. Minister Lim might not have the highest popularity index in Singapore, but he is certainly respectable when it comes to his dedication towards his work which centres on hundreds of thousands of workers’ lives.

And will I consider entering into the political scene? I’d rather stay put in what I am doing right now. It is not a cushy job being a politician and the sacrifices the work calls for are beyond most people’s understanding.

Dennis Toh

Editor, The Influencer Media

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