Interview with Dr Lim Lai Cheng


Dr. Lim Lai Cheng

SMU recently started a new segment headed by you called Institute for Societal Leadership (in Asia). What is it about?
The Institute for Societal Leadership (ISL) was established by the Singapore Management University in January 2014 with the aim of advancing knowledge on societal leadership for the betterment of society. We conduct applied research, create and amplify content about societal leadership, and invest in current and emerging societal leaders through leadership development programmes.

My colleagues and I have defined societal leadership as the sustained practice of creating value and impact for the betterment of society within one’s sphere of influence, and are in the midst of coming up with a theoretical framework for the concept, based on case studies of exemplary social impact organisations that we have come across in Southeast Asia.

We have also launched an online journal to draw attention to social catalysts and societal leaders in the region. Their inspiring stories can be found at our Catalyst Asia website at https://

One of the key projects that I am particularly excited about is called Digital Narratives of Asia. What we have started to do is to record interviews with senior societal leaders in the region in an attempt to surface the common traits of effective societal leaders in Southeast Asia (and Asia), and to find out whether the traits that make people effective societal leaders differ across sociocultural and historical contexts.

I have analysed 13 of the interviews so far, with leaders such as former President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, Mr S R Nathan, Singapore’s sixth President, Dr Emil Salim, former Minister of Transport and Environment in Indonesia, Mdm Chea Vannath, social advocate and former President, Centre for Social Development, Cambodia, Mr Nguyen Khac Huynh, former Ambassador and war veteran during the Vietnam War, Mr Ramon Navaratnam, former Secretary-General of the Malaysian Ministry of Transport, and Mr Ko Ko Gyi (Myanmar), Burmese politician and leading democracy activist.

I would like to highlight the four key clusters of traits that our interviewees exemplified or identified as behavioural traits they admire in the leaders of their time. The first is humility and depth of character which encompasses characteristics such as being modest in behavior, knowing what people inherently want, valuing the intellect, and having the ability to see beyond the temporal. The second is single-mindedness and drive. These leaders have a strong sense of purpose, courage, persistence, and fortitude. They are decisive and firm. Thirdly, they are value-driven and have a strong sense of justice and are known for putting service to country before self. They also have a strong work ethic. Lastly, they are adept at strategy, often possessing far-sightedness while being very grounded and practical.

It is a little premature to say whether the traits that Asian leaders possess are different from Western leaders. I would need to do a lot more literature review and work on more interviews before any insights can be drawn here.

Just to shift the focus a bit, Singapore has just mourned the passing of its greatest leader, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. How would you describe the legacy of the late Mr Lee Kwan Yew to the next generation who has never met the great man?
I have had the privilege of three close encounters with Mr Lee Kuan Yew when he was Minister Mentor. The first was at a round table discussion with key officials at the Ministry of Education on language policies. My colleagues and I who were in charge of the mother tongue and English language syllabuses were present. He wanted to know what we were doing to raise the language proficiency of Singaporeans. Mr Lee’s concern with Singaporeans’ connectivity to the world through the mastery of English, as well as our cultural anchoring through the mother tongue had been a lifelong preoccupation. He kept the Ministry of Education on its toes and consistently articulated strong views on the need for Singaporeans to speak standard English and never Singlish in schools and public communication.

In 2011, Mr Lee had graciously accepted a request by his alma mater, Raffles Institution (RI), to be the guest of honour at a fund-raising dinner. Visibly frail, Mr Lee spoke of the one thing that he had learnt as a student in RI, which he later applied in his political life, and that was the principle of meritocracy which he wholeheartedly believed in and embraced. Mr Lee visited the school a few months later to personally apprise himself of how the institution had evolved. As principal of RI, I accompanied him as he visited classes, engaged with staff and quizzed students on their family background, their parents’ educational level and their aspirations. He wrote after the visit that even though the school was vastly different from the one he studied in, one thing remained important for it to thrive – and that is bright students, strong teachers and dedicated principals. He also commented that he was glad to see that the plants in the compound have been well looked after.

My encounter with Mr Lee made me marvel at the wide span of ideas, passions and concerns that one man could concurrently hold in his head. Here was a man who had his pulse always on the global forces at play and yet, was equally meticulous with domestic details. Well exposed to seasoned politicians and thought leaders across the world, he singularly cared to hear the thoughts and aspirations of young Singaporeans and was concerned about social mobility and the stratification in a maturing Singapore. There have been countless declarations by individuals of what they admired in the founding Prime Minister of Singapore. I would like to highlight the three most prominent traits that have surfaced in the various articles and interviews I have read during this period.

The first is his strategic foresight and vision for Singapore. To quote Joseph Liow, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute:

When Singapore was booted out of the Federation of Malaysia on Aug 9, 1965, and left to fend for itself, what it needed was not a hardnosed pragmatist, but an idealist with a vision of an independent Singapore that would stand out from its neighbours, all bogged down in the dire conditions that defined Cold War South-east Asia. Mr Lee also showed his deep understanding of the socialcultural context that underscored Singaporean society and his ability to harness the strengths of communitarian values. In an interview with Foreign Affairs in 1994, he said: “We have focused on basics in Singapore. We used the family to push economic growth, factoring the ambitions of a person and his family into our planning. We have tried to improve the lot of children through education. The government can create a setting in which people can live happily and succeed and express themselves, but finally it is what people do with their lives that determines economic success or failure. We were fortunate we had this cultural backdrop, the belief in thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty in the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning.”

The second most admired trait that defined Lee Kuan Yew is his singleminded focus and dogged determination to achieve what he set out to do: British Prime Minister Tony Blair had this to say of Mr Lee, “He was probably the first leader in that later part of the 20th century to understand that governing was about efficacy rather than ideology, and that the most important thing in politics is to search for the right answer and then do it, rather than start from some ideological predisposition and then work out how you fit the facts around it. He was the person who, when he came to construct Singapore, said, right, what’s going to make this country great? And then he set out to do it.”

Photo: Bloomberg

Finally, Mr Lee impressed all, admirers and detractors alike with his strong work ethic and constancy. Throughout his life and over sixty years as a politician, he maintained a modest lifestyle, kept himself busy and was relentless in his advocacy of integrity and strong governance. Mr Dhanabalan, former Cabinet Minister confirmed Mr Lee’s “absolute obsession to ensure an honest, corruption-free political process and public administration system”. As Prime Minister, Mr Lee “demanded and expected honesty and probity from political colleagues, from his equivalent of ‘Long March’ comrades, public servants and from all members of his family”.

“If you ask me what the legacy of Mr Lee is, I would say that he contributed a value system that guided policy for Singapore and other leaders who wish to draw inspiration from the Singapore model.”

He upheld meritocracy and the principle of the best person for the job regardless of race, language, religion or personal background. He championed clean government, a radical idea in an era when corruption was accepted as an inevitable way of life. He advocated self-reliance, because he believed that a country that is unable to sustain itself will fail and disintegrate, and he promoted multi-racialism so that we will not fall prey to the politics organised along sectarian lines.

Mr Lee, the exemplary societal leader is gone but he has left Singaporeans and all who aspire towards societal leadership, a blueprint for economic prosperity and guiding principles to build a prosperous and harmonious society. He will always be a giant among men.

Dr. Lim Lai Cheng is Academic Director of the Institute for Societal Leadership and a Fellow of the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University. She was an education officer with the Ministry of Education from 1995-2013.

This article was published in the Jul-Sept 2015 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!