From the archives: The man who helped to house a generation

Lim Kim San will always be remembered as the man who broke the back of Singapore's housing problem

This article was first published in The Straits Times print edition on July 21, 2006. 

Not long after he was appointed unpaid chairman of the Housing Board in the new PAP Government, Mr Lim Kim San was invited by a Cabinet minister to lunch with a group of people. 

As the meal progressed, it dawned on him that it was more than just a convivial get-together. 

"They were up to no good," he recalled. "The minister was trying to get me to agree to one of his friends coming in as a tenderer and to give special concession to him." He had no qualms about ticking off the minister.

On another occasion, Mr Lim said, the minister asked him to award a contract to a certain person. He gave a firm "no", telling the minister that if he disagreed, he could pull rank and override him. The minister was later stripped of all his public posts after an investigation into an attempt to help his friend clinch the sale of Boeing aircraft to Malaysian Airways. 

In the same oral history interview recorded in 1985, he recounted how, in his first year as HDB chairman, he went to his office one day before Christmas and found it was filled with presents. Aghast, he ordered all contractors to stop the practice immediately. 

If there was anything the man who made low-cost public housing the envy of the world detested most, it was corruption and abuse of position. As HDB chairman from 1960 to 1963 and as minister for national development from 1963 to 1965, he demonstrated zero tolerance for any dubious dealing among staff, suppliers and contractors. 

Mr Lim was a self-made millionaire businessman when he was roped into the newly constituted HDB by his close friend, finance minister Goh Keng Swee. Doubting the capabilities of national development minister Ong Eng Guan, Dr Goh and then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew believed Mr Lim could deliver the PAP's election promise of building public housing for the impoverished masses.

They were proved right. In a little over three years, the HDB built more flats than its predecessor, Singapore Improvement Trust, did in 32. Indeed, the oft-told story of how Mr Lim provided a roof over a generation of Singaporeans has passed into HDB annals and folklore. 

Born in Singapore on Nov 30, 1916, educated in Anglo-Chinese School and Raffles College, where he majored in economics, he had a background unlike that of his scholarly peers in politics. From a young age, the eldest in a family of six children was flung into the rough and tumble of the business world.

He had to help his father run the family's businesses in rubber, commodities, salt, sago and petrol. At 10, he was learning about the difference between the buying and selling prices of rubber. At 16, he was pumping petrol. Then, he dabbled as a shipping clerk and jewellery trader. 

After the Japanese Occupation, he went into banking and the sago flour and sago pearl business. At 34, he earned his first million when he invented a set of machines that produced sago pearl cheaply.

He also absorbed business acumen from his father-in-law, Mr Pang Cheng Yean, a founder-director of United Chinese Bank, now known as United Overseas Bank. Mr Lim married his daughter Gek Kim in 1939 and had two sons and four daughters. She died in 1994. 

When Mr Lim joined the HDB, he was not paid a cent. He had to drive his own car on his rounds and put up with an obstructive immediate superior, national development minister Ong, who did not even give him a parking lot in his office. 

Right from the start, Mr Lim set an uncompromising tone and a scorching pace for the statutory board. In an early briefing, he told staff: "If you perform your duties without any vested interest, and though your decision is wrong, I'll stand by you ... But if I find that in making the decision, you have a vested interest, then I go for you." 

Even though he was serving a PAP Government and was close to the top PAP leaders, he took a strictly non-partisan approach in housing allocation. Flats were allocated on the basis of first come, first served, and on the size of the family. 

When parliamentary secretary for home affairs Lee Siew Choh demanded preferential treatment for his Queenstown constituents and was rebuffed by Mr Lim, he snapped: "What are you here for, if not to give priority to party supporters?"

Mr Lim's retort: "I am here exactly to prevent misuse of position."

The man with the gruff manner and blunt speech could not countenance incompetence and sloppiness. He sacked unqualified staff, never mind if they were close to minister Ong and were PAP members. He assembled a strong team with Mr Howe Yoon Chong as chief executive officer, Mr Teh Cheang Wan as chief architect, Mr J.R. Stevens as structural engineer and Mr Alan Choe as town planner. 

Convinced a drastically different approach to building houses was needed, Mr Lim embarked on a series of unorthodox measures which shook up the building industry. He cut red tape and abolished committees, declaring: "I'm the committee."

Standardised slabs were used to make it easier and faster to design and build flats. Prices of building materials were monitored closely to pre-empt any sudden spike. Dealers and suppliers could make a reasonable profit but were not allowed to profiteer. 

He smashed the ring of contractors who took turns to tender, which resulted in artificially inflated prices, and opened bidding to all. But to be fair to contractors, he made sure they were paid on time every month.

Brickworks and granite quarry owners were told if they jacked up prices, the HDB would go into the quarrying business. When the warning went unheeded, the board took over some granite quarries to stabilise prices.

A firm believer in being hands-on and seeing things for himself, Mr Lim went on frequent site inspections.

Once he spotted a block of flats in Margaret Drive. "From the outside, it appeared crooked to me. So I went back and told Howe Yoon Chong. I said: 'Either my eyesight is bad or there is something wrong with that block of flats there. So please get the technicians to look at it properly.' True enough, it was crooked. And we made the contractor rebuild the whole thing," he recalled. 

On a visit to another block of flats under construction, he took a closer look at the wiring. "I had no experience but I thought the wires were much thinner than the ones in my own house. So I sort of pulled it out and asked the architect ... I said: 'Why are these wires so thin?' He said: 'Oh no, this is not according to our specifications. We have a double-faced and this is single-faced,' so I pulled the whole wiring out and told them to replace it."

If low-cost public housing formed the centrepiece of the PAP's 1959 election manifesto, it was because Singapore had the dubious distinction of having the most overcrowded slums in the world at that time. Lacking proper sanitation, lighting and water, they became firetraps and breeding ground for disease - and political discontent. 

In 1959, out of a population of 1.6 million, about 300,000 lived in squatter areas and 250,000 in slums.

Taking over from the Singapore Improvement Trust on Feb 1, 1960, the HDB went on to complete 26,000 flats in slightly over three years. By comparison, the trust built 23,019 units in its 32 years of existence.

In March 1963, Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak declared that the housing shortage had been solved. The HDB had built some 31,317 units to house about 350,000 people, or 20 per cent of the population. By the end of 1964, it completed 51,000 flats, providing homes for about 25 per cent of the population. 

For his breathtaking achievements in public housing, Mr Lim was bestowed two top awards - the Darjah Utama Temasek (Order of Temasek) in 1962 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1965. 

Beyond sheltering the masses, the towering blocks which epitomised the Singapore Dream of the day were viewed as the most visible factor in helping the PAP win the 1963 election in its do-or-die battle with the left-wing Barisan Sosialis. 

Former prime minister Lee had often paid tribute to Mr Lim's stewardship of the HDB, saying he helped change the fortunes of the PAP and of Singapore. "It was crucial, life and death. If we failed, we would not be re-elected," said Mr Lee. 

Referring to two uncompleted blocks of flats in Cantonment Road in Tanjong Pagar, where pro-communist activists campaigned to unseat him in the 1963 polls, Mr Lee said: "My voters could see them going up, and were looking forward to moving in. Had they not been nearing completion at the time of the new election, I might not have been re-elected." 

When asked how he pulled off his spectacular housing coup, Mr Lim's reply was simple: by eliminating corruption, by eradicating cartels and by forbidding anyone to fool around with specifications.

His achievements and accolades are too numerous to list. He has been hailed as a man for all seasons, mountain of gold, mover and shaker, top troubleshooter and quintessential technocrat, but he will always be remembered as the man who broke the back of Singapore's housing problem.

sonnyap@sph.com.sg 


Mr Lim Kim San's many milestones

Born: Nov 30, 1916 Died: July 20, 2006 Place of birth: Singapore Family background: Oldest in a family of two boys and four girls. His father was a well-to-do merchant with business in petrol, commodities, rubber and sago.

EARLY YEARS: 1933: After finishing his Senior Cambridge at Anglo-Chinese School, he wanted to study law in Britain. But his father's business was hit by the Great Depression in the 1930s. 1936: Enrolled in Raffles College and got his Diploma in Arts in 1939. 1940: Married Miss Pang Gek Kim, who died in 1994. They had six children, two boys and four girls.

FROM BUSINESSMAN TO HOME-BUILDER 1940 to 1945: Helped in his father's business. He was abused by the Kempeitai, the Japanese Army's military police, during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. They labelled him pro-communist and pro-British. 1945-1950: Went into the sago flour and sago pearl business. He invented a set of machines that produced sago pearl with fewer workers. The invention helped him make his first million at age 34. 1951-59: Director of two banks. Appointed a member, and later deputy chairman of the Public Service Commission. 1960: Became HDB chairman. It was an unpaid post. 1962: Awarded the Order of Temasek for solving Singapore's housing problems.

CABINET STALWART 1963: Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew persuaded him to stand for election. He won in the Cairnhill ward. Appointed Minister for National Development. 1965: Awarded the Philippines' Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership. After Singapore and Malaysia separated in August, he became Finance Minister. 1967-79: Held various portfolios, including those of Interior and Defence, Education, Environment, National Development and Communications. Appointed chairman, Public Utilities Board, in 1970. 1979: Appointed Port of Singapore Authority chairman, until August 1994. 1980: Left politics.

CORPORATE CHIEFTAIN, PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER 1981: Became managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, until 1982. 1988: Appointed director, then executive chairman of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). 1992: Appointed chairman, council of Presidential Advisers. 2003: Became SPH's senior advisor, until December 2005.