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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Farewell, reflect and learn from Dr. Lim Chong Eu, father & founder of modern Penang

Farewell, Dr Lim

On The Beat Wong Chun Wai

Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu will be remembered for turning Penang into a modern state and one that Penangites are fiercely proud of.

WHEN Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu swept into power in the 1969 general election, I was in Standard Two. Yet, I have never forgotten that night when the Gerakan staged their final rally at the Esplanade before polling began the next day.

Perched on the shoulders of my father, I was too young to understand most of what Dr Lim and the other leaders were saying but I knew history was unfolding. Speaker after speaker, they all asked the thousands of listeners to sink the Alliance boat – the symbol of the coalition – in the Feb 10, 1969 election.

I was mesmerised by the oratory skills of Dr Lim and the Gerakan leaders, particularly the late Datuk Lim Ee Hiong who had to reach out to the audience in Hokkien. It left such a deep impression on me that I believe my interest in politics was probably born and fired up there.

For Penangites who grew up in the 1970s, Dr Lim seemed to be the only leader we knew. There was no one else since he held the helm for 21 years. I know very little about his predecessor, the late Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee from the MCA. Wong was a pious Catholic school teacher from Bukit Mertajam who entered politics reluctantly.

I dropped by his home a few times as a boy because one of his sons was a schoolmate. Dressed in his singlet and shorts, he seemed to be tending to his small garden outside his modest Macalister Road home.

In 1980, when I became a cub reporter for six months prior to entering university, Dr Lim was still Chief Minister and was at his most powerful.

I got to cover his weekly press conferences four years later. He believed the press should understand what he was doing but he said little on record. Most times, it was just a few paragraphs for reporting. In journalistic language, they were just fillers – small stories to fill up the holes in a page.

So entrenched was he in his position that he did not really care if the media gave him coverage. After all, he was about to fulfil his promise of building the Penang Bridge.

He had built the low-cost flats in Rifle Range and, through the Penang Development Corporation, more flats were being constructed in other areas. When he took over Penang, unemployment was running at 16% but he created plenty of jobs through the setting up of the Penang Free Trade Zone in Bayan Lepas. The DAP had no match for him.

Dr Lim carried a certain aura with him. None of his Gerakan members could fit into his shoes. The older Penangites would tell you that he was in the same league as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Both of them were academically brilliant apart from being powerful political orators. They were in the same Parliament before Separation.

They were disciplined and visionary. They spoke English with deep voices and had no time for trivial matters. Both did not see the need to be populist to pander to the demands of the people.

After Separation, Lee singularly built up the island republic and transformed a backwater island into a modern city state. Likewise, for Dr Lim, despite leading the Gerakan to victory in Penang, the initial period was not easy. With the island’s free port status revoked, dealing a tremendous blow to the thriving economy, he also had to transform Penang in a different way. His pioneering spirit brought in the multinationals to the Free Trade Zone, effectively beginning the inflow of foreign direct investment into the country.

As former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad put it, “it was as a chief minister that he made foreign direct investment a byword in Malaysia and perhaps in the world”. I don’t remember ever seeing the late Dr Lim, a man concerned with the big picture, pointing his finger at a pot hole or a clogged drain. He did not need that kind of publicity. Neither did he have to fry koay teow or don an ethnic costume at a particular community’s festival. He was always in a bush jacket or in his trademark white short-sleeved shirt.

His biggest political opponent in Penang then was DAP’s Karpal Singh. I witnessed many of their duels in the Penang State Assembly, where Karpal Singh would call him an “old fox” while Dr Lim, sitting on the opposite bench, would close his eyes and smile, seemingly indifferent to the drama.

Later, when Lim Kit Siang launched his series of Tanjung Battles in his bid to capture Penang, Dr Lim’s grip on the island state began to loosen. Kit Siang won the Tanjung parliamentary seat in 1986 by defeating Dr Koh Tsu Koon with over 4,000 votes. He also won the Kampung Kolam state seat. The storm had started. By the time Tanjung Two was launched in 1990, Kit Siang had killed off Dr Lim’s career by wresting Padang Kota with a 706 vote majority. Kit Siang retained his Tanjung parliamentary seat with a majority of over 17,000 votes. The DAP was just short of three seats in forming the state government.

The warning signs were there, with Penangites feeling Dr Lim had overstayed his welcome. Dr Koh, his political secretary, succeeded him as the state’s third Chief Minister.

Suddenly, the towering Komtar was looking like a sore thumb; the beaches were not clean any more; the island lost its shine as the “Pearl of the Orient”; and the state motto “Penang Leads” was no longer used. It is not even remembered now. The slide had worsened. Klang Valley had progressed far ahead of Penang as many Penangites migrated to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Known to be fiercely independent, the people of Penang lost their patience and eventually rejected the Gerakan-led state government in 2008. They had disposed of Wong, Dr Lim and Dr Koh. There is a lesson for politicians here: Never overstay in Penang.

It must have broken Dr Lim’s heart that Dr Koh could not hold on to Penang anymore after 18 years as a chief minister.

Dr Lim stayed away from the media, turning away numerous requests for interviews, after 1990. Certainly, the gaps in history will remain unanswered because of his refusal to talk. I was told that a university lecturer was engaged to write his memoirs but the project stopped. Another academic who interviewed him told me that there was little useful information given to him.

A few years back, I met Dr Lim at a seafood restaurant in Batu Ferringhi. I walked up to him to greet him and was extremely glad that he could still remember me after I introduced myself. He asked how often I returned to Penang from Kuala Lumpur and whether I would eventually “come home”.

Dr Lim will be remembered for turning Penang into a modern state and one that Penangites are fiercely proud of. He is no longer with us but he will always remain in the hearts and minds of Penangites. Thank you for what you have done for Penang. Farewell, Dr Lim.

Yeo tells of Dr Lim’s S’pore link


GEORGE TOWN: Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo paid tribute to Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, giving a glimpse of how his family came to Penang.

Yeo said Dr Lim’s father was from the republic but was sent to Penang by his (Dr Lim’s) grandfather.

“Having two sons who were doctors, the grandfather Cheng Sah decided that one should serve in Singapore, and the other (Dr Lim’s father, Chwee Leong), in Penang.

“But the connection (between Penang and Singapore) remains,” he told reporters after paying his last respects at Dewan Sri Pinang here yesterday.

Yeo said Dr Lim went to China to take part in the anti-Japanese war upon graduation from the Edinburgh University in Scotland.

“He got to know leaders like Chiang Kai-shek but decided to return to Penang to be part of the nationalist struggle, although he was asked to stay on in China,” he said.

Describing Dr Lim as “much loved by everyone”, Yeo conveyed the condolences from the Singapore government and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Nation’s loss: Muhyiddin expressing his condolences to Dr Lim’s son, Chien Aun after paying his last respects at the Dewan Sri Pinang, Penang yesterday. — Bernama
Chong Eu’s brother Datuk Lim Chong Keat said their late uncle Sir Dr Lim Han Hoe had two sons and two daughters, who have passed away.

Chong Keat said their brother and sister, who both reside in Singapore, and their children were among many Singapore relatives who were here for Chong Eu’s funeral.

Among those who paid their respects yesterday was Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. Other leaders who paid their respects were MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu, who led an MIC delegation, Barisan Nasional Wanita chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who came with 30 members and Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, who was with his deputy Tan Sri Dr George Chan Hong Nam.

Dr Lim’s cortege will leave Dewan Sri Pinang at noon today for the Batu Gantong crematorium.

Tun Dr Lim, a local and national leader


The late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu was known as a giant of Penang, having led the state for 21 years as its Chief Minister, but he was very much a national politician with the country’s well-being at heart.

TUN Dr Lim Chong Eu – if known at all to young Malaysians today – is remembered as a politician who was most active at the state level. He was after all the second Chief Minister of Penang for 21 years, from 1969 to 1990.

However, it is far from true that his politics were not national in character. It was only that the political path that his struggles took him along after he joined politics in 1951 was one that was far from straight or predictable, and not easily described.

He was 71 years old when his electoral loss in 1990 convinced him that it was time to retire. By then, he had been in politics for 40 years.

Towering inspiration: The hearse carrying Lim’s casket passing by the iconic Komtar in Penang yesterday.
Coming from a wealthy Penang family, he showed great promise from the beginning. He performed well at Hutchings School, and moved to Penang Free School in 1932.

When he was awarded the coveted Queen’s Scholarship in 1937, the Straits Times informed its readers that the 18-year-old was a “keen sportsman and cadet, holding the rank of second-lieutenant in the Free School Corps, a ‘crack rifle shot’, and was interested in history and geography”.

Following in his father’s footsteps, he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and when the war broke out, he served with allied troops in China as medical officer to General Chen Chen, who later became the vice-president of the Republic of China.

After the war, Dr Lim competed regularly in tennis tournaments.

When the first municipal elections took place in Malaya in 1951, we see Dr Lim leading his first political party, the Fabian-inspired Penang Radical Party, to victory in George Town. He was thus at the forefront of Penang – and national – electoral politics from the word “Go”.

In 1953, Dr Lim was the only Chinese fielded by the Radical Party, and this was in the Malay-majority seat of Jelutong. He lost badly. The Umno-MCA alliance won in all the three contested Penang municipal seats. Communal-based politics seemed to have found a formula that could gain support, at least for the time being.

Departure: Members of the Malaysian Buddhist Association praying while pall bearers drape the Jalur Gemilang over Lim’s casket.
Dr Lim told his party members in June the following year: “We believe the present stage of limited election should not be considered to be the ultimate one nor even the beginning of the final phase, but merely one which will give the people of Malaya the chance to learn the principles and practice of what living democracy means and therefore the more the people get this experience, no matter under what conditions, the safer are the chances that a self-governing Malaya will be democratic”.

He did not seem to have considered this learning process to be a long one, though.

In July that year, at a well-attended public debate, he proposed a motion for immediate self-rule for Malaya. He argued that the idea that Malaya was not ready for self-government was “antiquated”

“We are rich not only in natural resources but also in population potential. And we have also a high percentage of literacy”.

Apparently courted by MCA president Tan Cheng Lock, Dr Lim soon joined the MCA, and in April 1955, as Penang Settlement councillor, he moved successfully for Malay to become the council’s joint official language, together with English.

In July that year, he was made Federal Legislative Councilor. The following month, Dr Lim, now head of Penang Alliance, managed to push through a motion in the Penang Settlement Council calling for George Town to have a fully-elected Municipal Council headed by an elected mayor.

On the eve of Independence in August 1957, a key issue for Penang was who should be governor and who should be chief minister. There seemed to be a consensus that one should be Malay and the other a Chinese.
In the event, the governor was Malay, and the first choice for chief minister was Dr Lim, but he declined, citing “personal reasons”.

His father, Dr Lim Chwee Leong had died in May 1957, and being a Confucian, his son, following tradition, did not wish to take high office while in mourning.

Dr Lim also denied that he was holding out because he was aiming for a higher office at the national level.
Splits within the MCA, ostensibly between an Alliance group, a pro-Chinese group and a moderate group wishing to balance the two, saw Dr Lim leading the moderates in a challenge against long-time party president Tan Cheng-Lock.

On March 23,1958, Dr Lim succeeded in displacing Tan with a victory margin of 22 votes.

In 1959, Terengganu state elections were won by the Islamist PAS. This caused worry among non-Malays, and helped fuel the MCA’s wish to field candidates in a third of the parliamentary seats that were to be contested. In a historic showdown with Tunku Abdul Rahman, Dr Lim lost and soon resigned from the party.
He was back in the thick of things in 1962 with a new party, the United Democratic Party.

The formation of the Federation of Malaysia through merger with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak was now in motion, and his attempt to create a united non-communal opposition to the Alliance stumbled on that very issue.

Despite the UDP’s strength in municipal elections, it managed in the 1964 general elections to win only one parliamentary seat – Dr Lim’s.

The poor showing by the non-communal parties in 1964, including Singapore’s People’s Action Party, saw them coming together as the Malaysian Solidarity Council in July 1965.

This had only one general meeting before Singapore separated from the federation under tense conditions.
By 1968, Lim’s non-communal movement had taken the form of the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia.

Times had changed, and for the first time since independence, the country was not under any serious security threat. The Gerakan enjoyed immediate success, and won solidly in Penang in the 1969 general elections.

Dr Lim became Penang’s chief minister, a position he had refused 12 years earlier.

The racial riots that broke out in Kuala Lumpur on the evening of May 13 that year radically changed the political scenario in Malaysia. Discussions were held between the wounded Alliance and major opposition parties like the Gerakan, the People’s Progressive Party and the Islamist PAS to form an expanded federal coalition. These were successful.

By 1973, Dr Lim was once again the leader of a party within the federal coalition. The compromises he made following the riots made it possible for him and his administration to industrialise Penang and end its economic stagnation.

Along the way, however, especially after his retirement in 1990, his party, once a promising voice of non-communalism, lost its ability to inspire.

In Dr Lim’s long life, we see a good example of how national politics is local, and how local politics is national. We also see how the major dimensions in Malaysian history – communalism versus non-communalism, centralism versus local democracy, personality versus personality – played themselves out.

> The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies. His latest book on Malaysia is Between Umno and a Hard Place: The Najib Razak Era Begins (Refsa & ISEAS).

Nothing missed his eye
Goh Ban Lee

Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu ... commanded
Dr Lim Chong Eu died on Wednesday leaving behind his wife, two daughters and two sons.
Most Malaysians know Lim as the man who presided over Penang’s remarkable transformation from an agricultural and fishing area and a decaying trading centre into the home of renowned multinational corporations producing not only electronic and electrical products but also textile and pharmaceuticals. What is generally not known was how he did it.

To put it in context, it was not the best time to be the chief minister of Penang in 1969. Besides the difficulties in the aftermath of the riots following the general election, Penang was in serious economic trouble. It was losing its status as the trading centre in this part of the world. The federal government was also keen to take away the free port status of Penang Island. Unemployment rates were around 16%.

I first met Lim in 1972 when a delegation of student union leaders from Universiti Sains Malaysia paid him a courtesy call in Bangunan Tuanku Syed Putra, the eight-storey building which was the seat of the state government. Instead of the usual fatherly advice to study hard, the discussion was on the development of Penang, especially in solving the unemployment problems.

One of the specific ideas he had was the introduction of a job training scheme for youths who could not get jobs. The trainees would be paid an allowance, but they would have to work a few hours a day as parking attendants. It was no accident that Penang was the first state to set up a skills development centre in the form of the Penang Skills Development Centre (PSDC) in 1989.

Following the recommendations of the Penang Master Plan of 1970, popularly known as the Robert Nathan Report, Lim was focused in linking Penang’s economy with the developed economies in the world. He went to America, especially California, to knock on the doors of the electronic multinationals, telling them about Penang. 

It was not an easy task. It should be remembered that at that time, few people in California knew about this small island in Southeast Asia and the capability and ability of its workers. To convince the investors of the ability of the people, the government, through the newly established Penang Development Corporation (PDC), set up the pioneering Penang Electronics Sdn Bhd.

He acquired large tracts of land both in the island and the mainland to build industrial estates and townships. Land acquisition was neither popular nor easy, but he did it. Sometimes government leaders need to make difficult decisions if they want to get things done.

Lim also restructured the government machinery to ensure that when the investors came, there were no obstacles along the way. He set up the State Planning and Development Committee (SPDC) with himself as the chairman. This committee played a major and crucial role in the implementation of development projects, especially those by the private sector. As Lim was also the Officer Administrating of all the five local authorities in Penang from 1969 to 1974, all decisions related to applications for permission to undertake land development were made in the SPDC.

As a graduate student interested in the development planning, Lim was kind enough to allow me the privilege of sitting (quietly) in the SPDC meetings as an observer.

Looking back to those days, it was certainly a learning experience to witness Lim making decisions. The officers of the local authorities, including Ong Swee Teik, the late Raymond Tong, Teh Theam Seng and Choo Ewe Guan had to carry piles of files and maps to the Bangunan Tuanku Syed Putra for the meetings. They explained the applications and their implications on Penang. After a few questions, Lim would make the decisions, some with conditions. 

About 17 years later, as a councillor in the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) I was a member of the Planning and Building Committee that approved applications to undertake development projects. The contrast in the decision making process between this committee and the SPDC under Lim could not be bigger. While the SPDC made the decisions promptly, for one reason or another there were delays in the MPPP committee.

Had the early days of industrialisation and development endured the process of 13 councillors and a president or the 20 or so One-Stop-Centre (OSC) members making decisions to approve projects, it is doubtful Penang would have succeeded in the transformation from a sleepy trading centre into an international manufacturing hub. 

As a research fellow in the Centre for Policy Research in USM, I continued to meet Lim occasionally and attended some of the meetings chaired by him in state government or the PDC. In all the meetings, it was clear that Lim was in total command and focused. Government officers who attended the meetings were expected to know their stuff. It was well known that Lim would visit the sites of the agenda a few days before the meeting. Occasionally, he would ask the officers to name the coffee shops or explain some unique features of the area under discussion. There was little room for postponing decision-making because the officers were not prepared.

It is also useful to note that in meetings chaired by Lim, no officers would come late. Somehow few had the urge to go to the toilets or to have a smoke in the corridors. In fact, it was full attention and no whispering with each other. There were no hand phones then, but if there were, it is doubtful if anyone would have dared to answer phone calls or read and answer text messages. Such was the respect for Lim. Indeed, for many officers, especially those who were later transferred to other states, serving under Lim was a badge of honour they proudly displayed.

For those who are now pushing for elected local government in Penang, it may be of interest to note that Lim was directly involved in this about 60 years ago. He was appointed a member of the Penang Municipal Elections Committee which recommended that "the principle of election of Municipal Commissioners be established".

In the past few years, I met Lim occasionally at airports or social gatherings. His memories of the personalities and events of Penang were marvellous. But despite my persuasion, he said he would not write a memoir although he did say that he had left an oral history in a university. 

Penang would not get to be what it is today without Lim as the chief minister for 21 years. Hopefully, a biography of him and his efforts in the most exciting period in the development of Penang so far will be written soon.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is a columnist for theSun and a senior research fellow in Seri, Penang.

Updated: 11:12AM Fri, 26 Nov 2010


Rightways said...

The late Dr. Lim who pioneered, perhaps first in the world, the development of electronics industries, once being called the Penang Silicon Valley, about 40 years ago, much earlier than Taiwan and South Korea and the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, Malaysia is now lacking and far behind the later!

Unless and until Malaysians are willingly to reflect and learn to change their mindset,education, economic policies and race relations, they would be always lacking and behind others.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Tun Dr. Lim, my dad has found his lifetime career and passion in electronics and work in one of the pioneer semiconductor giant Intel in Penang. This has also inspired me to pursue a career in semiconductor industry as an electronics engineer. His contribution to Penang has far reaching effects on a lot of Penangites' lives even until today. Rest in peace, Tun.