He proved HDB critics wrong

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Lim Kim San viewing models of the Cantonment Road housing estate in 1963.

He was Mr HDB.

If you belong to the more than 80 per cent of the population living in Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats, you have the late Mr Lim Kim San to thank for the roof above your head.

A 1947 British Housing Committee Report noted that Singapore had "one of the world's worst slums - a disgrace to a civilised community".

As chairman of HDB from 1960 to 1963, Mr Lim had the unenviable job of tackling the chronic housing shortage which plagued the nation and saw more than 500,000 people living in squalid conditions.

"You can't do it!", detractors from the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), the forerunner to HDB, mockingly told him.

He proved them all wrong.

In his first two years at the helm, Mr Lim got 26,168 housing units built - roughly the same number built by SIT in 32 years.

Under his leadership, HDB constructed 7,000 units in 1961 and between 10,000 and 13,000 units each year from 1962 to 1969.

Many years later, thinking back, he said: "It was a case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. But when you are young, you feel everything is possible."

Mr Lim entered politics in 1963 after winning a seat in Cairnhill.


Over the next 18 years, he headed various ministries including Defence, Finance, Communications, Environment and Education, and had a hand in many local milestones.

As defence minister, he oversaw the implementation of full-time National Service in 1967 and during his stint as environment minister, his ministry submitted a report on a 10-year project to clean up the Singapore River.

His magic touch meant that he was highly sought after by the corporate world upon his political retirement in 1981.

As chairman of the Port of Singapore Authority, he steered the company to become the world's busiest port by embracing new technology.

When he joined the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) in 1988, he increased profits by more than 25 per cent in the first financial year.

By the time he stepped down in December 2005 as SPH's Senior Adviser, the company's profits had jumped from $74 million in 1988 to $490 million.

He died in 2006 aged 89.

Despite his immense contributions to Singapore, he felt that the nation had contributed just as much to him.

In a 1996 interview with writer Melanie Chew, he said: "I was given a chance to serve my country. How many people are given this chance?

"To serve your country is a privilege. It is an honour. I am very proud to be able to say, 'I have served my country.'"


He nearly died in his early years when he was experimenting with frying sago pearls in a pan. The concoction caught fire and exploded.

He was matchmade. He and his wife met on three occasions and were married for 54 years and six months.

If Mr Lim had his way, Marine Parade would have become Singapore's financial district.

He was fond of animals and kept as pets kois, golden retrievers, a pomeranian, a chihuahua, a mynah and a kite.

He had more than 50 kois.

His parents were from Sumatra, so he spoke Malay. He did not learn Mandarin until he was a minister.


Mr Lim was a foodie with high standards.

Once, when asked what his favourite food was, he laughed and said: "Char kway teow, anything. Anything good..."

During his 80th birthday celebrations, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew commented: "When I see him eating with relish, I know that it is a good dish. When he picks and pecks, I never bother to try the same dish."

His driver of 18 years, Mr Supono Kasiar, said: "He loved mee siam, banana leaf curry, ngoh hiang and char kway teow.

"I would go to the hawker centres at Outram Park and the old National Library, and they'd say, 'Is it for Uncle Lim?'

"They knew how he liked his food cooked."

This article was first published on May 11, 2015. Get The New Paper for more stories.