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.