Introduction He put a roof over our nation. If not for Lim Kim San, there would be few subsidised flats. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had asked him to help solve the housing problem. In the late 1950s, he went to Upper Nanking Street to look at the state of housing for the poor. He was shocked. Beneath a staircase of a shophouse, a man lay on a single plank. That space was the mans home, and he was paying rent for it. He was covering himself with a red blanket. It turned out that the man was only wearing underpants. His brother was wearing his trousers. He entered a dark and damp three-storey shophouse that 200 people were living in, and in only had One lavatory and Two bathrooms. He felt that he needed to help the poor even though he was a businessman from a well-to-do merchant family. When PM Lee asked him to head the Housing and Development board, he agreed. And he chose to do it for free. He said that it was a case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. But when you are young, you feel everything is possible.
Birth thru School Birthday: 30 Nov 1916. Birthplace: Singapore Parents birthplace: Sumatra Address: A bungalow on River Valley Road, which was then a rubber estate. He lived with his extended family Eldest of six children (four girls, two boys). As he was the only boy among all the children for sometime, he was "thoroughly spoilt". He was a late starter as a bout of malaria had kept him home. There was a private school near the family home, but his Primary School was Oldham Hall School and Secondary School was Anglo-Chinese School. Junior College was Raffles College Ambition: Lawyer He enrolled in the department of Economics when Raffles College set that up. He wanted to go to United Kingdom to further his studies but his father could not afford it.
Working days He filled in time as a pump attendant at his father's petrol station on Shenton Way after he graduated. Then, he joined a sago-making factory, which he later took over. During that time, he invented a machine that made the production of sago pearls less labour intensive. He made his first million dollars when he was 34. Later on, he served on the Board of Directors of the United Chinese Bank (now called United Overseas Bank). In 1959, after the People's Action Party won the general elections, he was appointed a member of the Public Service Commission. He subsequently volunteered as Chairman of the HDB. He wanted to be a volunteer because He had his own business and felt it would not be fair to draw a salary. His immediate superior, National Development Minister Ong Eng Guan, could fire him. He remained a volunteer until 1963 when he became a minister.
More about his PA (And him) His Personal Assistent, Mylene Ng, will tell you that in the early days she used to say a prayer before she went in because he may be in a table-thumping, pencil-throwing mood. She had said that hes a man with very high standards who cannot tolerate incompetence. Hell shut people up with sharp answers if they ask silly questions at meetings. He doesnt mince his words. But, behind his no-nonsense demeanour was a considerate and loving family man. To Mylene, he was a caring, fatherly man who would remind her to lock the office door for safety when she had to stay back late alone.
Family life He married Pang Gek Kim in February 1939, just before WWII. The couple stayed together for 55 years, and had 2 sons and 4 daughters, just like his parents. She died in 1994. He had 12 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren whom he doted on. He taught them to fly kites and ride bicycles at the East Coast Park. He lived with his youngest daughter and her family. His children living in Singapore took turns to have dinner with him at least once a week. He was a passionate animal lover. His extended family included golden retrievers, a pomeranian, a chihuahua, a mynah, a kite and four kois. His favourite bird was Kelly, a black-headed kite given by his youngest daughter, who can call its name and call for the maid when it wants to poo. It was the cleanest bird he had seen.
The end of a wonderful person He died in his Dalvey Road home on 20 July 2006, at the age of 89. He had stayed a few days in hospital, having suffered a series of strokes. His daughter said, He died from pneumonia and old age. His body just could not take it anymore. Mr Lim was given a state funeral. In his eulogy, PM Lee said, A whole generation of Singaporeans have grown up in HDB estates that offer a first-class living environment with modern amenities and facilities for all to enjoy. For this, we must thank Mr Lim Kim San who laid the foundations for affordable, quality public housing in Singapore.
H ousing D evelopment B oard He had the unenviable task of solving the housing shortage that plagued Singapore in the 1950s. Luckily, he was a battle-hardened businessman who relished challenges. He built 26,168 housing units within the first 2 years –about the same number built by the Singapore Improvement Trust in its 32 years. He also had to deal with politicians who demanded special treatment. He laid down strict rules for HDB employees. If you perform your duties without any vested interest, though your decision is wrong, Ill stand by you, he told them, But if I find that in making the decision, you have a vested interest, then I go for you. He was a hands-on boss. Once task he could not overcome was handling the squatters he had moved from slums to HDB flats. Under his leadership, the HDB built 7000 units in 1961 and 10000 to 13000 each year from 1962 to 1969. He was bestowed two top awards –the Darjah Utama Temasek (Order of Temasek) in 1962 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1965.
S ingapore P ress H oldings In 1988, he was invited to join Singapore Press Holdings as Chairman, but refused unless he was given full executive powers. Mr Lim Kim San restructured the company, cutting costs, freezing recruitment and seeking alternative revenue sources. When the first financial year ended, profits had risen by more than 25%. He was instrumental in SPHs move to invest in the telecommunications sector, which led to profits of about $480,000,000. He also expanded SPHS infrastructure with a $240,000,000 investment in a new print centre with colour printing presses in Jurong. He stepped down in December 2005 as SPHs Senior Adviser. At that time, the companys profit had jumped from $74,000,000 in 1988 to $490,000,000.
Political Life He stood in Cairnhill and won a seat. The ministerial hats that he wore included National Development, Finance, Defence, Communications, Environment and Education. He headed several statutory boards such as the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Public Utilities Board and Port of Singapore Authority. From 1992 till 2004, he also chaired the Council of Presidential Advisers.
After retirement He retired in 1981. His ability to spot talent and potential was so good that, for many years, he was made the head of a panel to interview potential Members of Parliament for the Peoples Action Party. Former MP Chor Yeok Eng recalled that his ability to judge people was very good. Charles Chong, the MP for Pasir Ris GRC, remembered vividly his first interview with him in 1988 when he was a union leader at Singapore Airlines and a potential MP candidate for the PAP. Mr Lim Kim San had learnt how to read people and assess them accurately from his early years in business.
Discipline is never pleasant Its true. Mr Lim Kim San can be short-tempered and impatient. If you act unreasonably or dishonestly, he will throw you out of his office. Once, a delegation went to him to ask for tax exemptions for traders. He was so fed up and took off the neck collar he was wearing and threw it at them.