Lim Siong Guan shares his experience as Lee Kuan Yew’s first Principal Private Secretary

He recounts how staff learnt to meet Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s demand for perfection, the latter’s view of the role of the civil service and the core values which were important to him.

The Group President of the Government Investment Corporation, Mr Lim was previously the Head of the Singapore Civil Service, and the Permanent Secretary at various ministries. He was also the first Principal Private Secretary to Mr Lee.


He told Channel NewsAsia about how staff learnt to meet Mr Lee’s demand for perfection. Mr Lim said: “He had me sit in for lunches and dinners which he gave ever so often, most particularly to foreign visitors. He had me sit in at the lunches and dinners as part of my education, and also to take notes of the conversation.

“One thing I noticed was that the menus for lunches and dinners were the same all the time. So I asked the Secretary to the Cabinet, who has since passed away many years ago, why were the menus just so unchangeable, and he said ‘we had experimented in the past with different dishes, and they always had one criticism or other from Mr Lee, and here they came to this menu, and Mr Lee appeared quite satisfied with it. He no longer had any complaint about it.’ So they just stuck with it.

“The funny thing is on some of our overseas trips, Mrs Lee was the one who would urge Mr Lee to try out some other things, and one time he remarked, he wondered why he was always served the same thing in Singapore and never something else. The reason for that was that people in Singapore, they thought … having come to a formula that was satisfactory to him, they would stay with something that was satisfying enough, if not perfect.”


Mr Lim also shared his insights on Mr Lee’s view of the role of the civil service.

He said: “He was very clear in his mind that no matter how many outstanding ministers he had, no matter how great their ideas may be, the ideas have no value, unless they are well executed. So to Mr Lee it was very clear that the civil service is a very important part of the Government. Because its duty, above all, is to make sure the policies are implemented and implemented well, to achieve the objectives that the policies were meant to achieve.

“So because of that, Mr Lee had always been kind of a hero, or champion, for the civil service. Because he saw it as an integral part of a good governance, and delivering services that public requires and delivering the ends that are required for it.

“So because of this perspective he had for the public service, to him, having good leadership or superior leadership in public service, looking out for talent in people, and being able to harness the best of what people are able to contribute, is … something he had all the time in his mind.”


Mr Lim also spoke of the core values that were important to Mr Lee.

He said: “Excellence, integrity, that people will do their very best in each situation. There are many people who look at Mr Lee as very stern and sometimes people feel, perhaps unforgiving. I never found it so in my time.

“I found he was open to ideas. He was open to suggestions. And if things did not quite work out, he was open to explanation. I think he had a particular knack about always connecting the job to be done with something good, something great for Singapore. This is really what kept up the motivation in the public service, that we all felt we were doing something about building up the country and creating hope and a future for Singaporeans.”

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