Portrait of Lim Kim San painted by prominent Nanyang artist Chua Mia Tee (c.1989. Image from National Collection)
In its 32 years in charge, the HDB’s predecessor, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) only managed to complete 23,019 units. Some of the more memorable ones include the flats iconic located in Tiong Bahru. (c.1950s-1960s. Image from National Collection)
Under Lim’s direction, housing estates like Toa Payoh soon sprouted up, providing 31,317 flats for Singaporeans in just under four years. (c.1960s. Image from National Collection)
Millionaire by age 34
Born in Singapore as the oldest of six children, Lim studied at Anglo-Chinese School and Raffles College. Even at a young age, he was already helping out in his family’s business of rubber, commodities, salt, sago and petrol. His business acumen was exceptional, and by the age of 34, Lim had made his first million by inventing a set of machines that could produce sago pearls cheaply.
He would use his experience to venture into the world of banking, becoming the director of the United Chinese Bank (today’s United Overseas Bank) in 1951.
Bringing low-cost housing to the masses
In 1959, Lim was approached by Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye, and Goh Keng Swee to join the civil service to serve in the Public Service Commission. He also chaired the HDB voluntarily for four years, refusing to accept any salary, until he became a cabinet minister in 1963.
As Mr. HDB, Lim helped standardise the building processes and put in tremendous effort in removing erroneous tenders and contractors, so that low-cost public housing could be built faster and cheaper, and according to strict safety regulations.
By 1964, his efforts had helped complete over 51,000 units to house 25 per cent of Singapore’s population. He became the first person to be awarded the Order of Temasek in 1962, one of the most prestigious recognitions by the state, for his efforts and commendable leadership.
Poster with the slogan 'Home Ownership for the People’ (c.1966. Image from National Collection)
In recognition for his contribution, Lim Kim San became the first person to be awarded the Order of Temasek (Darjah Utama Temasek) in 1962. (c.1962. Image from National Collection)
During his time at the Public Utilities Board, Lim Kim San helped to improve Singapore water self-sufficiency by overseeing projects like the construction of the Upper Seletar Reservoir.(c.1970. Image from National Collection)
One of Lim Kim San's jobs at the Port of Singapore Authority was to make improvements to the World Trade Centre (c.1980s. Image from National Collection)
Helping businesses grow
After Lim retired from the civil service in 1981, he served as the Executive Chairman of Singapore Press Holdings from 1988 to 2002. His constant implementation of new ideas helped SPH increase its net profits to S$397.5 million by the time he left in 2002.
Like many other pioneers of modern Singapore, Lim continues to contribute to the local community through scholarships named after him. The Lim Kim San Professorship in Business Policy was set up by the National University of Singapore in the year 2000, and the Lim Kim San Memorial Scholarship was launched in 2003.
Lim passed away on 20 July 2006 at his home in Dalvey Road, leaving a trail of successes to be emulated by the next generations.
Lim Kim San does an inspection of the Guard of Honour. (c.1967. Image from National Collection)