From the archives: The man who moves mountains

You name it, he has done it. Mr Lim Kim San's 60-year career spans banking, business, politics, government service, public housing, port management and the mass media. Today, a professorship in business policy is launched to honour his achievements.

This article was first published in The Straits Times print edition on Oct 16, 2000.

If you are looking for the secrets of business success, forget about scouring for management tips from the hot-selling books of business gurus.

Just ask Mr Lim Kim San, and he will give it all to you in a nutshell:

"You must have the passion for the job, thrive on challenges, learn to listen and develop the ability to judge people well."

This is no theoretical talk but practical philosophy honed from more than six decades of experience in the real world as businessman, banker, minister, statutory board chairman and corporate chieftain.

The 83-year-old executive chairman of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) is widely regarded as a mover and shaker in both the private and public sector. Wherever he goes, he leaves an indelible mark.

Those who know him salute his tenacity, trouble-shooting skills, common sense, knack for managing accounts and balance sheets, results orientation and intuitive grasp of people's character and abilities.

His legendary business acumen and skills are now honoured in the Lim Kim San Professorship in Business Policy to be launched by the National University of Singapore at the Mandarin Hotel today.

The endowment fund, which now totals $2 million, including a $750,000 donation from SPH, will enable NUS to invite renowned academics in business policy to lecture or do joint projects in Singapore.

SPIRIT OF HELPING

Looking cheerful and relaxed in his fourth-floor office in News Centre on Genting Lane, Mr Lim fields questions on a wide range of issues from business and entrepreneurship, to bond-breakers, to ministerial salaries, to procreation and to the joys of family life.

Commenting on the professorship, he says that as an alumnus of NUS, he is pleased with its launch as it offers an opportunity to people who have benefited from society to give back to the community.

"This spirit is gradually dying," he says, referring to the days of the early immigrants when the more successful would help the less successful.

When asked if he is worried that the younger generation might not have the street smarts needed for survival in the new economy, Mr Lim says that he does not think so.

Yes, they have grown up in a stable environment in which the fundamental issues of political and economic stability had been settled.

But, no, this comfortable environment has not made them soft.

"They are more laid-back," he says. "You will not know whether they are soft until the crunch comes.

"By that time, the steel in them will come out."

What concerns him more is that young entrepreneurs are not being given enough opportunities to break into business fields now being dominated by the big boys.

He believes that giving workers room and time to grow is one good way of harnessing, grooming and keeping talent.

"Engage them," he says. "Challenge them.

"Saddle everybody in the office with responsibilities and allow them to grow.

"Do not do everything yourself. No one can do this in a big organisation."

FINANCIAL WIZARD

Mr Lim's achievements in a long and distinguished career are too numerous to recite here. Among the highlights are:

In his 12-year stewardship of the SPH, the media giant's net profit more than quadrupled to $397.5 million, for the year ended Aug 31.

Since 1992, he has served as chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers, which scrutinises key budgets and appointments. He steps in as Acting President when the President is temporarily unable to perform his duties.

When he was Finance Minister between 1965 and 1967, it was said that the Singapore dollar would remain very strong, because it was backed by a mountain of gold. An apt description because his name in Chinese - Kim San - means "mountain of gold".

As chairman of the Port of Singapore Authority from 1979 to 1994, he steered it to the top of the league as the world's busiest port.

He is also best known as the man who broke the back of the housing problem in the early 60s - an achievement which paved the way for social stability and progress in the country.

His feat was stupendous - more than 7,000 units were built in 1961 and between 10,000 and 13,000 units completed annually from 1962 to 1969.

These figures contrasted starkly with the 2,000 flats built annually by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), the predecessor of the Housing Board (HDB).

Mr Lim recalls that a committee was set up by SIT to look into whether he and his team could perform the task.

"Its report said: 'This team has more enthusiasm than skills.'

"But we finished building 10,000 units before the committee finished its report," he says, laughing heartily.

For his achievements in HDB, he became the first person to be awarded the Order of Temasek, Singapore's highest award, in 1962.

Three years later, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership for "marshalling of talents and resources to provide one-fifth of Singapore's burgeoning population with decent, moderately-priced housing amid attractive surroundings".

GROOMED BY DAD

Mr Lim was born in Singapore in 1916, the eldest in a family of six children.

Educated at Anglo-Chinese School, he entered Raffles College in 1936, majoring in economics. He graduated three years later.

In 1939, he married Miss Pang Gek Kim and they had two sons and four daughters. His wife died in 1994.

As a young boy, he picked up crucial business skills by helping his father run the family's businesses in rubber, commodities, salt, sago and gasoline.

At the age of 10, he used to accompany his father to his rubber store and learnt all about percentages and the difference between buying price and selling price, and the cost of holding commodities.

After the Japanese Occupation, he went into the sago flour and sago pearl business and assumed his directorships in banking.

In 1950, at age 34, he made his first million with an invention which helped make sago pearl cheaply.

In 1959, he began his career in the public sector. Four years later, he contested and won the Cairnhill constituency.

His tenacity and indomitable will was seen when he suffered a heart attack and blacked out during the General Election in 1976.

But he went on campaigning, knocking on doors and shaking constituents' hands.

He won and went on to serve in the ministries of National Development, Communication and Environment before retiring from politics in 1981.

Over the last 40 years, he underwent several operations for neck and spinal problems.

Despite the pain, he forced himself to walk daily to tone his muscles so that he could play golf again.

When asked what his proudest moments were, he replies modestly that what he did was just work that he had to do.

Perhaps the best tribute for Mr Lim came on his 80th birthday in 1996 from Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew who said: "Whenever we needed somebody for an important position, one that required integrity and judgment, we have called upon him.

"He has tremendous spirit. He never gives up."


PROFILE

Name: Mr Lim Kim San Date of birth: Nov 30, 1916 Place of birth: Singapore Family: Was married to Miss Pang Gek Kim from 1939 until her death in 1994. Has two sons and four daughters.

LIFE: Milestones

CAREER1951: Director, United Chinese Bank and Batu Pahat Bank. 1959: Member and later Deputy Chairman, Public Service Commission. 1960-1963: Chairman, Housing and Development Board. 1963-1980: Member of Parliament, Cairnhill. Served in various ministries - National Development, Finance, Defence, Education, Environment and Communications. 1971-1978: Chairman, Public Utilities Board. 1973: Chairman, Board of Trustees, NTUC Welcome Consumers' Cooperative Ltd. 1979-1994: Chairman, Port of Singapore Authority. 1981-1982: Managing Director, Monetary Authority of Singapore. 1988-now: Executive Chairman, Singapore Press Holdings. 1989-now: Chairman, Times Publishing Ltd. 1992-now: Chairman, Council of Presidential Advisers. 1998: President, National Heart Council, Singapore National Heart Association. 1999: Honorary Fellow, Singapore Institute of Directors. 2000: Chancellor, Singapore Management University.

AWARDS 1962: The Order of Temasek, the nation's highest honour. 1965: Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership. 1977: Medal of Honour, National Trades Union Congress. 1982: Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws, National University of Singapore. 1990: Distinguished Service Medal, People's Action Party.