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Articles, Book reviews, Commentaries, History, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Honest Memoirs from an Extraordinary Lady

Book Review: P.G Lim’s Kaleidoscope: The Memoirs of P.G. Lim. Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre. 2012.

By Ooi Kee Beng 

This much-awaited volume lives up to all reasonable expectations and should be read by anyone – historian, lawyer or layman – interested in Penang, in late colonialism, and in the early history of Malaysia. The wealth of details and in language makes P.G. Lim’s a poignant tale to enjoy and gives occasion for us to ponder the past. I heartily recommend it.

Biographies are difficult things to write, especially if it is about a public person. All the harder is it when the person being written about is doing the writing. Such a work necessarily takes a long time to write and requires painful soul-searching.

In recent times, Malaysia has seen a flow with newly published biographies and autobiographies. This signals at least two things to my mind. For one, the first generation of actors in Malaysia’s creation is passing away. But much more importantly, knowledge about the country’s past has been painfully lacking. There is a thirst for details about the past.

History is no doubt always a controversial subject where much gets forgotten or erased, but in Malaysia, the fixation with race and dominant racial parties has worked to cheapen memories, and to make them fade much faster than necessary.

In such an atmosphere of sustained official self-denial, the stories that actors have to tell carry infinite weight; and personalities who are often given only passing mention in history books become all the interesting as possible sources of information and inspiration.

Such a one is P.G. Lim, a name that has with time become mystical. The very fact that her story stretches over 96 years promises details and perspectives that we have forgotten or have never known about. Her memoirs are therefore a much-awaited piece of work.

Her language is impeccable, as one would expect. Just the descriptions from her youth alone make for enticing reading, conjuring a time and place when a Chinese family had children reading Chinese classics in Malay, and blood ties cut across ethnic divides. Altogether, life seemed to be fuller then, and people more colourful. To project this is the mark of good literature, to be sure.

Lim Phaik Gan was born in 1915 into a prosperous Penang family. Her grandfather came from China in search of a fortune and became a highly successful rice miller and landowner; her father, Lim Cheng Ean, went to do law in Cambridge where he met a liberated Chinese lady from British Guiana named Rosaline Hoalim, who was there doing medical studies. Their marriage gave them five sons and three daughters. P.G. is the eldest.

Coming of age in the 1930s and 1940s, and being from the most educated class in Malayan society, those among them who became politically active leaned left of centre. Incidentally, their uncle, Philip Hoalim, along with P.G.’s brother Kean Chye and others, was one of the founders of Singapore’s first political party, the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU). Another maternal uncle, Abraham Hoalim aka Ho Ah Loke, was one of the most successful pioneers of the film industry in this part of the world.

As with her brothers Kean Chye and Kean Siew, P.G. Lim went to law school at Cambridge. Another of her brothers, Kean Chong, fought as an RAF pilot in the Battle of Britain and on retirement served in Tanzania as chief of the Department of Roads. In 1951-53, she became editor of Suara Merdeka, published by the Malayan Forum that had been set up by the likes of Goh Keng Swee and Abdul Razak Hussein to stimulate the political consciousness of Malayans.

She was a member of the Labour Party, and gained prominence in 1953 for successfully assisting in the defence of Lee Meng at the Privy Council. Lee was a Malayan Communist sentenced to death for possessing a hand grenade. The appearance of an Asian lawyer in the Council drew much public attention, and in the end, Lee Meng’s punishment was commuted to life imprisonment, and she was later repatriated to China.

P.G. Lim would also succeed in defending 11 men being tried for treason in 1968 and in getting royal pardons for them from both the Sultan of Johor and the Sultan of Perak. She also assisted in securing government servant status for 14,000 daily-rated Malayan Railway employees in 1964.

Her interest in the arts saw her playing a key role in the development of the National Art Gallery, and her public stature as a lawyer saw her being included in 1970 in the National Consultative Council (NCC) that was set up in place of the suspended Malaysian Parliament. Apparently, P.G. Lim and Senator Aishah Ghani, who later become head of UMNO Wanita, were added to the 65 men who made up the NCC, after complaints in the mass media about the total lack of women in that crucial body.

In 1971, P.G. Lim was surprisingly picked by the Abdul Razak government to become the country’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1971-73); then ambassador to Yugoslavia and Austria (1973-1977) and then to Belgium and the European Economic Commission (1977-1979). Being the odd person out, and being a non-career diplomat, she had to endure slights and silent offences.

Kaleidoscope tells the story of a woman, a privileged one no doubt, who lived with great involvement in a time of momentous transitions.  The Washington Post described her as “an internationally known trial lawyer, a leading art patron, a concert pianist, a gifted cook, a party worker, and a party-goer”.

P.G. Lim’s description of politics in the 1960s, and of the riots and its aftermath is riveting, through its honesty and because there is so little known about the workings of the NCC. The political mechanics in the 20 months following May 13, which constituted the “End of an Era”, are hardly ever publicly discussed by the actors involved.

No doubt, readers will try to compare these honest memoirs with those of her brother Kean Siew – published as The Eye over the Golden Sands: The Memoirs of a Penang Family (1997) and Blood on the Golden Sands: The Memoirs of a Penang Family (1999). P.G. Lim’s definitely bears the comparison well, and provides us with a more complete picture of this amazing family from Penang, and of the politics of early Malaysia.

It is a painful reminder of how passion, hope and memory get lost along the way.  To be sure, that is the hallmark of competent memoirs – they capture the complexity and details of life the way few other art forms can do.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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