Gong Gong says

This is a posthumous blog of our father's (Lim Kok Ann) life. When our father passed away on 8 March 2003, he left behind an unpublished autobiography. We'd like to celebrate his life by sharing his autobiography through this blog.

"I have dredged these anecdotes from memory just to pass the time; if they amuse my grandchildren their purpose will have been served; if they provide any instruction, it will be a happy coincidence; that they are disjointed is probably to be expected.

Aurora was the name of my grandfather’s house in Kulangsu.   Amoy, where I spent the first five or six years of my life.   I still have vivid memories of events that took place when I was barely three years old.

Lim Kok Ann
October 1996"

Sunday, July 20, 2008


2:1 Beginning of WW II
We arrived in Edinburgh, known as “Auld Reekie” to affectionate Scots, in the evening of September 2nd and the University sent people to meet us and take us to our lodgings. I pleaded weariness and declined when the landlady asked me if I would like to see the lights of Princes Street, a famed tourist attraction that showed off Edinburgh Castle very well. I said, “Another day,” not realising that meant five years later, for the next morning, September 3rd, the landlady called us to Iisten to the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, on the radio.
In a solemn voice, Mr. Chamberlain explained that his ultimatum given to Hitler to withdraw his troops from Poland had expired, and “This country is at war with Germany.” It was a shock, and a shock driven home by the sirens that were sounded all over Britain to tell the populace that the next time sirens sounded, it would be for real.

That night Princes Street was un-lit and remained so till the end of the war. Afterwards Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Churchill had for many years denounced Hitler as a threat to peace. The message he gave on taking office was sombre: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Note: Adolf Hitler, the German Dictator, rose to power by appealing to German chauvinism in the years after the first World War. He created the myth of (German) racial superiority and blamed Jews for Germany’s ills. His political party was the Nazional-Socialist party, abbreviated to ‘Nazi’, and his emblem the reversed swastika, a Buddhist emblem of peace. Hitler took his own life when the Allied armies approached Berlin at the end of World War II.

1: 25 Fast Boat to UK. I left Singapore on 28 July, 1939, heading for Edinburgh University where I was already enrolled as a student by the Colonial Office in London who would be my guardians. Lian Chye was on the same boat heading for London to study medicine. Another passenger who joined the boat in Penang was Lim Phaik Lin, daughter of Lim Cheng Ean, who was going to England for further studies. She had Iwo brothers in England, Kian Hock, already a doctor, and Kian Chye, a law student in Cambridge. I knew of Kian Chye from Rosie, for he was the boy-friend of one of Rosie’s mates at Holne Chase.

The boat made record time to London, the last week in a dash through the Bay of Biscay to reach port before war broke out. We had heard of trouble in Europe, but being unschooled in politics had no notion of the conflict brewing between Nazi Germany and the Western powers. I was so politically naive, that when asked, in the interview to receive my passport, “Which side would you fight for if England goes to war with China?” I had replied, “The question does not arise, for I can see no reason for England to go to war with China.” This might have been all right, but I must have caused great amusement when I gave as a reason for my remark, “for there is nothing that China has, that England would want”. And indeed, in the 60 years since then England has had no occasion for going to war with China, not even over the return of Hong Kong to China.

While we were on the high seas in the month of August, Poland had fallen, and we arrived in London barely ahead of streams of refugees from Europe. When Kian Hock, Phaik Lin’s brother learned that I was enrolled in Edinburgh, he told me I might as well get there as soon as possible, for war might break out any day. “War? What war?” we asked unbelievingly. We did not know that German tanks had entered Poland, ignoring the guarantees France and England had given Poland. Without wasting any time, Kian Hock put us on the train for Edinburgh. Us, being myself and Phai Lin, who had decided she might as well study in Edinburgh if England was going to be at war.

1: 24 Leaving for England

In the few months when Rosie went to Holne Chase and before I had to leave for England, she and I were quite close, but early on I made clear to her that I did not approve of long engagements and I was going to be away for as long as seven years (no commuting by air in those days). We would be different people when I returned and might not like one another so well. Better, I said (pompously) that should I return to Singapore and we were both still unattached, we could pick up from then. Poor Rosie thought this very wise and we went on holding hands.

1:22 Lim Peng Han. My uncle Peng Han at that time ran a motor repair shop in Veerasamy Road, and I went to visit him with the idea of learning something from the “University of Life”. I did not learn very muchfor Uncle Peng Han was an unorthodox businessman. When I asked him to let me help him keep his account books, he laughed and said he did not need any book-keeping, he knew how much people owed him, and he knew how much he owed people; he tried to collect as much of the former and to pay as little of the latter as possible. He would buy a car cheaply because it had some mechanical problem, fix the problem and sell the car second-hand, “as good as new”. Buy cheap and sell dear was his motto, and that was business for him.

Uncle Peng Han’s great interest was driving, rather than repairing cars, and he once took me on a Motor Rally to Kuala Lumpur in his up-graded MG. I was the navigator, and did my job so badly that when we passed the finishing line, we learned that we had approached it from the wrong direction! I did not learn much motor repairing from Uncle Peng Han, but I did learn driving and got my driving licence driving one of his rehabilitated crocks. I was able to borrow his cars while they were waiting to be sold, giving them test-runs, supposedly, but as “wheels” to take my girl-friend driving. Sometimes the car I borrowed would act-up and cause me no end of embarrassment, but it was all good fun.

1: 21 Queen’s Scholar
To say I was surprised when I finished first of the combined Straits Settlements list is no exaggeration for though I knew I was tops in Maths, I also knew that the Arts students would be ahead of me in English Lit. and the Penang candidates were unknown quantities. It turned out that my marks for Maths were 40 marks ahead of the best aggregate marks for History and Geography obtained by the Arts students, a margin which they could not overtake in English Language and Literature, and I finished about 20 marks in front of the field. A real surprise was the success of Singapore’s Lee Lian Chye, an Arts students, at his first attempt. He must have been a whiz in English Literature.

I was eager to resume my dalliance with Rosie as soon as the Examinations were over, but found that her family had moved to a house named Titania on the beach at Siglap. I made the trip a few times and even went boating with Rosie once or twice, but it was too difficult an exercise. Rosie was too young to go to college when she had finished her Senior Cambridge, and had decided to repeat her final year at school. She then did so well that she topped the Senior Cambridge Examinations for giiis and won the Singapore Government Scholarship for girls of $100 (half that for boys). She also won a scholarship to Raffles College which was a matter of great pride for her father who generously donated the scholarship money back to the college for the benefit of some other student.

For Rosie, her Scholarship meant mostly one thing, that she would have to “live in”,according to the Scholarship rules, and she would be free from parental supervision. In due course, when college began in June 1939, Rosie was ensconced in Holne Chase in Grange Road, barely two kilometres from my house, and I was able to call on her frequently.

Friday, July 11, 2008

1:20 Oberon revisited

I was intrigued, one day, when I saw Eu Jin’s car come to fetch him home from school and noticed a young lady in Raffles Girls School uniform in the car. It was Rosie, of course, whom I had not seen for some time as I had not visited Eu Jin in the past months, because I was keeping company with Swee Law and Swee Keng. Thereafter, I would hang about the place waiting to catch a glimpse of Rosie instead of going straight home on my bicycle as soon as our lessons were over. On some pretext I wangled an invitation to visit Eu Jin at home and when I learned that Rosie needed some help in Maths, I was a frequent visitor.

My friendship with Rosie bloomed when we discovered a mutual interest in poetry and Shakespeare, beginning with Shelley’s “The fountains mingle with the river,” and leading to the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, for her work-desk was in the verandah and I would signal my arrival below with a tinkle on my bicycle bell.

When her parents went overseas for a few months I was able to spend some evenings with Rosie in her garden admiring the full moon, but this did not last long as the auntie in charge objected to our unchaperoned meetings. And, not too soon, for it was time to get back to my studies which I did with gusto. In no time at all, the Examinations were upon us and I went into them as well prepared as I could have been.

1:19 Special Class

I had not given serious thought to what I would do when I finished school, vaguely imagining I would try to join the Medical College where Swee Law was already studying. I suppose I was somewhat confused when it was suggested to me that I should join the Special Class in Raffles Institution to study for the Queen’s Scholarship Examinations. This possibility had not occurred to me before but I was encouraged by my father to give it a try.

The Queen’s Scholarships were instituted in 1886 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria with handsome donations by loyal subjects of the Queen in the Straits Settlements, and of course, Lim Boon Keng was one of the earliest Queen’s Scholars. After a brief suspension when funds ran out during the First World War, they were reinstated in 1924 with government funds. Two scholarships were awarded each year to candidates in the Straits Settlements, and two to candidates in the Federated Malay States which adopted a similar scheme with one of the scholarships being reserved for Malay candidates. In 1936 the Scholarship was worth 400 Pounds annually and was tenable for study in any British University for a maximum of six years.

We had to indicate what studies we would pursue should we win a scholarship and, at first wanted to sign on for mathematics as my uncle Say Koo had done, but my father counselled me against it. If I studied mathematics, he said, the best I could do would be to finish as a Chartered Accountant like my Uncle Say Koo and be employed by some financial institution; better to learn be a doctor and be your own master. No doubt my father was speaking with his own circumstances in mind, but what attracted me to the idea was that to study medicine would require six years, so would be benefitting to the maximum from a scholarship should I win one.

The Queen’s Scholarship Examinations were based on the British Higher School Examinations that prepared students for entrance to the universities and they served very well the purpose of preparing our scholarship winners for admission to the British universities. We had to study four subjects for the Queen’s Scholarship Examinations: English Language and English Literature which had to be taken by all, then for the “Arts” people, History and Geography, and for the “Science” people, Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. We had to sit two papers in each subject, questions for which were set and marked by the Cambridge Syndicate which did the same for Senior Cambridge Examinations.

I naturally opted for the Science syllabus and one fine day went to attend the class in Raffles Institution where I found I was a member of a class of twelve, six Arts and six Science students. After the Japanese Occupation the Queen’s Scholarships were awarded to graduating students of Raffles College and the Medical College which changed its competitive nature as factors other than examination results were taken into account. When the Republic of Singapore was established the scholarship was renamed the President Scholarship and ten were awarded annually.

To my surprise, I found that two members of the Special Class were old acquaintances of mine: my play-mate Seow Eu Jin, and Kwa Geok Choo whose mother was related to both the Gaw family and the Tan Poh-Li family. I had visited the home of the Kwas in Pasir Panjang with Swee Keng and Swee Law who knew Geok Choo’s brothers in college. Geok Choo, of course, later became Mrs. Lee Kuan Yew, and Eu Jin your Uncle Eu Jin.

Other members of the class whose subsequent careers were noteworthy were Eddie Barker, one-time Minister for Law, and Choo Jim Eng, Senior Surgeon in Singapore General Hospital. Another was Balachandran Menon who joined the Indian diplomatic service. Jim Eng was the youngest in the class, only 16, and was with us only because he was not old enough to go to College. In the event, he went to the Medical College.

Our English teacher was a Mr. Moncur who led us through the writers of the Romantic period and Shakespeare, of course. The finer points of literary criticism were beyond me at first and in my first year a large amount of the time was taken up by discussions between Moncur and Emily Sadka (QS 1937). Here again my Chinese school experience, scant though it had been, came to my assistance, for I started to memorise chunks of the prescribed texts as the first step to understanding and appreciating them.

For English Language in which we were given weekly essays to write, I had the benefit of a book I discovered in my father’s library, English Prosody. Though it was over 20 years old as it was one of the books he had bought before he returned to Amoy in 1924, I imagine that how to write English prose correctly had not changed much. And, to my surprise, my father’s library also had much of the texts of our required reading as well as commentaries on them, including the "complete works” of Shakespeare, Browning, Shelley, Byron, etc. I had little need, therefore, to visit the Raffles Library to borrow the texts as my class-mates did.

While the Arts students remained in the Special Class room to study their subjects, the Maths class used a space behind the school auditorium for our lessons. Our Maths teacher was Mr. Menon, whose son, Balachandran was a member of the class. I was always interested in puzzles and solving mathematical problems was great fun for me. My collaborator in this was Choo Jim Eng and very often we would have the solution to a problem before anyone else. It took me the better part of the first year to master the bones of the subject and by the second year 1 was on top of it.

Though all of us took the Examinations at the end of the first year, it was recognised that a first-timer rarely succeeded. Emily Sadka topped the Examinations in the Straits Settlements, and Lim Chong Eu of Penang took the second and other place. I did not know how I stood.

1:18 My Father Lim Kho Leng

My father was doubtless pleased by my success though he did not mentioned the fact to me -- our relationship being an uneasy one for reasons not clear to me. At that time we were living in River Valley Road where I had a room of my own. I seldom saw my father except at meal-times and we never had occasion to sit down together for a chat or to do things together as father and son.

Occasionally, he would leave a note in my room to remind me to study and not to be out late at night. Once he brought home a book for me to read that made a great impression on me, H. G. Wells’ two-volume work, The History of Life, that helped my understanding of Hygiene and hysiology no end, and possibly gave me a foundation in biology.

I regret very much that I never got to know my father, for by all accounts his was a gentle nature and most lovable. He was not very successful at being a bank manager for he was scrupulous to the extreme in all he did and would not connive at anything that smelt wrong to him. Thus, it came to be known, that if anyone wanted an endorsement that required bending of the rules, there was “no need to ask Kho Leng.”

Mr. Yap Chor Ee, one of the directors of the OCBC, understood that advancement would not come easily to such an unbending character as my father, and suggested to my father that he should resign from the OCBC and start a Singapore branch of Mr. Yap’s bank in Penang, the Ban Hin Lee Bank. My father would get the same salary that he was receiving from the OCBC, but would benefit from an enhanced bonus if the bank made profits.

It was a good proposal and my father took it Unluckily (fortune did not smile often on my father), this deal was made about 1935, just before the Japanese invaded China and disrupted trade between China and the outside world. The main business of the Ban Hin Lee Bank was to finance rice exports to China and when that dwindled to nothing, so did the profits of the bank.

1:17 Singapore Scholar

I passed the Senior Cambridge Examinations in 1936 with flying colours at the head of the Singapore Candidates and earned the Singapore Government prize of $200 for the effort. It was the first distinction I had in school and rather unexpected for while I was known to be.a smart fellow, and had taken a high place in the Junior Cambridge Examinations, there were class-mates who excelled me in some subjects. I don’t remember how I spent the Scholarship money though $200 was a sum in those days when drivers earned $12 a month and brought up their families on this salary.

How I did so well I cannot imagine for I did not “study” very hard until the last few months before examinations. I excelled in Mathematics, of course, and in English Language and Literature because of the wide reading that I had and the ease with which I memorized long passages for questions on context and comparisons, and I was a facile writer. History and Geography I was not so good at, being too lazy to try to learn the names of Kings and event dates, or the produce of far-off lands.