"Life is More Complicated than Black and White"

Permanent Secretary (PMO, MND) Benny Lim worked to keep Singapore safe for over 30 years. The senior public officer who recently left the Ministry of Home Affairs shares why police work was his cup of tea.
Benny Lim

As far as Permanent Secretaries go, Benny Lim is probably the first one interviewed by Challenge to waltz in with a Hokkien exclamation: “Wah, jin zhui lang!” (“So many people!”)

The five people seated in the Ministry of National Development’s stately Banyan Room attending the interview burst into laughter, perhaps somewhat relieved that a man associated with the very serious matter of security for over 30 years is so reassuringly colloquial.

The Permanent Secretary (PMO, MND), who until August 2011 headed the Ministry of Home Affairs, has spent most of his career as a police officer. He started as a rookie in 1975 and rose through the ranks, becoming a Deputy Commissioner of Police as well as Director, Internal Security Department for seven years.

Young ambitions

“So, what do you want to know?” asks the 54-year-old, after he places on the table his interview notes, contained in a colourful Winnie the Pooh plastic folder. Perhaps, how the ex-head prefect of Raffles Institution ended up in the police force?

“The first memory I had about what I wanted to do when I was a child (studying in the now-defunct Siglap Primary School) was to be an artist,” he said. But it was his mother, a volunteer social worker, who influenced his eventual choice to join the police force straight after his A levels.

He said: “A social worker picks the pieces up when things break down. But a police officer has some ability to intercede and prevent things from breaking in the first place. The ability to do that was appealing to me.”

As a rookie cop, Mr Lim, who was posted to the now-defunct police headquarters at Beach Road, hit the ground running, moving around with patrol cars, being “arrowed” to do all sorts of rookie tasks like looking after corpses while waiting for the Police hearse to arrive and conducting field inquiries at crime scenes.

One enduring life lesson he gleaned was from a suicide case. “An old man had hanged himself at one of the flats in Beach Road to spare his children from taking care of him because he was sick.

Frontline police situations like that make you grow up very quickly and you grow to become less absolute about moral judgements, about people and life.

“You learn to live better with ambivalence, stress and the tensions of sometimes morally difficult situations at a personal level, even though at a professional level you are supposed to be firm, decisive and clear in direction. That is one of the most valuable things which came out from my experience as a cop. Life is always a little bit more complicated than black and white.”

There were many high points in his career, which is marked not only by successes on the security front but also by the fact that he moved up

Perm Sec Benny Lim Perm Sec Benny Lim Perm Sec Benny Lim

Luck counts

Once, his subordinate asked him how he got to become a Permanent Secretary. “I told her, don’t discount luck. I’ve had the fortune of having good bosses who took a chance on me.”

It is something he practises with his own subordinates.

One of the key characteristics of good leaders is to look for and identify leaders in people, and then find the opportunities for them to achieve that potential.

He said he has remained in the Service for as long as he has because he genuinely enjoyed his work. “Scholars or non-scholars, my view is that if a young person joins the Service, they should just do something that they like. If they don’t immediately love the job, try to discover a way to love it.”

And labels like scholar or non-scholar, he said, are “intrinsically self-limiting”. “The bottom-line is, you make your own luck, find your own chances and do the best you can.”

Many of his successes – some of the most significant being counterespionage cases – he cannot talk about for security reasons.

However, he lets on that one of the most personally satisfying cases was in dismantling the Jemaah Islamiah network in Singapore in 2002, because of the people he came into contact with in the process.

“The deep satisfaction that I got out of that was to bear witness to how brave people really were,” he said. “Ordinary people in the community, from the Malay-Muslim religious community, who stepped forward to work with us to craft the rehabilitation approach. Although it’s lauded today, at that time it was untested, uncharted territory and went against the grain of conventional views. It’s a measure of their conviction and courage that they stepped out and I really admire them.”

To those who wonder if the presence of foreigners or the casinos have had a detrimental effect on Singapore’s safety, Mr Lim says no. No major crime wave has followed the opening of the casinos, although the authorities are watchful, and the fact is that the bulk of crimes in Singapore are committed by residents.

Benny Lim

Shoring up security

“The most challenging part of security work in Singapore was to convince people (in and out of government) that it’s relevant. We’ve had it so good for so long that we find this idea of the need to shore up security a little bit alien.”

Pre-2002, there was more focus on safety issues and less on security, as Singapore was not known to be a terrorist target. “There was a rather sanguine view about security risk… and we had a lot of catching up to do,” he admits.

A decade after, awareness of potential security threats is higher but “what people are not so clear about now is that there is no such thing as absolute and total security.” He observes that when something goes wrong, “reactions are sometimes a little bit extreme.”

Thus, striking a balance between preparedness and paranoia is a tough one – a judgement call made tougher by Singaporeans’ low risk appetite. “Our level of tolerance for security problems is very low largely because we’ve been blessed by peace, stability and safety.”

These days, he is busy learning the ropes at MND. The Ministry’s mission of creating “endearing homes” for Singaporeans resonates with Mr Lim, a self-confessed homebody who misses home when he travels.

The animal-lover spends some time talking with relish about Buddy and Sam – his two beagles – and Leroy, his father’s German Shepherd. “We think Leroy is Buddhist because he shared his dinner with one mynah bird,” said Mr Lim. “Now, four birds share his dinner and he sits there quietly. He’s a pacifist.”

Ask if there is a philosophy he lives life by and he responds: “The philosophy of life? That’s so big and heavy. I suppose the purpose of life is a life with purpose.”

Perhaps he said it best in his farewell email to his officers and staff, when he left the ISD. His last line: Try to be kind. Because it’s just too easy to be mean.

What’s usually in your cup?


Your favourite flavour or brand?

Real coffee - no decaf, no fancy additives like vanilla, hazelnut etc.

Where do you usually have your cuppa?

At my office every working morning from "Cinda's Cafe". (Cinda is my PA.)

    Mar 13, 2012
    Wong Sher Maine
    Norman Ng
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