SINGAPORE: The late economist Lim Chong Yah made a major contribution to Singapore’s economic “take-off” in his role as founding chairman of the National Wages Council (NWC), said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Jul 9).
The emeritus professor, who taught at both the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, died on Saturday at age 91.
In a condolence letter to Prof Lim’s wife Madam See Nah Nah, Mr Lee noted that Prof Lim was NWC chair from 1972 to 2001, which were “critical” years in Singapore’s economic development.
The NWC is a tripartite body with representatives from the government, trade unions and employers.
“The NWC’s annual negotiations and recommendations paved the way for smooth industrial relations and progressive wage adjustments,” said Mr Lee.
“The process helped maintain industrial peace, ensured workers enjoyed a fair share of the fruits of growth, and strengthened the tripartite partnership.”
Under Prof Lim’s stewardship, the NWC grew into a crucial institution unique to Singapore and trusted by all parties, the prime minister added.
In 1979, the NWC was involved in setting up a Skills Development Fund to encourage workers to upgrade their skills, as Singapore went from a skills-intensive economy to a labour-intensive one.
“Decades later, our journey continues, as we expand continuing education and lifelong learning to encompass the entire population. We continue to benefit from the principles and foundations that Prof Lim established,” said Mr Lee.
He also recounted the council’s work in 1986, a year after Singapore faced its worst economic downturn since independence. An economic committee chaired by Mr Lee recommended cutting the Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution rate from 50 per cent to 35 per cent, while maintaining “severe wage restraint” to cut business costs” and restore Singapore’s competitiveness in the region.
“These were drastic recommendations,” said Mr Lee, who was acting minister of the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) then.
“It was crucial that both employers and unions understood the national imperative, and the strategy was not derailed by over-generous and unrealistic wage settlements.”
Prof Lim worked closely with MTI during NWC negotiations and under his guidance “the economy revived faster than we had dared to expect”, said Mr Lee.
As the NWC matured and the economy developed over the years, the council expanded its focus to other areas such as promoting flexible wages.
It also paid attention to lower-wage workers, added Mr Lee, by crafting recommendations to make sure this segment received “meaningful wage increases and were not left behind as wages generally went up”.
Prof Lim was then given the Public Service Star in 1976, the Meritorious Service Medal in 1983, and the Distinguished Service Order in 2000 for his outstanding contributions to Singapore’s economic and national development.
Mr Lee also revealed that Prof Lim tutored him in economics for a year in 1970 while he was studying the subject for his A-Levels.
Describing him as a patient and caring teacher, Mr Lee recalled: “He would set me an essay topic each week, which I would research and write up before discussing it with him at the next tutorial. It was an active, intense and effective way to master the basics of the subject, which have remained with me and proven invaluable all my life.”
Prof Lim has two daughters and two sons. One of his children, lawyer Lee Suet Fern, became the prime minister’s sister-in-law after marrying his brother, Mr Lee Hsien Yang.
“Professor Lim will be deeply missed. I hope you will find comfort in knowing that his memory and legacy will live on through his many lasting contributions to Singapore and their impact on generations of Singaporeans,” said Mr Lee.
In Prof Lim’s pre-teen years, he farmed rice, tapioca and vegetables to contribute to his family’s income, according to an article by the National Library Board (NLB). He also worked as a bread delivery boy at 14 years old.
His father was a shopkeeper while his mother died when he was eight.
Prof Lim was later awarded a Malacca Settlement scholarship to study economics at the University of Malaya, then located in Singapore.
He later joined the administrative service before embarking on a career in academia.
The NWC said in a statement on Sunday that Prof Lim’s task as its pioneering chairman was “particularly difficult” as labour management relations back then were “fraught with tensions”, but he built up trust among tripartite members by establishing a key principle of unanimity in decision-making.
With its annual wage guidelines formulated over the years, NWC made Singapore’s wage system “into one which is flexible and responsive to the changing needs of employers, employees and the economy”, said the council.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for MTI Tan See Leng described Prof Lim as a distinguished economist whose contributions to the country “went far beyond the academic realm”.
He also highlighted Prof Lim’s “unceasing” concern for the livelihoods and welfare of low-wage workers.
Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Jamus Lim also expressed his admiration for the late Prof Lim’s works, which he first encountered as an undergraduate.
“Two decades on, I still assign his book on Southeast Asian economies in my courses,” said the Sengkang MP and lecturer at ESSEC Business School.
According to NLB, Prof Lim published more than 160 peer-reviewed journal articles, monographs, and books – two of which are popular as Singapore’s A-Level texts.
Singapore’s ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh said he became friends with Prof Lim when they were deans of NUS’ law and arts faculties respectively.
“He was as concerned about economic growth as he was about the fair distribution of prosperity,” Prof Koh wrote on Facebook on Sunday.
“He was offended by the growing gap between our top earners and those at the bottom of our pyramid.”
Prof Lim was also a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights and outside of Singapore, served as an economic consultant to the United Nations and World Bank commissions among others.
In a tribute post, NTU described Prof Lim as “an eminent economist and educator who has left an indelible mark”, and whose “foresight and “innovative thinking has guided the economic and national development of Singapore”.