Biography of Sim Kee Boon, The Businessman Bureaucrat, launched

Co-authors Leanne Sim (left) and Low Shi Ping at the launch of the biography Sim Kee Boon: The Businessman Bureaucrat on Sept 23, 2022. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Two years after her grandfather - the late Pioneer Generation leader Sim Kee Boon - died in 2007, Ms Leanne Sim's father suggested that they should write a book about him to preserve the family's history.

Ms Sim, who is the eldest of five granddaughters, agreed to spearhead this "deceptively simple" task. However, she got interrupted by other commitments like her career and children.

Work on the biography finally began in December 2018 when Professor Dave Fernandez, then the new director of the Sim Kee Boon Institute for Financial Economics (SKBI) at Singapore Management University (SMU), suggested a book on Mr Sim.

On Friday, the 240-page biography titled Sim Kee Boon: The Businessman Bureaucrat was launched by SKBI and Landmark Books at SMU.

Ms Sim, the co-author, said the book was written to document not only a brief moment in Singapore's history, but also an integral part of her family's history.

Quoting a Chinese idiom, the 38-year-old marketing and communications director, said the biography is for her children and their children, "that they may know the source of water they drink, and be grateful".

Born in 1929 in Singapore, Mr Sim graduated from University of Malaya with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics in 1953. He joined the Civil Service and rose quickly through the ranks.

He was appointed head of the Civil Service in 1979, a post he held till 1984, when he became chairman of Keppel Corp and Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).

Among his many other roles, the avid golfer was founding chairman of Tanah Merah Country Club. He was also chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers from 2004 to 2005.

Mr Sim, who has five sons with his wife Jeanette and five grandchildren, died at 78 from stomach cancer.

One of his many values that stood out for Ms Sim was how he spoke to everyone from cleaners to prime ministers. Gathering different perspectives helped him make the best decisions possible.

While he treated everyone equally, he also ensured that the most vulnerable were cared for even more, Ms Sim said.

Referring to her two children, she told The Straits Times: "I want them to feel empowered to speak truth to power. To treat everyone equally and yet have the empathy and sensitivity to treat the weakest among us with even more care."

Ms Sim's co-author, Ms Low Shi Ping, said Mr Sim excelled at being both a public servant and a leader in the private sector - hence the book title.

The 39-year-old, who runs her own consultancy LSP Communications, said he was able to inspire the deepest loyalty and love, adding that a few interviewees shed tears as they spoke about him.

His strengths were summed up in the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's tribute to Mr Sim following the latter's death: "He was the most versatile of all the officers who worked with me, with both administrative skills and business acumen, plus good interpersonal touch that would have made (him) a successful entrepreneur."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who penned the book's foreword, describes Mr Sim as "a humble servant of the people, with a deep sense of mission for his country and the drive for excellence in all that he did".

He hopes the book will inspire subsequent generations to embody the traits and values that Mr Sim lived by.

On Mr Sim's role in Changi Airport's success, PM Lee said there are many anecdotes from his efforts in building it from zero, including the famous "12-minute rule" for the first luggage to be ready for collection after the plane comes to a stop.

His far-sighted anticipation of travellers' needs, hands-on approach and attention to detail made all the difference, PM Lee said.

Mr Sim also participated in the merger talks with Malaysia, wooed foreign investments to Singapore after the 1965 separation, and helped lay the foundations of the Civil Service.

He was also an outstanding businessman who was instrumental in establishing Intraco, Singapore's trading arm to explore overseas markets, which became profitable within a year of starting operations.

He also transformed Keppel Corp from a struggling shipyard saddled with heavy debts into one of Singapore's leading conglomerates, PM Lee said.

"Kee Boon used to say that a leader should have the clarity of mind to identify and make the strategic decision first. Everything else would then fall into place, including the consequences that had to be dealt with," said PM Lee, adding that he found this to be a valuable mindset when dealing with many challenging issues over the years.

The book also contains personal stories from more than 40 prominent leaders in both the public and private sectors. They include Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, former minister S. Dhanabalan, former chief executive of Singapore's Temasek Ho Ching, former director-general of CAAS Wong Woon Liong and former chief executive of Keppel Corp Choo Chiau Beng.

Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Education and Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, was the guest of honour at the book's unveiling ceremony.

"The founding generation of civil servants like Mr Sim worked tremendously hard and persevered through daunting challenges to build the foundations of Singapore's success," he said.

"I hope that through this book, future generations will be inspired to emulate his tenacity and sense of mission to similarly leave behind a better country for future generations."

  • Sim Kee Boon: The Businessman Bureaucrat is available at bookshops at $30 before GST.

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