Dragon boater Lim Jia Khee is a man of strong passions. Over the past eight years, he has paddled for school, club, national team, and also spent some serious time sharpening his cooking skills in various kitchens.

These days, the president of SMU Dragon Boat (SMU DB) chooses to spend his days on race strategy and building the SMU DB team. In his conversation with SMU Snapshots, the second-year business student reveals how his experiences have shaped him to become the indefatigable leader that he is today.

SDBF 2017

Jia Khee prepping the team at the 2017 Singapore Dragon Boat Festival

Jia Khee picked up dragon boating eight years ago to paddle with his friend, who was the captain of a dragon boating club. It was only five years later that he began to cultivate strong interest in the sport. At that time, he was pursuing two things that he loved to do – paddle and cook.

Pursuing passion

Drawn to the art and science of cooking, Jia Khee’s love for food is tangible as he uses words like ‘chemistry’ and ‘culture’ to describe his fascination for cooking. He describes with meticulous detail how to tell a chef’s personality through the food that he makes and its execution.

Fresh out of secondary school and with the encouragement of his secondary four form teacher who bought him his first cookbook, Jia Khee became a stagiaire (read: apprentice chef) at the home-grown PS. Café, where he worked in the kitchen until national duty called.

After the army, he continued to earn his chops at award-winning restaurant Burnt Ends, where the steep learning experience taught him the value of hard work and resilience.

Paddling with purpose

Throughout his love affair with cooking, Jia Khee spent whatever time he had outside of the kitchen, training with his dragon boat club. When he set aside his chef dreams after leaving Burnt Ends, Jia Khee returned to dragon boating with a renewed vigour that later on fuelled his decision to join SMU DB.

“I still remember one of the Prime Minister (PM) Cup competitions before I joined SMU – three of the four competing schools had passed the finishing line, the supporters had stood up, and SMU still had not crossed the finishing line. That was how it was like in the past. So, when I came in to SMU and joined the dragon boat team, I told myself and my teammates that, ‘I want us to win.’”

11 Last year's Singapore Dragonboat Festival (SDBF):PM cup

SMU DB at the 2016 Singapore Dragon Boat Festival

Building a motivated team

It seems that the stage was all set for Jia Khee. When he joined SMU DB, the team was about 30 people strong – as compared to the usual count of 18 to 25 members.

“I was lucky in that the stars were sort of aligned. I didn’t come in knowing that I would be captain, but I knew that if I wanted us to win, I couldn’t do it alone. I had to have 19 other people with me.”

4 DBS MR 2017

SMU DB at the DBS Marina Regatta 2017

SMU DB is more than just a sports team to Jia Khee. Every member is a friend and part of a community that he wants to build.

“We don’t need to depend on talented players to win. At a club level like this, commitment and hard work are most important. Community is so important because in this sport that you paddle, it’s just one stroke repeated many times, mimicking the person in front of you. So, my priority is to build a strong team – not in the paddling aspect, but to do things off the court that will bring people together.”

5 This year's cohesion.jpeg

The team hanging out during a team cohesion (2017)

Under Jia Khee’s leadership, the SMU DB men’s team has grown to 42 men, with 31 active members who train together at least six times a week. “If you don’t want to be a part of the team, that’s fine and we can still hang out at team gatherings. But once you decide to be a part of the team, it must be 100% commitment.” Jia Khee describes the ‘Open Door Policy’ that ensures a fully motivated team.

Leveling the playing field

Jia Khee’s focus for his tenure as president is to nurture a team that is aligned, where every member shares the same vision.

“We must level the playing field. The difference in physical abilities between the strongest guy and the next guy must be as minimal as it gets, so that we can go at the same stroke rate.”

Gym training

The men’s team doing some heavy lifting during gym training

This goal stems from two lessons that he learnt during his time at Burnt Ends.

Lesson One: Hard work is a prerequisite. If you are resilient and don’t give up, you will always make it.

Lesson Two: The measure of how good a leader is, sometimes boils down to whether he can bring the weaker guys up to the same level as the rest of the team.

“When we make group decisions, we tend to always think for the majority. I try to make conscious effort to help the minority because the majority can fend for themselves. If I can get the minority to level up then the group will be much tighter.”

PM Cup race on sunday

SMU DB in full force at the 2017 Singapore Dragon Boat Festival

Empathy and the human touch

One of Jia Khee’s beliefs is to never leave any man behind – a challenge with a team of 32 when race teams are restricted to 20 people. Regardless, he works hard to find a balance between winning, and makes sure that every man is looked after.

DBS MR 2017

The team trooping over to the DBS Marina Regatta 2017

“A lot of times, it’s about the human touch – making my team feel appreciated for their effort. Months before the race, I make sure that I put in time to work with the weaker guys to level the playing field. So that five months down the road, even if they don’t make the cut, they will understand why.”

A promising future

Jia Khee acknowledges that while there might be certain constraints for sports teams in SMU, everyone has their own constraints. He stresses that constraints must not prevent one from going forward, but rather, it is about learning to succeed within the set of constraints that you have.

Last year's SDBF

Sombre after a defeat at the 2016 Singapore Dragon Boat Festival

“We find a way that works for us. We find a way to train that fits our needs and schedules, to succeed; never letting a constraint become a problem.”

Developing mindsets to build a winning team might seem like a tall order, but Jia Khee’s leadership is already showing results. At one event during the DBS Marina Regatta 2017, SMU DB had victory over NUS for the first time.

“These are turning points. With progress, people realise there is hope. It really is about building a more promising future for the team. We have to keep beating our own records if we want to get better.”

Penang international Dragonboat festival

Team huddle at the 2017 Penang International Dragon Boat Festival