Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat – Relentless Champion of Penang’s Botanical Heritage

By Ong Siou Woon

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Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat. Photo by: Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat

DATUK SERI LIM Chong Keat, renown retired architect-cum-urban designer, was involved in the design and construction of the Kompleks Tunku Abdul Rahman (or KOMTAR for short), Asia’s second tallest tower when it was completed in 1985. It remains the tallest building in Penang today.

Lim also designed the Singapore Conference Hall (completed in 1965) and the Jurong Town Hall (completed in 1974) which are among the first modern buildings to be designated by the Singapore Heritage Board as national monuments.1

For a man heavily involved in the professions of architecture, urban design and acoustics, which blend together studies of the sciences and the arts, it is not surprising to see why he was also drawn towards the study of botany.

In a recent conversation with Lim, he shared with me his journey in botanical research and taxonomy. When asked what inspired him to venture into botany studies, as an auto-didactic amateur, he says, “One’s curiosity about the natural sciences has to be self-motivated. To be educated is to know what you don’t know.” So what then did he not know about botany? Palms, he said.

Lim felt a sense of irony to have been born in Pulau Pinang (in English its literal translation is the island of palms), without knowing which palm is the “pinang” of the “pulau”. The general consensus points to the betel nut, but Lim doesn’t quite agree. “Before we talk about biodiversity and saving the world, people have to at least know the difference between the palm species and the betel nut.”

“Pinang” is a common term in Malay for palm and there are many places that have been named for it, including Pulau Pinang, a small island within the Redang archipelago in Terengganu. “The betel nut or Areca catechu, on the other hand, is not native to Penang,” he stresses.

At a tender age, Lim had already begun referring to the vegetation in the garden of his family home by their botanical names. His father Dr. Lim Chwee Leong was one of the first botanical collectors in Penang. He would import plants then uncommon to be shared with the Penang Botanic Gardens in the days of Richard Eric Holttum (director, from 1925 to 1946); and still thriving in the Lim residence are the Cannonball tree (the tree the public admires at the Penang Botanic Gardens) and the Baobab tree (the same as the 149-year-old tree found at the junction of Jalan Macalister and Jalan Residensi), among other plants. Lim says that these are exemplars in his journey in learning about plants. “But in Penang, there are plenty of natural places to learn about botany such as the Penang Botanic Gardens.” Not to mention Penang Hill and the National Park – and the rest of our Malaysian forests.

Deeper Dive into Botanical Studies

By the 1980s, Lim was already in the position to retire from architectural practice, but he decided against the idea. He instead travelled extensively during this time. Driven by a personal motivation to learn as fully as possible, and not just from books (which may be outdated), he visited botanic gardens, bird parks, museums and major herbariums in cities like Singapore, Kew, Florence, Leiden, Bogor and Calcutta.

Lim documented his discoveries through photographs and videos. He had also begun collecting specimens for cultivation; this coincided with his concern for in-situ monitoring and ex-situ conservation of native flora. Since 1988, Lim has visited forests in the Peninsula and in Borneo to study palms and later gingers, and would record his findings in a database.

Lim is also a life member of the Malaysian Nature Society, having taken part in botanical events, and later participating in the National Forestry Expeditions. With permission from the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Wildlife Department and the Military, he made trips to the Belum Rainforest, where he found the first of a new palm species, Areca tunku, which he wrote about in 1992 with co-author Dr. John Dransfield of Kew. The palm is named after Tunku Abdul Rahman on the day of his passing, just when they were deciding on the epithet!

The Areca tunku. Photo by: Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat

Lim’s taxonomic findings of new Malaysian palms are published in Principes, the prestigious journal of the International Palm Society, and in the Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore. In 2000, he founded the journal Folia Malaysiana. The journal has to date featured accounts by many contributors from the region, and C. K. Lim (his botanical name) has described more than 60 new taxa of palms, gingers, bananas and other flora – including the new endemic genera named after Kedah, Perak and Johor.

What is perhaps little remembered about Lim is that he was also once an active member of the Penang Botanic Gardens Committee. He organised a special event in 1984 on the Environmental and Floristic Heritage of Penang Hill, and another event to host Holttum’s last visit to the state. He was also invited to serve as Chairman of the Malaysia Forestry Research and Development Board (MFRDB), the Board of Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), from 2001 to 2004.

Through the private project AdanA Cooperative, Lim has also supported the Temiar community in botanical work, and devoted much energy in setting up the Suriana Botanic Conservation Gardens in Balik Pulau. The Gardens boasts one of the largest ex situ collections of Malaysian palm, ginger and banana species for floristic research. There is also an extended public garden, the Ginger Garden and Aviary, located at the Bellevue Hotel on Penang Hill, that has a special collection of the plants found on Penang Hill, some of which are endemic to Penang.

A view of plants at the Suriana Botanic Conservation Gardens in Balik Pulau. Photo by: Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat
Rare plants at the Ginger Garden and Aviary at the Bellevue Hotel. Photo by: Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat

The Future of Biodiversity Conservation

A major concern of Lim’s is the future of biodiversity studies and conservation in Malaysia. At his inaugural lecture, when Lim was elected Fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia in 2012, he spoke of how we have less than 5% of the calibre Malaysia needs for essential botanical research.

Members from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia paid a visit to the Suriana Botanic Conservation Gardens in 2016. Photo by: Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat

Progress has certainly been made, but great challenges still remain for botanical research and taxonomy in the country. To save the world from climate change impacts and deforestation, we must first acquaint ourselves with the knowledge of our own natural resources and floristic heritage. Understanding them taxonomically, i.e. their correct names and determining if the species are endemic, native, foreign, invasive or non-invasive is important. Only then can we embark on a significant botanical conservation journey for the country.

My takeaway from the two-hour conversation with Lim is this: “If you value heritage, you must also cherish its continuity, and not just in its past or present states.” I was made to understand that to really appreciate the heritage we have, regardless of whether it is natural or built heritage or if it is tangible or not, the effort to learn is what makes the journey meaningful.

Ong Siou Woon

is the Chief Operating Officer of Penang Institute. This YSEALI alumnus was trained in urban planning and she finds learning about nature and food a never-ending journey.