MR LIM Zhong Hui beams with pride when he relates how he felt on seeing the Singapore flag being raised over Blair House — the United States President’s guest house — when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was hosted there in April 2013.
“It brought out a sense of national pride and achievement in me — that I had played a part, however small, in the success of the visit,” he says of that time when he was based in the Singapore Embassy in Washington DC.
All in a day’s work
Today, Mr Lim, 31, is the vice-consul (admin and consular) of the consulate general of Singapore in Mumbai, India.
In this relatively small outfit, his responsibilities are more varied and include overseeing the daily operations of the mission, such as local staff management, security, procurement and finance.
He is also required to attend official meetings with government officials, represent Singapore at official functions, organise events like National Day receptions and handle the logistical arrangements for incoming ministerial and working visits. Plus, he assists Singaporeans who are in distress in the country.
“There is a general misconception that working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) involves attending balls or functions, mingling with political personalities and travel for official trips,” says Mr Lim.
He explains that work preparations for official trips generally begin weeks in advance with late nights and skipped meals.
“During the trip, we have to ensure that the logistical arrangements go smoothly, which may include rushing from one venue to another, carrying bags and waiting for hours at airports,” he adds.
In 2008, fresh out of national service, Mr Lim chanced upon a job at MFA.
He recalls: “Prior to joining, I had no idea of the work MFA does or the challenges I would face. After understanding more, I was drawn by the dynamic environment and unique opportunity for overseas postings.”
Singaporeans contact an Overseas Mission usually when they are in need of assistance, whether it is for a lost travel document or an injury, Mr Lim explains.
“It is therefore a rewarding and meaningful experience assisting distressed Singaporeans overseas when I know I have made a positive contribution, no matter how small,” he continues.
When he was based in America between February 2012 and April 2015, he helped a Singaporean woman — who had a medical condition — and her non-English speaking father to return home to Singapore when they were stranded in the US.
Learning on the job
Moving from Washington DC to Mumbai meant getting used to a completely new working culture.
Mr Lim had to quickly learn that certain ways of dealing with issues in one country might not have the same effect in another country, or that a particular manner of speech might be interpreted differently.
“Nonetheless, it allowed me to fully appreciate the cultural differences that are unique to each country,” he says.
Mr Lim has learnt a lot, thanks in part to MFA’s courses like the administration specialist basic programme and pre-posting programmes that ensured he was provided with the right guidance and support in preparation for his overseas stints.
MFA has also introduced the new Attachments to Overseas Missions (ATOM) programme for officers in the Foreign Service Administration Specialist (eFSAS) scheme.
The ATOM programme assists young officers to get a better appreciation of the realities and difficulties of working in an Overseas Mission, and be better prepared for a posting abroad in the future.
Mr Lim says: “Work in MFA can be 24/7 and requires officers to juggle multiple responsibilities. While it is not easy, time management and prioritising are essential to ensure that my time is spent efficiently to achieve the right balance.”
Hard work aside, he says his postings abroad have enabled him to meet people from different cultures, and gain a perspective that a short vacation would not have given.
He adds: “I tended to stick to what was comfortable and safe and would not have imagined myself working in MFA or being posted overseas.
“I am glad to have chosen this path, which allows me to play a part in safeguarding Singapore’s interests and providing suitable assistance to Singaporeans in need overseas.”