Sim Kee Boon (simplified Chinese: 沈基文; pinyin: Shěn Jīwén) was one of Singapore’s pioneer civil servants – men who worked closely with the Old Guard political leaders and played a key role in the success of Changi Airport and turned the fortunes of Keppel Shipyard around.
He graduated with Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Economics from University of Malaya in 1953, and joined the civil service that year. By 1962, at just 33, he was made acting permanent secretary in the National Development Ministry, before taking charge of the Finance Ministry as well as Intraco, the state trading company. He was also Chairman and member of the Council of Presidential Advisers.
As Permanent Secretary at the Communications Ministry from 1975 to 1984, he made his name in the history books as the man behind was then the biggest civil project in Singapore – the construction and opening of Changi Airport – managing every aspect of the project from land reclamation to squatter resettlement. To Sim, Changi Airport project was his ‘national service’ to Singapore.
When Sim was given the mammoth task, he knew little about building an airport. Yet he approached the task as a layman, often asking questions and consulting his officers and staff. His hands-on, consultative management style kept staff on their toes, making sure they understand the importance of Changi project and nothing was to be overlooked. Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) chairman Liew Mun Leong remembered that Sim asked for mosaic tile samples from contractors to be displayed so staff could give feedback on tiles for the airport walls.
Sim was also known for his attention to details. As Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) for 15 years from 1984, he ensured that the airport had kept up with if not, exceed world-class quality standards. From airport management software to the texture of trolley handles, he insisted every aspect of customer experience must keep up with its impressive infrastructure. The quality of toilets at the Airport was even under his radar. He was quoted saying that the first and last point of exposure to an airport is the toilet. It gives you an impression of the country.
He also introduced free local phone calls in the transit area and the famous ’12-minute rule’. This means the first bag must be ready for retrieval 12 minutes after an aircraft grounds to a halt. He would even walk around the Changi terminals frequently, instituting the habit of ‘Management by Walking Around’ in CAAS. Mr David Lum, Managing Director of Lum Chang Holdings remembered that he would make an effort to look around airport, by reaching the place one or two hours earlier and board the plane at the last minute. And finally, he also stressed that the different players – CAAS, immigration and customs authorities, airport retailers, eateries – must work together as a team for Changi to succeed.
Sim’s success in his work did not stop with the development of Changi Airport. Between the years 1984 and 1999, Sim was serving concurrently as Chairmen of Keppel Corporation and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. It came to him at first, that he would end Keppel as it was making losses then. Instead he took the reins and once again demonstrated his canniness and swift in his decision-making and implementation. Mr Lim Chee Onn, who was executive chairman of Keppel Corporation at the time attributed Sim’s visionary abilities and his optimism ‘during those very trying times’ as factors which led to the renewed growth of Keppel within 5 years. With first signs of rejuvenation for Keppel, Sim diversified Keppel’s portfolios into other fields like engineering, property, financial services as well as developing shipyards in other parts of the world. Keppel Corporation had become a success story that befits the image of a Singapore business icon.
Another success story of Sim was when he was the founding chairman of Tanah Merah Country Club, where he built it from scratch on a barren land, and into one of Singapore’s best country clubs.
As Sim and his wife Jeannette were avid golfers, Tanah Merah Country Club was like his ‘second home’. He would also personally greet new Tanah Merah Country Club members. In October 2007 his illness took a turn for the worse, and had to undergo chemotherapy. Even so, Mr Edwin Khoo, committee member at the Tanah Merah Country Club, would still see Sim regularly at the club and walking with a tube under his shirt. When he could not get himself on the greens and play, Sim would still putt around and join golf buddies for drinks most weekends for two hours.
Of his contributions to the club, Mr Khoo said Mr Sim, a passionate golfer, single-handedly turned the barren land into the “best-run club in Singapore’, and was very proud of it.
“He always had a simple message for us committee members: to run this club well, and to make the best of what we can do. It was a simple but powerful message,” he said. He added that Mr Sim went to the club’s golf course every weekend for about two hours even when he could not play golf because of his failing health.
Businessman and Singapore’s Ambassador to Turkey, Mr Chandra Das, 68, who worked directly for Mr Sim when he was in the Economic Development Board in the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, said his former boss had taught him two things.
“First, there is no such thing as black or white. There are no fixed answers and there isn’t just one way of doing things. You must be flexible. There is a lot of grey. He was a specialist in the grey,” Mr Das told The Straits Times.
“The second thing he told me when I left EDB to join Intraco: He said in EDB there are two people playing chess and you are giving advice. In Intraco, you are a chess player.”
He described Mr Sim as “a very sharp and intuitive man, and a good teacher.” “He said you can make mistakes so long as you don’t repeat them. He was also very task-oriented and a stickler for work,’ added Mr Khoo.
“I remember I took a day off to go to the Registrar of Marriages to get married. After the ceremony, he called the ROM and said: Is Chandra Das there? Tell him to come back to work.”
Added Mr David Lum, managing director of Lum Chang Holdings, where Mr Sim was adviser since 2000, : ‘Whenever he’s at any airports, he would make an effort to look around. He’d try to go to the airport about one or two hours earlier and board the plane at the last minute.’
A hands-on man with exacting standards, he made frequent unannounced walks around the Changi terminals, instituting the habit of Management by Walking Around (MBW) in CAAS. The demand for the best holds true even on the greens, as the founder chairman built the Tanah Merah Country Club into one of Singapore’s best.
Said the club’s president Tan Puay Huat: ‘He’s not satisfied until everything is near perfect.’
Ms Mavis Tan, who was personal assistant to Mr Sim for 19 1/2 years since 1984 till he retired in 2000, said he was a boss with a kind heart but had high expectations of his staff, always challenging them to come up with solutions.
“I learnt a lot under him as I always had to anticipate what he would ask. It never failed to impress me that he had such wide first hand connections in the region,’ she said.
Staff at Keppel Group also said they benefited from Mr Sim’s leadership during his 16 years tenure as Group Executive Chairman.
Leading the tributes from the group, Mr Lim Chee Onn, Executive Chairman of Keppel Corporation, said: “He developed a strong and stable platform for Keppel upon which we have been able to develop and grow at a sustained pace during these last 8 years. Keppel’s success today is a result of his vision and efforts.
‘As his colleague, I have learnt much from him through his inimitable style, particularly his great sense of optimism and cheerfulness even during very trying times.’
Ms Wang Look Fung, General Manager of the group corporate communications, added: ‘Mr Sim was respected and loved. In all his years at Keppel, he has taught me always to be first a Singaporean and then a Keppelite in my thinking process because what is good for Singapore will be good for the future of Keppel. I learned a lot from one of the finest masters in the art of communication.
‘I will always remember him as one who has a meticulous attention for details as well as an infectious joire de vivre, always affable and charming to everyone he meets.’
Mr Choo Chiau Beng, Senior Executive Director of Keppel Corp, and Chairman and CEO of Keppel Offshore and Marine, said he will remember Mr Sim as a successful man who was always able to balance well the demands of business and public service with family life and a passion for golf.
“He was an excellent boss – he demanded results but was human and caring. He always kept his cool like holing the final putt in an important 18th hole!’
He died on 9 November 2007 at the Singapore General Hospital, after a 17-year battle with stomach cancer.