"As A Leader ... You Don't Keep Yourself Apart"

Sport Singapore CEO Lim Teck Yin talks about his hopes for local sports, his days in the army, and having to rebuke the Sports Hub Pte Ltd management team which includes his predecessor and boyhood pal.


Over a patchy pitch, Mr Lim Teck Yin drew the line between duty and friendship.

The Chief Executive of Sport Singapore (SportSG) made headlines last October for his scathing remarks about the National Stadium’s infamously sandy pitch, which he called “sub-standard” and “a significant disappointment”.

Adding to the predicament is that the Chief Operating Officer of the Sports Hub, which manages the stadium, is Mr Oon Jin Teik. He was Mr Lim’s predecessor at SportSG, back when it was called the Singapore Sports Council.

“He [was] also my swimming relay teammate in school!” Mr Lim tells Challenge. “He’s a friend, not just a colleague.

“But you have to distinguish between feeling that this is not something you want to do, and understanding what you have to do,” he continues. “I had to convey in unambiguous terms how seriously the government viewed the situation.”

While such encounters are certainly uncomfortable – Mr Lim concedes that there was awkwardness between him and Mr Oon – he tries to distinguish between work and personal relationships. “I try to be very clear with my colleagues that what is said in the meeting room is not to be taken personally, especially when said between friends,” he says.

If you are leading in tough situations, and you have to make a decision, you will not shy away from it.

Sending a signal

The Sports Hub incident was not the first time Mr Lim had taken a friend to task.

The former Brigadier General spent 30 years with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) before SportSG beckoned. The trickiest episodes of his military career were when he had to discipline his teammates and subordinates.

Letting them off was not an option. Punishment, after all, is not just about holding an offender responsible, says Mr Lim, but a test of leadership.

“Everyone watches a leader’s actions when it comes to holding people to account,” he says. “Being able to do so sends a clear signal about responsibility and accountability… [and] that if you are leading in tough situations, and you have to make a decision, you will not shy away from it.”

When your people expect you to make decisions quickly, you do so. At other times, they like consultation, or want to feel empowered to make decisions.

Death, duty & empathy

Mr Lim’s childhood years were coloured by stories of his grandfather, the war hero Lim Bo Seng, which he heard about and experienced through his father.

The eldest Lim had kept a diary describing the heartbreak of leaving his wife and seven children to join the anti-Japanese movement. “But he also wrote that he could not just sit back and do nothing,” says Mr Lim.

It is clear that his grandfather’s example had left an impression. Mr Lim recalls how his father, who was nine when Lim Bo Seng died, did his best to demonstrate the values shared in the diary in his actions, which in turn inspired Mr Lim. Throughout the interview, he stresses how leaders must abide by their “duty” to do the right thing, even if it is unpopular or painful.

He himself was put to the test one evening in July 1990, the “darkest day” of his career. Mr Lim, then an SAF company commander, had to handle the aftermath of a training accident where three soldiers died.

Hours later at 3am, an emotional Mr Lim was in the barracks, promising his men that he would take responsibility for the deaths if investigations found him to have been negligent.

“From that point on, I felt their trust,” he says. But when the men asked for a week away from training to grieve, Mr Lim had to tell them that the army could not allow that.

There was an outcry over this, but Mr Lim says that, as a senior leader now, he understands why the decision was made: “Everyone else who had heard about the tragedy … would be watching how [Singapore] handled the situation. It was important to demonstrate institutionally that we were unaffected.”

He adds: “In those weeks after, it was always very tough to find that balance between being able to hold up the men who are grieving, and fulfilling the institution’s needs.”

Even as he stood firm to carry out higher orders, he made sure he showed his men clear support. “As a leader you are part of the team, you don’t keep yourself apart,” he says. “I grieved as they grieved. I cried as they cried, and we went through the time together.”



Inspiring pride

In 2011, Mr Lim traded his military uniform for a more relaxed culture at SportSG, where staff are encouraged to go to work in Dri-Fit tops and sneakers, and play team sports on Fridays.

But serious work is afoot, not least the preparations for the SEA Games this June. The stakes are high. It is the first major international sporting event Singapore will host since the 2010 Youth Olympic Games. Many games will be played on the grounds of the Sports Hub, and there is pressure for the pitch to hold up.

This being Singapore’s Jubilee year, Mr Lim is hoping the Games will inspire a sense of pride among Singaporeans and unite them behind Team Singapore.

He demurs when asked whether Singaporeans are apathetic about sports. “I think there is a narrative about apathy, about the ugly Singaporean, that is fuelled by social media,” is all he will concede. That picture doesn’t necessarily square with what he sees: Last year, there were around 600 sporting events here, many of which were ground-up initiatives.

Perhaps he is thinking also of his children, who seem to be a sporty bunch. There is palpable pride when the father of four describes how two of his sons have taken up water polo (dad himself was a national water polo player), while the other son boxes. His only daughter, meanwhile, seems a reluctant sportsperson. “Actually, she doesn’t like running that much,” Mr Lim says conspiratorially.

“But she told me to tell you that because she doesn’t want to come across as the wretched child!”


Rethinking coaching

On improving our sporting landscape, Mr Lim is passionate about raising the quality of coaches. SportSG has been hiring more world-renowned foreign coaches to mentor local counterparts.

These new hires bring exposure, Mr Lim explains. Many have coached “a spectrum of capabilities”. They understand that coaching is not just about imparting technical skills, but mentoring – helping an athlete discover and harness inner wells of motivation and strength.

Says Mr Lim: “Often, athletes achieve breakthroughs not on the practice field, but in a quiet corner; a conversation with the coach that brings out his X-factor, makes him work harder… makes him realise why he wants this so much.”

For someone who has moved from the pool and the war room to the boardroom, how does Mr Lim characterise his leadership style: Is he coach, commander or CEO?

“I think a leader has to be all of those,” he says. “When your people expect you to make decisions quickly, you do so. At other times, they like consultation, or want to feel empowered to make decisions.

“No one style of leadership is suitable for all situations. The more a leader has in his portfolio, the better he becomes.”


What's in your cuppa?
Black coffee.

Where do you take it?
It depends. It could be at the kopitiam, or a nearby Toast Box or Starbucks outlet!

    Mar 16, 2015
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