WATCH VIDEO: What does Singapore’s first woman permanent secretary have to say about her stellar career? Nothing, because family comes first. She talks to Her World about her proudest role, as mother to a cancer-stricken son
Experts in human behaviour say that first impressions, once formed in the first 30 seconds, are often difficult to shake. When we first meet Lim Soo Hoon, we see a woman who takes no nonsense, is a little intimidating and keeps her distance. This isn’t surprising; after all, Soo Hoon, the winner of the Her World Woman of the Year 2006 award, is one of the top civil servants in the land.
The 48-year-old has a stellar CV: She’s the Permanent Secretary of the Public Service Division (PSD), in charge of setting human resource policies for more than 100,000 civil servants. She’s a former Colombo Plan scholar and has a prestigious Master’s from Harvard. She’s the chairman of the National Library Board. Oh, and she’s also made history as Singapore’s first ever female permanent secretary, who is the most senior civil servant in any ministry.
Yet, we later discover that behind her formidable portfolio lies a lot of heart. It’s a rare find indeed: A head honcho who isn’t afraid to shed a tear or two, and expose her all-too-human vulnerabilities lest other people think any less of her.
The 48-year-old speaks openly of her personal trials and tribulations with refreshing candour, of her teenage son’s current battle with the cancer that has returned after barely two years in remission, and of her Christian faith that has buoyed her through the hardest times. Throughout, her words convey a sense of genuine sincerity and warmth.
This honesty rings clearest in her book, Sam: A Mother’s Journey of Faith. Published last year, it is a collection of e-mails sent to friends detailing her anguish while her son Samuel, or Sam, as he is known to family and friends, suffered from the cancer that attacked his lymphatic system when he was 14. Her tale is simply written, and the intensity of her pain and the relief that follows is palpable.
‘I KNOW MY PRIORITIES’
Soo Hoon, who joined the then Community Development Ministry, now known as the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) as Singapore’s first female permanent secretary in 1999, isn’t afraid to be misunderstood as weak.
She maintains, for instance, that family comes first. Yet there was a time when she was known as a workaholic, “notorious” for sending e-mails out at 4am. “My husband once said, ‘If I were to divorce you, it would be because of the third party on your lap—your laptop!’” exclaims Soo Hoon with a hearty laugh.
Her supportive (and publicity-shy) spouse, project manager Chan Yew Fook who she married at 29, took a year off from his IT job to follow her to Harvard, along with their two sons, at a time when men rarely stalled their careers for their wives.
She adds: “With Sam’s illness, my priorities have changed. It’s not that I don’t work as hard, but I think I now know when to spend time with family more. When Sam needs me, Sam needs me. My bosses understand; they told me to concentrate on him. The service is compassionate.”
Soo Hoon herself is a huge advocate of work-life balance. As she puts it: “Work will always be there and we expect you to work hard and contribute, but there are points in your life when other things are more important. “When my staff tell me they have problems at home, I tell them to take care of their family first. It may be inconvenient to you as an organisation but I think it’s important.”
Her ex-colleagues at MCYS speak fondly of her. Tan Hwee Seh, 57, a coordinating director at MCYS, recalls: “(Soo Hoon) doesn’t compromise her faith nor her principles. She harmonises work and family so well that she’s never breathless or thoughtless when it comes to dealing with people at all levels.”
Hwee Seh also remembers Soo Hoon’s store of compassion: “Despite her hectic schedule, she makes time to attend weddings and funeral wakes, and send congratulatory and comforting notes when the occasion calls for it.”
Her schoolmate from Raffles Girls’, Chua Bee Kwan, 48, who worked with her at the PSD in the mid-90s, remembers how Soo Hoon would make daily calls and regular visits while Bee Kwan was suffering from colon cancer in 2001. She also rallied their friends together to lend her support. Bee Kwan, a freelance consultant, calls her a “ministering angel” during that trying time, when she knew Soo Hoon “not just as the intelligent, eloquent, capable and successful woman that the rest of the world knows, but as a person full of love and empathy for others, who cried with us and in every way possible, was there for us”.
It is perhaps apt that Soo Hoon stewards over the civil service’s human resource policies, policies she wants to make less rigid, more caring and to have a “more human touch”. She says her aim is to “bring pride back into the civil service”, to make it more relevant for the 21st century. “I’d like to hope that together with my people, we can bring a more human face to some of the things that we’re doing. Sometimes we’re too clinical, too efficient. Singaporeans are like that, unfortunately. Hopefully, we can make a difference.”
You’ll find that difference on Soo Hoon’s name card alone—it is punctured with her name and phone number in Braille. It’s the same with all PSD namecards, a practice she brought over from MCYS when she joined the PSD in 2005. Her new colleagues, ever mindful of cost, had questioned the rationale of the practice in a ministry that deals little with the blind. But Soo Hoon wanted to send the message of “inclusiveness” to the public and everyone they encounter.
Her days at MCYS have made an impact on her perspective on family life, and she counts helping to start the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents as one of the ministry’s policies she is most proud of.
“There, you saw too many broken families, you heard too many sad stories,” she recounts. “When I first visited the Boys’ Home (in Jurong) when I was permanent secretary, I cried because I saw a 10-year-old boy there. Sam was also 10 then, and I asked myself what mother would allow her son to get in such a state that he is admitted to a home when he’s 10? What has gone wrong? When I went back home, I hugged my boys.”
It is this personal side of Soo Hoon that takes you by surprise. At times, she even appears somewhat vulnerable, especially when she talks about Sam.
A LONG, WINDING ROAD
The family found out that Sam had Hodgkin’s Disease in 2004, when he was 14. Doctors removed a 10cm tumour in his thymus gland, and Sam went for numerous rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and had a stem-cell transplant of his own cells. He was given the all-clear nearly a year later.
Then, just this past January, a PET scan during a regular check-up showed a small tumour in his chest. Sam, now 17 and a student in the International Baccalaureate programme at Anglo-Chinese School (International), has to go for chemotherapy treatments again as well as another stem-cell transplant later this year, taking cells from his 15-year-old brother Russell.
You get some idea of what Soo Hoon must have been through when you thumb through her book, the royalties of which go to the Singapore Cancer Society. In it, she writes of crying in her car while rushing to Gleneagles Hospital after she was told that a “shadow” had been found in Sam’s chest X-ray, and of how Sam saw her “sobbing uncontrollably at the back of the house” after doctors confirmed that it was a malignant tumour.
This shadow of cancer is cast elsewhere in her family too: She reveals that her mum died of breast cancer nearly 30 years ago when Soo Hoon first started working, “before she could see my first pay cheque”. And, in her book, Soo Hoon talks of her fear and anxiety after both she and her sister had a cancer scare the same time that Sam was undergoing chemotherapy, when their mammogram results came back abnormal and they both had biopsies done. The scare turned out to be a false alarm.
She would not have thought of writing the book, she explains, if not for “a sign from God”—after three people encouraged her on three separate occasions to do so, she asked God for a fourth as confirmation. It came soon after. A devout Christian, her strong faith is apparent throughout the book. Yet she hopes that non-Christians are also able to find the book “useful and encouraging, that we should value our relationships and get our priorities right”.
She updates us on Sam, and beams through her tears, of how Sam insisted on popping painkillers and returning to school five days after an operation to remove a 3cm tumour by “sawing through his sternum” (breastbone). She says: “I would not have been able to handle Sam’s illness and relapse if not for God. That’s the honest truth. And this time round, how I’ve reacted to it is quite different; I’m a lot more at peace.”
Mother and son share a mutual respect for the other’s inner strength. Sam says that while his mother has been “more deeply emotionally affected” by his cancer than he is and that he has had “to comfort her”, he soon realised that her “support, even though she was so deeply affected, is more a measure of her strength, and that she was stronger than I was in many ways”. “I guess it takes real strength to overcome that kind of grief and just remain so positive.”
For all she has accomplished so far, it’s apparent that motherhood gives Soo Hoon the most satisfaction. Brushing off tears, she says: “Frankly, of the many roles that I play – career woman, wife, sister, daughter – being a mother has given me the greatest challenge and the greatest blessing. It’s both joy and pain, a lot of tears and a lot of laughter too.” HW
A model student at Raffles Girls’ and Raffles Institution, Lim Soo Hoon later won a prestigious Colombo Plan Scholarship to do her Bachelor of Economics at the University of Adelaide.
She joined the elite Administrative Service in 1981, and had stints in the ministries of Trade and Industry, Communications and Information, and Labour, later becoming Registrar of Vehicles in 1991. She was awarded her Master’s in Public Administration in 1993 from Harvard University, made dean of the Civil Service College and later held senior positions in the Public Service Division.
In 1999, she became the first female permanent secretary in Singapore, of the then Ministry of Community Development, overseeing policies such as the President’s Challenge. She was awarded a Public Administration Medal (Gold) in 2004. The next year, she became permanent secretary of the PSD.
Among the many hats she wears is chairman of the National Library Board. She once quoted the Roman philosopher Cicero at the soft launch of the National Library: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
“I’m not a superwoman and I don’t think anyone can be a superwoman. You just have to be clear of what you’re good at, what you’re not, then outsource the rest! I’m a terrible homemaker. You can’t be 100 per cent everywhere… So never try to be a superwoman, you’ll never succeed! You’re only going to stress yourself out.”