Lim Hwee Hua, 51, made history by becoming Singapore’s first woman minister in April last year—as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Finance and Transport. The Her World Woman of the Year 2009 gives candid views on everything from pushing boundaries and being a better leader to staying unruffled and leaving guilt behind
“One of the common arguments I had with my late tea merchant father was the value of extra-curricular activities (ECA) to girls. My father was very strict and he decided that I shouldn’t be spending all my time after school on softball. I was in that generation where it was already a plus for a girl to get an education, and he couldn’t see the point of me having an ECA. It took me almost three years to persuade him to let me play on the softball team. It was a lesson at an early stage of my life that sometimes, you just have to persevere and work towards changing the norm.”
“One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt from my mentors is that I should never draw limits to possibilities and to keep going until I hit the wall. One of the most significant points of my life was when I was 33 and there was an opportunity to become the head of a research team at (now defunct) investment bank Jardine Fleming.
“I felt that I was sufficiently equipped to take on the position but I was hesitant to step forward because all the other country heads were expatriate males. So I was sitting there thinking, “Do I let this pass?” It’s difficult because it’s unlike a female to step forward to say, “How about me?” But I felt that if I didn’t do it, I’d end up regretting it. So I decided to go for it. The bosses at Jardine were surprised when I approached them, but they said yes. The whole episode was a great affirmation—I realised that if I made a pitch for myself, there will be opportunities.”
“I didn’t think I would become a politician. The opportunity was actually put in front of me to consider and it fitted in nicely because I was thinking about giving back to society. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I had the attributes that would make me a good Member of Parliament but I decided to try it out. I thought, if it comes to a stage where I don’t think I’m suitable, at least I’ve found out a bit about myself.”
“It’s easy for young women to stick to a career-only phase of life without realising that they’re foregoing other aspects of their self-development. Those who have the capacity to take on more and can give back to society should find out what they believe in. I would like them to put into effect what their convictions are and consciously allocate their time and resources towards causes.”
“There’s always room for me to continue to listen to as wide an audience as possible. I always feel the need to remain open to others. Especially to views that are different from mine so I’m able to examine the possibility that my views are incorrect or irrelevant.”
“As a team leader, I expect everyone to pull his or her own weight. But I’m not unrealistic and I don’t put people through impossible deadlines. Occasionally, people don’t measure up and I’ll sit back and think about why that is so—if my expectations were too high or if the person was not sufficiently motivated. I do a lot of reflection when things sometimes don’t go the way I expect them to.
“It is equally important for me to get feedback from my team. I always encourage them to be honest with their comments because if they stop doing so, it’d be a downward spiral because we can’t be truthful with each other.”
“Don’t be quick to shift the blame on someone else. If it’s a question of your own lack of skills and capabilities or poor judgment, think about what you can do about it and learn from your mistakes. Even if it’s an outright sabotage by a colleague or rival, think through the ways you can deal with that in future. We should not be unwilling to take on positions because we have failed on occasion. You can’t only go for an opportunity because you’re 99.9 per cent sure that you’re going to succeed.”
“Women should accept that one can’t do everything and have it all. There will be trade-offs. Personally, I took two years off from 1985 to look after my young children. In exchange for that, I was prepared for a slower career track and a harder time when trying to get back into the workforce. Because I took time off then, I don’t feel bad about spending less time with them now.
“I’m not cut out to be a full-time housewife. With the support of my family, there was no need for me to stay home when I didn’t think I was helpful around the house. So I always tell women not to feel guilty because not all women are made to stay home—especially if the guilt is heaped onto them by others.
“I’ve never thought of permanently giving up my career to look after my children: I’d like to work until I drop.”
“I’m fearful of how when I don’t teach the right values, I see it reflected in my kids. My three children are constant reminders that I have to be a good example. What I think about and how I behave—these things influence them.”
“I no longer have the privilege of time to read books. But I like to read short pieces about different personalities in magazines, especially on people who have succeeded in a particular business, innovation or cause. These hold specific lessons on staying focused and perseverance. I read anything from The Economist and Time to Her World to stay in touch with what people think and are talking about.”
“I suspect that it’s probably genetic because my late father was a very calm person. But I think growing up in a large family of nine children in a small three-room Tiong Bahru flat helped. There were always quarrels and fights, so I learnt how to deal with the fact that there will always be people around you with different views, and to look at the source of the situation and unhappiness.
“For example, during the meet-the-people sessions, some of the people who come are really angry. But I know they’re not angry with me, so to react angrily would be an inappropriate response. I’m always prepared to be empathetic and think about the other person’s point of view. Why did the person say such a thing? What’s the real reason? A lot of what I do at these sessions involves talking through issues and helping people manage their own problems and anger.”