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Prominent economist Lim Chong Yah passes on, aged 91

Tripartite partners pay tribute to the man who has helped shape Singapore’s economic landscape.
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By Ian Tan Hanhonn 09 Jul 2023
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Professor Lim Chong Yah, eminent professor and founding chairman of the National Wages Council (NWC), died on 8 July 2023. He was 91.


He was appointed as chairman of the NWC in 1972. Back then, he was the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and head of the Economics Department at the University of Singapore.


As chair of the tripartite advisory body, Prof Lim played a crucial role in formulating guidelines on national wage policies. With his guidance, the NWC has – over the years – recommended wage adjustments which are in tandem with Singapore’s economic performance and prospects.


He was chair of the council for nearly three decades before stepping down in 2001.


NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng expressed his condolences on the passing of Professor Lim on Facebook.


He wrote: “Many union leaders past and present would remember Prof Lim as someone who tirelessly advocated for the vulnerable, particularly our lower-wage workers. His way of distilling economic concepts into simple logic was undoubtedly instrumental in fostering consensus building among tripartite partners as we navigated tough negotiations.”


Meanwhile, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng shared on Facebook that Prof Lim was a “distinguished economist”, and his contributions to the nation “went far beyond the academic realm”.


He wrote: “He led the NWC for almost 30 years and laid the foundation for harmonious tripartite relations on which our progressive and prosperous economy is built. I had the honour and pleasure of meeting Prof Lim on many occasions, both in my professional and private capacity, and I am always inspired by his intellect, candour, and passion. His concern for the livelihoods and welfare of our lower-wage workers was unceasing.”


He is survived by his two daughters and two sons.


Early life


Prof Lim was born in Malacca back in 1932.


His father was a shopkeeper, and his mother died when he was just eight.


From an early age, he began working at rice, tapioca, and vegetable farms to help supplement his family’s income. When he was 14, he also worked as a bread delivery boy.


Between 1942 to 1945, during the Japanese Occupation, Prof Lim witnessed jobless rubber tappers die of starvation. With that, he resolved to move beyond a labourer’s life and to further pursue his education.


Work with the NWC


During the years which Prof Lim was chairing the NWC, the tripartite body has been cited as an important factor in avoiding industrial unrest.


The council also played an important role during the oil crisis of 1973, and the economic recessions of 1985 to 1986 and 1998 to 1999.


Under his chairmanship, the NWC recommended the extension of the retirement age; a policy of aligning wage adjustments to productivity; the use of part-time and flexible work arrangements to reduce the nation’s reliance on low-income foreign workers; the rejection of a minimum wage.


During the 29 years in which Prof Lim chaired the NWC, real wages grew at an average of 4.6 per cent per year.


He handed over the chairmanship of the council to another academic, Lim Pin, in April 2001.


Labour Movement recognition


In recognition of his contributions towards the betterment of workers, Professor Lim was awarded the Meritorious Service Award and Distinguished Service Award by NTUC in 1985 and 1999 respectively.