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5 things I learnt from having tea with Mr Lim Swee Say

2 years ago / ntuc

Not everyday that you get to have tea with a minister.

I had the opportunity to have tea with Minister Lim Swee Say the other day.

While I certainly wasn't expecting cupcakes and scones, I've got to admit that I didn't expect a very intimate session either.

Until I got a text two days before, asking me to submit my questions for selection.

What questions? I thought. Only to realise that there was going to be a grand total of eight other people at the session.

To be honest, I did a thorough scouring of the Internet and I thought I knew everything about him that was available online. From his interest in mathematics, to the schools he attended, to the years he was in New York (1991 to 1996 in case you're wondering) to even how he met his wife.

I also now know which eatery has the best toothpicks - which by the way, resonates with my personal belief that the key to building a good business goes all the way down to the minutest details.

I went to the tea session, incredibly well-prepared and thinking that I already knew everything to know about him and still, I left the session learning so much more.

And so, here are the 5 (new) things I learnt about Mr Lim Swee Say:

1. He is like your friendly neighbourhood Uncle

It's not everyday that you get to have tea with a minister and well, I guess I was expecting someone serious and intimidating even, BUT I found him to be really approachable, sort of like the friendly Uncle around the neighbourhood. He peppers his sentences with bits of Singlish, shared how he gets up every Wednesday at 5am (!!!!!) to exercise and how he enjoys playing out in the open and to be in the sun.

I've got to admit, he was incredibly real, friendly and approachable in person.

2. Except that he has a real passion for the labour movement

This is my observation not from what he said, but from how he said things. From the tiny glint in his eyes as he recounted how he was working real hard NOT to get too many workers retrenched during the last 2009 financial crisis ("Don't cut jobs to save cost. Cut costs to save jobs!") to how he entered politics and joined the labour movement solely because of a sense of fulfillment.

When I told him that during the last 2009 crisis, we had received really good assistance from the Jobs Credit Scheme which allowed us to retain ALL our staff, I could see how he was genuinely happy about preserving the rice bowls of his workers.

There was also a particular line he said that stuck with me:

“So long as workers’ needs have to be addressed, we will move in, regardless. And we will keep pushing to better the lives of workers, no matter what people say.”

Which well, reminds me of the Deaf Frog incident that was once circulating the Internet and in retrospect, I think all the negativity from his quote "We never give up. We are like the little frog. We are deaf to all these criticisms" then was quite taken out of context.

I'd like to think what he meant was simply: The Labour movement does not give up on the low-wage workers.

3. He has an incredible memory

From figures, to years, to recent headlines, I was amazed at how he could recall such information with such ease.

As well as how he remembers that we had met previously.

(Though I really, really, REALLY hope he doesn't remember that I had told him I write about bimbotic lifestyle topics.)

4. He’s probably the most quote-worthy minister

Not said by me, but by Mothership here.

But I agree how impactful his words can be.

Here are some:

  • “I am not perfect, so how can I expect others to be perfect? One philosophy I have when managing a team is that we must be prepared to live with certain weaknesses in order to leverage on the strengths.”
  • "I told them, these ideas you're suggesting are just dog biting man ideas. I want revolutionary ideas, man biting dog ideas."
  • "Then they came up with some really crazy, out of this world ideas. And I told them, yes I said man biting dog. But I don't want mad man biting dog ideas!"
  • “Technology is neutral. So I’ve nothing against social media, nor do I have any pre-conceived ideas about social media.

5. He's an incredible family man

The biggest takeaway for me that day.

How he will make time no matter what for his wife on weekends, squeezing out a few hours on Sunday mornings to go for a walk, have breakfast and catch a movie at 11am when the rest of Singapore is still sleeping in.

And how a simple line “I want to keep my family happy. I want my children to be happy” speaks so much for itself.