Lim Kim San

Mr. HDB

4 min read

TL;DR

Known fondly as Mr. HDB, Lim Kim San (30 November 1916 – 20 July 2006) was the first chairman of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) from 1960, before he became the Minister for National Development in 1963. He spearheaded modern Singapore’s public housing programme, which saw 31,317 flats completed in just under four years – an exceptional achievement considering the 23,019 units built by HDB’s predecessor, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), over 32 years.

Lim also served as the first Minister of Finance of the Republic of Singapore, and held portfolios in the fields of environment, education, and defence.

Portrait of Lim Kim San Portrait of Lim Kim San painted by prominent Nanyang artist Chua Mia Tee (c.1989. Image from National Collection)

SIT Flats in Tiong Bahru 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)

Toa Payoh HDB Estate 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 Slogan Home Ownership for People Poster with the slogan 'Home Ownership for the People’ (c.1966. Image from National Collection)

Order of Temasek given to Lim Kim San 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)

Upper Seletar Reservoir 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)

Former World Trade Centre 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 inspecting a Guard of Honour Lim Kim San does an inspection of the Guard of Honour. (c.1967. Image from National Collection)