Lim Soo Hoon: Making An Impact At Work, Reframed

Disillusioned about the impact you’re making at work? Lim Soo Hoon, Singapore’s first female Permanent Secretary, shares some advice for public officers.
Lim Soo Hoon, Singapore’s first female Permanent Secretary article image


  • Senior Advisor, Ministry of Finance (July 2017-present)
  • Senior Fellow, Civil Service College (June 2017–present)
  • Chairman, Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority Board (April 2012–March 2018)
  • Permanent Secretary (Finance) (Performance), Ministry of Finance (April 2012–April 2017)

Dear Young Officers,

I have met many young officers who would often tell me that they joined the Public Service because they want to make a difference – to lives, society, the environment, economy etc. I do get inspired just by sensing their passion. I might meet some of them later on and sometimes, they would tell me that they are quite disillusioned because the impact they are hoping to make doesn’t seem to be happening. Some might decide to just give it up and quit the Service; some might hang on but their lives are now so busy chasing after deadlines and KPIs, working long hours, and wondering if they are doing all right in the eyes of their bosses. Soon they might just stop thinking about why they are doing what they are doing as it is “just a job”. Work is no longer fun, exciting or meaningful.

Most of us spend a larger part of our waking hours at work. It is therefore entirely reasonable that we would want to make sure that those hours serve a useful purpose. To the young officers I meet, I often would suggest to them to reframe what they imagine they can do to make a difference. The Public Service is a huge organisation; none of us ever work alone and any impact we hope to make is seldom achieved alone as well.

I had worked at various organisations when I was in the Service. Each time I get posted to a new place, I would ask myself: “Will anyone miss us (the organisation) if we don’t exist?” This is to help me understand the purpose of the organisation. If no one is going to miss us, then we might as well close down the organisation. If they do, my next question will be “What will we be missed for?” Hopefully, it will be for the right reason (e.g., the stated mission of the organisation). If not, then we better ask why we aren’t missed for what we think we exist for.

I then bring the same questions to my department/directorate, my unit and right down to my own job. Would anyone miss what I am doing if I don’t do it?

Sometimes the impact or difference we make is not what we had imagined it to be.

I want to play a role; I don’t want to just be doing a job. Once I am clear about my role, I will be in a better position to make sure I am doing the right job. And if I am doing the right job, I am more likely to be useful to someone else.

Sometimes the impact or difference we make is not even what we had imagined it to be. I always remember this story of a friend who worked in the private sector. One day he was invited to chair the board of a company and he was so thrilled imagining the wide impact that he could make in his position. Three years came and went and he finished his term. He realised that he had made no big impact on his company or his customers except for one man. And that man was one who had frequently complained against his company. One day, after yet another complaint, he asked the man out for lunch and they soon became friends. Over time, he helped the man to get a new direction in his life. We may think it was only one man, but to that man, my friend made a huge impact.  

So to young officers who get disillusioned about the impact they had thought they could make, don’t be discouraged. We interact with so many people within and outside the Service. What you do may not make a huge difference immediately but you may well be that blessing that a colleague or a member of the public needs at that moment in time.

    Jan 14, 2020
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