A distinguished economist, who knows all three PMs, had launched an autobiography that revealed much about politics and academia in S'pore

You will be interested to know more about his life even if you are not interested in economics.

Martino Tan| January 30, 03:53 PM

Lim Chong Yah -- a name that many Singaporeans would have heard if they studied economics for their GCE "A" levels examinations.

Afterall, Lim, 84, is the author of two significant economic textbooks -- Elements of Economic Theory and Economic Structure and Organisation -- which are into their third editions and many reprints.

Lim's accomplishments as an academic do not just end here, as he holds the rare distinction of being professor emeritus at both the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

His would have been a life well-lived even if he did not venture out from his ivory tower.

However, this economist is not a typical academic.

Like many founding fathers of Singapore, Lim has also devoted his life to public service.

In 1972, he was asked to chair a newly formed National Wages Council (NWC), an institution that he went on to serve for 29 years. The NWC is made up of representatives from the government, employers' association and trade unions and they deal with issues related to wages and wage policy.

Between 1973 to 1991, Lim was president of the Economic Society of Singapore (ESS). He was also a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) for 20 years from 1992 to 2012.

Such a distinguished life is worthy of a rich autobiography, which the octogenarian duly rewarded us at a book launch (“Lim Chong Yah: An Autobiography, Life Journey of a Singaporean Professor”) on Jan. 21.

Below are 8 personal snippets from one of the most consequential economist in Singapore, who is incidentally the father-in-law of a member of the Lee family:

1. On his eldest daughter, Suet Fern, a prominent lawyer, who is now the managing partner of Morgan Lewis Stamford in Singapore:

"Fern's academic talents showed at an early age...[she] studied law at the University of Cambridge, completing her degree with a double first, and scooping up most of the prizes for law students.

It was in Cambridge that she was very thick with Lee Hsien Yang whom she came to know when they were both studying in Singapore's National Junior College (NJC). Yang was a year her senior.

I was told during her final examination, he would queue up for her in the snow for the exam room to open, an episode that showed they were in a serious relationship.

Lim is the father to two daughters -- Suet Fern and Suet Lynn -- and two sons -- Suet Wun and Suet Ron.

2. On the late Mrs Lee Kuan Yew:

"We discussed about arrangements for the marriage (between Suet Fern and Hsien Yang). I only insisted that they had to be married in church -- Barker Road Methodist Church. She agreed...

Whenever there was a call from Mrs Lee to me or my wife, she always referred to her husband as Harry or Kuan Yew. We tried not to use these terms...We always refer to Yang's mother as Mrs Lee, not Geok Choo, in part because they were about 10 years older than we were."

3. On the late Lee Kuan Yew's personal touch when he became PM:

"He (Lee Kuan Yew) visited every ministry to get to grips with what it was doing. When he came to our ministry, we briefed him on our work. He spent time talking to us...

It was a shrewd move on the part of the Prime Minister then to visit the Civil Service as he wanted to direct the machinery that would be implementing government policy to ensure an effective government".

Lim had joined the Singapore administrative service, where his posts included assistant financial secretary and second assistant economic adviser.

4. On coaching Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong before his A levels:

"I was given the honour, at the request of his mother, Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, of coaching him in Economics for his A-level examination...

He was hard-working and brillant. He completed all his essay assignments in good time reading all the materials given to him. His mother later wrote me a personal note thanking me very much for the help in coaching her son."

5. On meeting a young Goh Chok Tong, who was contemplating a life in academia:

"It was 1960 when I first met him (Goh) at the Goodwood Park Hotel where he had been presenting a paper on Singapore to the Lester Pearson Commission that had been appointed by the World Bank to deal with aid and global development...

Goh confided in me when we met in the hotel car park that he wished to continue with doctoral studies with the view of becoming an academic. He even had a topic which he discussed with me."

6. On meeting a young Tharman Shanmugaratnam just back from his studies in UK:

"It was in the 1980s when he first came to see me in my office. He said, "My father told me to do so". He (Tharman) had just returned from the University of Cambridge where he was awarded a Master's degree in economics...

I looked at his results and said, 'I see you are a brilliant scholar but my first duty is to send you to an Ivy League university in the US to get your PhD. You will be able to go under the senior tutorship scheme on full pay and on a scholarship but it will take four to five years to complete a PhD programme.'

The thought of having to spend another four to five years to obtain a doctorate just to come under the tutorship scheme came as a shock to him. He said he would think about the proposal but he did not pursue it."

7. On his first meeting with Goh Keng Swee when he was a civil servant:

"One day soon after his appointment, I received a call from Dr Goh to go to his office to discuss some important matters. The direct call was rather unusual, as I was quite junior...

Dr Goh said that the purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm and explore other lines of action other than industralisation to develop Singapore's economy...

I remember mentioning the possibility of developing tourism. He laughed, "Do you know who would come here? Drunken sailors! We have instability, disorder, poverty, who would come?"

8. And finally on his wife, See Nah Nah, whom he married sixty years ago (May 1957):

"She loved poems while I loved composing them, so I took the opportunity to pen some verses to woo her. I still remember the first poem I wrote for her...

And being an economist, I could not resist introducing economic jargon in one particular later poem:

My love for you multiplies

As the days go by

My love for you is the multiplicand

And yours the multiplier

And let the multiplier and the multiplicand roll into one

To produce a new product

Closer to the Divine"

Such an eventful life is without some controversies, so here are two top picks of the lot:

1. Report on CPF withdrawal age

In 1986, Lim set up a CPF study group report to analyse the CPF withdrawal age. This was after the adverse public reaction to the government's suggestion in 1984 to increase the age for CPF withdrawal from 55 to 60 years old.

Lim speculated three possible reasons that made the report controversial then -- the report proposed: 1) that the CPF withdrawal age should remain at age 55; 2) for the institution of an insurance policy for catastrophic illnesses; and 3) the implementation of a CPF minimum sum scheme.

He recalled in his autobiography,

"[W]hen the report was ready, we were told not to publish it. This went against academic thinking and practice as traditionally academics are expected to make public their research work...

A reporter from The Straits Times somehow got hold of our report and it was serialised in the newspaper, making almost daily headline news.

I asked the Minister, since it was already made public, perhaps our department could publish the report but he referred me to another Minister who then referred me to yet another...I took matters into my own hands and published the report as a special issue of the Singapore Economic Review...

To my astonishment, I heard through the grapevine that then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told the members of his Cabinet to read the issue as 'there were a lot of good ideas in the report'.

So from something that was considered unpublishable and problematic, the report had made it to the 'must read' list for Cabinet Ministers..."

2. An advocate for wage "shock therapy"

In 2012, Lim called for a "shock therapy" to raise wages for the very low-income workers, while proposing an across-the-board voluntary three-year wage freeze for top executives earning more than $1 million a year. That was what he shared five years later:

"The reaction of some of our government political leaders and top trade unionists was very negative. However, it generated a great deal of positive support from the public particularly on social media.

Eventually, our political leadership had second thoughts on the matter. They soon also expressed concern over the phenomenon of the deterioration of income inequality".

Do not dismiss the hardcover book as yet another boring economic textbook.

Source: World Scientific. Source: World Scientific.

As probably the best salesman for his own book, Lim told his audience at the book launch that "one should not judge a book by its cover".

He added that the "autobiography is event-oriented and episode-oriented" and highlight six interesting episodes -- initiating his first successful strike for instance -- to whet their appetites.

And if you are still wondering whether to get the book, all proceeds from the books' royalties will be given to the NTU Professor Lim Chong Yah Bursary Fund, which have benefited 111 NTU undergraduates from less privileged backgrounds.

If you like what you read, follow us on

target="_blank">Facebook and Twitter to get the latest updates.

If you like what you read, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Telegram to get the latest updates.