Lim Chong Yah

Lim Chong Yah (b. 1932, Malacca, Malaysia) is an eminent economist and academic best known for serving as chairman of the National Wages Council for 29 years. Lim is professor emeritus at both the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, and was previously the Albert Winsemius chair professor of economics at the latter.

Early life and education
Lim’s father was a shopkeeper, while his mother died when he was eight. In his pre-teen years, Lim farmed rice, tapioca and vegetables to add to the family’s income, and at the age of 14 worked as a bread delivery boy. During the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), Lim saw jobless rubber tappers die of starvation and resolved to move beyond a labourer’s life with the help of education. He excelled academically and was awarded a Malacca Settlement scholarship to study economics at the University of Malaya, then located in Singapore.

Lim graduated with an honours degree in economics in 1955 and joined the Singapore administrative service, where his posts included assistant financial secretary and second assistant economic adviser. Lim was also assistant secretary on a committee chaired by Sydney Caine that helped implement the Central Provident Fund scheme in Singapore.

He then became a lecturer at the University of Malaya in 1959. In 1962, Lim won a British Commonwealth scholarship to read economics at the University of Oxford where he studied under Nobel laureate John Hicks, and obtained his doctorate in two years.

Academic career
Lim returned to the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur as a lecturer and subsequently headed its division of applied economics. There was talk of Lim’s potential for a cabinet post in the Malaysian government, but the country suffered from communal tensions in the late 1960s and the University of Singapore offered him a position in 1969. Lim’s mentor, Hicks, advised him that he would be better equipped to effect regional change from Singapore, while Lim was also swayed by his time as a student there and the fact that his wife was Singaporean.

In 1969, Lim joined the University of Singapore as a reader in economics. He was elected dean of the university’s faculty of arts and social sciences, and served in the position from 1971 to 1977. He went on to head the department of economics and statistics from 1977 to 1992. Under his leadership, the department became the largest economics department in the Asia-Pacific region, and the number of courses increased greatly. Courses for masters degrees and doctorates were also introduced. In 1980, the University of Singapore merged with Nanyang University to form the National University of Singapore (NUS), and Lim later became a senior professor at NUS.

In May 1992, Lim left NUS to become professor of economics at the Nanyang Technological University's (NTU's) school of accountancy and business. He was then named professor emeritus at NUS in September 1992. The title is the highest academic accolade at NUS and allowed him to retain the title for life. Lim has also been a visiting professor at a number of universities worldwide, including Ohio University, Kyoto University, Australian National University, Linacre College at the University of Oxford, National Taiwan University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In 1999, a group of employers began fundraising efforts for a professorship in Lim’s name at NUS. The Lim Chong Yah Professorship in Arts and Social Sciences was launched in February 2001 with the purpose of engaging eminent professors to lecture and do research at NUS. It was funded with S$1.6 million in donations from companies, unions and individuals.

Lim has been involved in a number of charitable causes in higher education. In the early 1990s, he set up the Students Emergency Fund at NTU with funds from his speaking engagements and royalties from his books. In 2007, Lim established the Lim Chong Yah Bursary Fund at NTU with a personal donation of S$100,000. This led to the launch of the university’s Campaign for Accessibility to Higher Education, which helps support around 120 financially disadvantaged students each year.

Lim was appointed the Albert Winseumius chair professor at NTU in 2005, and honoured with the title of emeritus professor by the same university in 2012.

National Wages Council
In February 1972, Lim was appointed by the Singapore government to chair the National Wages Council (NWC). The NWC is a tripartite body comprising representatives from the unions, employers and the government, which seeks to bring about consensus in wage negotiations. 

In 1978, the NWC was used as an instrument of economic restructuring, and adopted a high-wage policy with the aim of easing out labour-intensive, low-paying jobs and economic activities. The move to attract jobs with a higher economic value led to the establishment of the Skills Development Fund (SDF), set up to train workers for the demands of the restructured economy. Between 1979 and 1982, the SDF was chaired by Lim, who is a leading advocate of workers’ training.

The NWC has been cited as an important factor in avoiding industrial unrest, and the council played an important role during the oil crisis of 1973 to 1974 and the economic recessions of 1985 to 1986 and 1998 to 1999. Under Lim’s chairmanship, the NWC has also 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 and the rejection of a minimum wage.

During the 29 years in which Lim chaired the NWC, real wages grew at an average of 4.6 percent per year. He handed over chairmanship of the council to another academic, Lim Pin, in April 2001. In 2003, Lim called for a review of the flexible wage system (recommended by the NWC in 1985) and its efficacy in preventing retrenchments during a recession, as well as a reexamination of government policy on foreign workers and its effects on Singaporeans’ wages. In 2012, Lim argued for reforms to raise the salaries of low-wage workers, who he described as being underpaid.

Publishing and other activities
A prolific author, Lim has published more than 160 refereed journal articles, monographs and books. Two of his books, Elements of Economic Theory and Economic Structure and Organisation, are well known in Singapore as A-level texts. His books have been translated into Chinese, Malay and Japanese. Lim also edited the Singapore Economic Review from 1978 to 1991.

Between 1973 to 1991, Lim was president of the Economic Society of Singapore (ESS), and was made an honorary fellow of the society when he stepped down. Through the ESS, he founded the Federation of ASEAN Economic Associations and was its president on three separate occasions. Lim has also acted as a consultant to the Mauritian government on wage reforms, and as economic consultant to United Nations and World Bank commissions. He is also a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.

Lim has sat on various corporate boards, including those of United Overseas Bank, Commercial and Industrial Bank, Delifrance Asia and the Straits Trading Company, as well as acted as international adviser to NEC (Japan).


1976: Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).
1985: Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).
1985: Meritorious Service Award from National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).
1987: Founder’s Distinguished Award from Federation of ASEAN Economic Associations.
1991: Honorary Fellow, Economic Society of Singapore.
1995: Doctor, honoris causa, from Soka University, Japan.
1996: Honorary Professorship from Hainan University, China.
1999: Distinguished Service Award from National Trades Union Congress.
2000: Darjah Utama Bakti Cemerlang (Distinguished Service Order).

Selected publications
 Economic Development of Modern Malaya.

1971: Elements of Economic Theory (with Lee Sheng Yi and Chia Siow Yue).
1973: Economic Structure and Organisation (with Chia Siow Yue, Bhanoji Rao and Ow Chwee Huay).
1981: Economic Development in Southeast Asia.
1983: Education and National Development.
1984: Economic Restructuring in Singapore.
1988: Policy Options for the Singapore Economy (with associates).
1991: Development and Underdevelopment.
1998: Wages and Wages Policies: Tripartism in Singapore (co-editor and contributor).
2001: Economic Essays by Lim Chong Yah.
2001: Southeast Asia: The Long Road Ahead.

Wife: See Nah Nah.
Daughters: Suet Fern (senior director of Stamford Law Corporation), Suet Lynn.
Sons: Suet Wun (chief executive of Tan Tock Seng Hospital), Suet Ron.


Alvin Chua

Ahmad Osman. (1998, March 7). What goes on behind closed doors during NWC talks. The Straits Times, p. 47. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Ahmad Osman. (1998, November 12). NWC – Cut wages by 5-8%. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Basu, R. (2009, December 5). ‘I owe my life to education’. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Chair launched at NUS in honour of Lim Chong Yah. (2001, February 3). The Business Times. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from Factiva.

Chng, M. K. (2001, July). Citation on Professor Lim Chong Yah. ECONews, 12-14.
(Call no. RSING 330 E issue July 2001)

Chua, L. H. (2003, October 26). 16% CPF is enough. The Sunday Times, p. 32. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Davie, S. & Bungar, J. (1992, September 1). S’pore ‘can reach top of rich nations’ league’. The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Economics don quits Malayan varsity for job in S'pore. (1968, October 11). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Former NWC chief lauded for his service. (2001, June 22). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

James, K. (1991, May 30). Economic Society means business. The Business Times. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from Factiva.

Khin, N. (2005, July 27). S’pore has to tread carefully on foreign labour policy: Prof. The Business Times. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from Factiva.

Lim, C. Y. (2009). Southeast Asia: The long road ahead. Singapore: World Scientific.
(Call no.: RSING 330.959 LIM)

Lim, C. Y., & Chew, R. (Eds.). (1998). Wages and wages policies: Tripartism in Singapore. Singapore: World Scientific.
(Call no.: RSING 331.295957 WAG)

Lin, Y. (2012, April 17). Low-wage workers here 'underpaid': Lim Chong Yah. TODAY. Retrieved April 21, 2012, from Factiva.

Nanyang Technological University. (2005, July 26). The Albert Winsemius Professorship [Press release]. Retrieved from Nanyang Technological University website:

Ng, I. (1998, November 13). Two implications need to be watched. The Straits Times, p. 64. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Ng, I. (2000, June 9). Mr NWC’s hot seat. The Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

NWC still has critical role, says chairman. (1994, May 14). The Business Times. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from Factiva.

Prof. Lim is dean of arts faculty. (1971, June 24). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Professor Lim Chong Yah conferred emeritus professor title. (2012, September). ClassAct, 114. Retrieved from Nanyang Technological University website:

Tan, A. (1999, November 23). Why SDF remains relevant 20 years on – NWC head. The Business Times. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from Factiva.

Tan, M. (2012, April 10). 'Only way out is to restructure again'. The Straits Times. Retrieved April 21, 2012, from Factiva.

Tan, M. (2012, April 10). Professor's 'shock therapy' to revamp wages. The Straits Times. Retrieved April 21, 2012, from Factiva.

Teh, S. N. (2012, April 11). Rationale behind Lim Chong Yah's wage shock therapy. The Business Times. Retrieved April 21, 2012, from Factiva.

Teo, A. (2003, July 31). Three in four new jobs going to foreigners. The Business Times. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from Factiva.

Yeo, J. (1972, February 12). 5-year pay rise control? The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Yong, P. W. (1990, May 29). Let built-in pay rise trail productivity growth: NWC. The Business Times. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from Factiva.

The information in this article is valid as at 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Law and government>>Public finance
Business, finance and industry>>Economics
Singapore--Economic policy
Lim, Chong-Yah, 1932-
Government economists--Singapore--Biography

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