‘Mr HDB’ Lim Kim San – Man of the ’60s

Leong Sze Hian/

Mr Lim Kim San, was called Mr HDB, as he volunteered to be chairman of the Housing Development Board (HDB) when it was established in 1960. He took no salary for the first three years of his stint at the HDB and only started taking a salary in 1963, when he became Singapore’s National Development Minister, after winning his debut into politics as a fresh Member of Parliament. He subsequently became the Finance and Defence Minister.

During his tenure as Chairman of HDB, Mr Lim Kim San was given the daunting task of providing low-cost public housing for about 400,000 people who were staying in squatter and make-shift homes.

Against all odds and to the chagrin of his critics, he built about 25,000 HDB flats in the first three years.

It was an eye-opener to what a dedicated and determined public servant could do, following on the then dismal performance of the Singapore Investment Trust (SIT) which was the provider of public housing before 1960. Indeed, some credited him with saving the PAP – which at that time was untested –  by solving Singapore’s housing problem.

Then and now – why we need another Lim Kim San

Today, the National Development Minister also volunteered for the job, from his previous appointment as the Health Minister but is paid more than two million dollars a year.

Arguably, his task may be even more onerous, as he may have to play the delicate balancing act of providing affordable public housing to Singaporeans as well as about 600,000 permanent residents (PRs) and about 1.4 million foreigners, most of whom may not be able to afford private housing rentals or purchase.

But it’s astonishing considering that even with today’s advanced building technology, the industry’s capacity to build HDB flats is about 25,000 a year.

This may be one of the reasons why the time that it takes to build and deliver the flats’ keys to buyers is getting longer to an average of about four years, against the former Minister’s statement in Parliament last year that the average construction time was 32 months.

Today, the perennial issue is that National Development Ministers have repeatedly refused to disclose how its Market Pricing Subsidy policy is derived and broken down, other than to say that it is a discount from resale HDB prices.

In this connection, in a welcomed surprise move after the current Minister took office, new BTO prices were slashed substantially according to several market analysts and stakeholders.

However, the Minister denied that BTO prices were slashed by saying that the different locations and types of flats would have different prices.

From the period of Mr Lim’s tenure at the HDB, up till 1984 when Mr The Cheang Wan was National Development Minister, the pricing of HDB flats was broken down into land and construction costs (the last time such breakdown was given was in a New Paper article in 1984).

Today, the HDB today is shrouded in secrecy – even Cash-over-valuation (COV) median prices were abruptly not released anymore recently, citing that they were “misleading”, despite it having been used for some time now as proof that the cooling measures were working.

During Mr Lim’s tenure, HDB flats only cost a few thousand dollars, only Singaporeans could buy or rent, and there were no Resale Levies, 30-month waiting periods when you sell a property, permanent debarment from HDB loans for private property or Executive Condominium (EC) owners, income ceilings, etc.

For the estimated 30,000 plus HDB flat owners who are in arrears on their HDB and HDB bank loans for more than three months, the thousands who have lost their homes because they couldn’t pay their mortgages anymore, thousands who have been waiting for rental flats for years, tens of thousands trying to get a flat, etc, perhaps what we direly need is another Lim Kim San.

This article is part of a series where contributors were asked for their personal take on who shaped the decades.

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