Tun Lim Chong Eu: The Past is Not Passé


This article first appeared in our December 2009 issue.
In celebration of our 10th anniversary, we put together for you in this issue some of our most memorable articles.

Ooi Kee Beng takes advice from Tun Lim Chong Eu about the powerful relevance of the past on the future. However, he realises that Tun Lim’s own life does tell us that we are not always prisoners of days gone by.

One easy way of approaching the history of a country is to study the life of a major player in that history. But as time goes on, such players tend to diminish in numbers.

Where Penang is concerned, few islanders alive today can boast of having been consumed by the first heat of Malayan nationalism six decades ago. Tun Lim Chong Eu is one of them.

Indeed, the 90-year-old Tun Lim actually played a key role several times over in Malaysia’s political history. Yet, when briefly interviewed recently, his favourite topic of conversation was not Malaysia or Penang, but the genesis of these political entities. It is not 1957 that he thinks about, or 1969, or any of the key dates in our modern history.

Photo: Ong See Fook.

Instead, this Gemini insists on talking about matters long past–especially the circumstances under which the British came to the region. He is forthright and challenging.

“What was the East India Company? We have to remember that we were actually ruled by this international commercial entity. What creature was this? Many of the early colonialists were in fact basically pirates.”

The connections between government, commerce and piracy are, of course, perennial topics of interest in the politics of any time and place. And so, expectedly, that formed the major part of the short conversation I had with Tun Lim in June this year. He encouraged me to check up on the history of Province Wellesley, just as an example to convince Penangites that they should be interested in the state’s early history.

This is part of what I found out: It may be common knowledge that Province Wellesley, which was handed over to British Penang on perpetual lease in 1798, was understandably named after Richard Wellesley, who was then Governor- General of British India. What is less known is that the brother of this Irish aristocrat, Arthur, who was nine years younger and who served with great distinction as a military officer in India, went on, as the Duke of Wellington, to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815.

Arthur later served for seven months as Prime Minister of Britain in 1828, and though a conservative, he is fondly remembered for overseeing the granting of full civil rights to Catholics in the United Kingdom.

There is good judgment in Tun Lim’s advice on learning about our past.

“One must never forget the strands in history. Especially in this part of the world, which is archipelagic, and resources were moved around a lot. The politics and the economics were therefore always tightly bound together. Production is one thing, but logistics is something else, and equally, if not more, important.

“But after all these years, we are still victims of our geography, and how that configured our thinking. We have not been able to lift ourselves beyond the conditions placed on us by geography.”

Photo: Ong See Fook.

This latter comment sounds strange coming from the man generally credited with turning Penang into the Silicon Valley of Malaysia 30 years ago.

When he led his party, Parti Gerakan Rakyat, to join the Barisan Nasional in the early 1970s, he was severely accused by some of giving up on his ideals. He had after all been the firebrand who defeated the great Tan Cheng Lock by 22 votes for the presidency of the Malayan Chinese Association in the fateful party election of March 1958.

The following year, he demanded that Alliance president Tunku Abdul Rahman allocate 40 seats instead of 28 to the MCA for the 1959 general elections. The Tunku stood his ground, forcing Lim to back down and subsequently, leave the MCA.

Lim founded the United Democratic Party in 1962 to contest in the 1964 elections. Incidentally, he was the only UDP candidate elected that year. In 1965, the party followed the lead of Singapore’s People’s Action Party to form the Malaysian Solidarity Convention to oppose Article 153 of the Constitution which guarantees the Malays’ special position. Very soon after that initiative, Singapore separated from the federation.

In 1967, Lim went on to become the founding president of Parti Gerakan Rakyat, which managed two years later to wrest the state of Penang from the Alliance.

After agreeing to join the Barisan Nasional in 1973, the Gerakan held power in Penang until March 8, 2008. Lim was Chief Minister until 1990.

Photo: Ong See Fook.

In the wake of the racial riots of 1969 and the removal of Penang’s free port status, unemployment in the state shot up to as high as 16.4 per cent. Lim’s government identified the electronics industry as having the best potential to absorb the state’s excess semi-skilled labour.

In order to create extra incentives to attract labour-intensive industries from abroad, the Free Trade Zones Act was passed in April 1971. As Lim explains, this was achieved only after close consultations between state and federal agencies.

Two such zones were created in Penang; one in Seberang Perai for heavy industries, and another for cleaner industries in Bayan Baru. Two accompanying townships were built alongside these–“an urban mix of low-cost and medium-cost housing, shops, places of worship, schools, ready-to-use factories, offices and recreation areas”–to provide them with sustainable labour.

In 1990, Lim lost his state seat to Lim Kit Siang and effectively left politics after that. His place in history has, however, gained new relevance now that Penang voters have again chosen to vote against the central government.

One thing Penang can learn from Tun Lim today is to not ignore history in its quest to find new ways to rejuvenate its economy and manoeuvre the difficult terrain between nation and state.

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