Benny Lim’s appointment as NPark chairman may have a chilling effect on public speaking

According to reports, veteran civil servant Benny Lim has been parachuted into the National Parks Board (NParks) as its new chairman. While Mr Lim retired in 2016, it is apparent that he has been kept busy. In April this year, Mr Lim was also appointed to the board of Transport giant ComfortDelGro Corp and the boards of its subsidiaries. While Mr Lim has had 30 years of public service under his belt, it would appear that his experience lies more in the nation-building and homeland security aspects of the government. While he has been lauded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee) as a”respected and loved” leader, to what extent does he have the relevant experience to run NParks? Do his skill sets translate to those needed in the transportation sector?

While I don’t doubt that Mr Lim has indeed given 30 years of his life to government service, his seeming lack of relevant experience to the posts he has been appointed to post retirement does lend to speculation that these appointments are an act of the PAP government looking after one of its own.  As the government stresses the importance of meritocracy in Singapore, does the appointment of a former civil servant with no relevant experience exemplify the practice of meritocracy?

I note that the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) will cease to exist after April next year and its demise will see part of its functions transferred to NParks. Perhaps, Lim’s appointment comes in line with the new responsibilities that NParks will take on. However, those new functions pertain to wildlife and plant matters (including animal and plant health, veterinary services, horticultural sciences). Does Mr Lim have previous experience on those subject matters? On what basis was Lim selected? Who selected him? PM Lee? If so, why?

Part of NPark’s functions would include the granting of licenses for public speaking at speakers’ corner in Hong Lim Park. Whether intentional or not, installing a former Internal Securities Department (ISD) chief to be charge of public speaking in Singapore sends a chilling message to civil society as a whole.

Lim has made no secret of the fact that he believes in ramping up nation building. The term “nation building” is a nuanced one. While it can be positively seen as a way of fostering national ties, it also has the more worrying connotations of propaganda and government control. History is replete with examples of states using the guise of “nation building” to rid itself of influences that may affect the ruler’s consolidation of power. Given Lim’s ISD past, his belief in nation-building may be concerning.

If Lim does not have the relevant experience, his appointments can be viewed as the system taking care of one of its own or more worrying, an attempt by the government to silence any detractors from speakers’ corner.

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