Lim Kim San

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

Lim Kim San
Better known as ‘Mr. HDB’ to many, Lim Kim San (b. 30 November 1916, - d. 20 July 2006) was the first Chairman of Housing and Development Board (HDB) from 1960, before he became the Minister for National Development in 1963. He was also the first Minister of Finance of the Republic of Singapore and has held portfolios in the fields of environment, education and defence.

During his time as Chairman of the HDB, he helped to complete some 31,317 flats in just under four years, far surpassing the 23,019 units built by the HDB’s predecessor, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), over its 32 years of existence.
SIT Flats in Tiong BahruIn 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 EstateUnder 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)

Early Years
The oldest of six children, Lim studied at Anglo-Chinese School and Raffles College. From an early age, he was already heavily involved in the family’s business of rubber, commodities, salt, sago and petrol. He made his first million at the age of 34 when he invented a set of machines that produced sago pearl cheaply. Lim would go on to venture in the world of banking, becoming director of the United Chinese Bank (today’s United Overseas Bank) in 1951.

Career & Accomplishments
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. Lim also chaired HDB on a voluntary basis for four years, all while refusing a salary till he became a Cabinet Minister in 1963.

During his time in the HDB, he implemented policies of standardisation and helped to eradicate erroneous tenders and contractors, all in order to help fund low-cost public housing for the masses. By 1964, Lim’s efforts would see some 51,000 units built to house 25 per cent of the population. For his efforts and commendable leadership qualities, Lim become the first person to be awarded the Order of Temasek in 1962.Poster with Slogan Home Ownership for PeoplePoster with the slogan 'Home Ownership for the People’ (c.1966. Image from National Collection)
Order of Temasek given to Lim Kim SanIn 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)

Lim was also the MP for Cairnhill upon the People’s Action Party (PAP) victory at the 1963 elections, and would go on to hold numerous portfolios during his 18-year term in the Government.

During his time at the Public Utilities Board (PUB), Lim helped to improve Singapore’s water self-sufficiency, overseeing the construction of the Upper Peirce and Upper Seletar Reservoir, as well as negotiating for the construction of a third water pipeline with Johore.Upper Seletar ReservoirDuring 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)

In 1979 as the Chairman of the Port of Singapore Authroity (PSA), Lim helped transform the PSA into a world-class container hub by introducing new measures such as making improvements to the World Trade Centre, as well as the computerised handling of cargo. Lim also helped to expand port operations in Pulau Brani and Pasir Panjang Terminals.
Former World Trade CentreOne of Lim Kim San’s job at the Port of Singapore Authority was to make improvements to the World Trade Centre (c.1980s. Image from National Collection)

Later Years
Upon his retirement from the civil service in 1981, Lim served as the Executive Chairman of the Singapore Press Holdings from 1988 to 2002, injecting new ideas that saw SPH’s net profits increase to S$397.5 million by the time he left in 2002.

Lim passed away on 20 July 2006 of pneumonia and old age at his home in Dalvey Road.

In recognition of his contributions, two scholarships, the Lim Kim San Professorship in Business Policy under the National University of Singapore, and the Lim Kim San Memorial Scholarship under SPH, and were set up in the year 2000 and 2003 respectively. Lim Kim San inspecting a Guard of HonourLim Kim San does an inspection of the Guard of Honour. (c.1967. Image from National Collection)