Monday, December 13, 2010

Farewell Dr Lim Chong Eu!

Dr Lim Chong Eu was probably one of the best political strategists and a chief architect of Penang in the last century. Penang CM Lim Guan Eng paid tribute to a "giant of a politician who ushered in a new age for Penang."

The founder of Parti Gerakan first came into prominence in national politics when he won the MCA presidency by defeating its founder president the late Tan Cheng Lock. However, he was outmanoeuvred after being at the helm for only two years due to factionalism. He told me the opposite faction in MCA had taken an opportunity in his fall out with UMNO president Tunku Abdul Rahman over seats allocation issue and blamed him for souring the party's relationship with UMNO.

Lim had asked for MCA to be allowed to contest at least a third of seats in the parliament. He had wanted to deter any unscrupulous and careless attempt to amend the federal constitution. The constitution has been amended at least 700 times since the premiership of Tunku!

I had asked him about his decision to join the Barisan Nasional in 1973 which had caused a split in the party. He told me that it was a practical decision which left him without much option after the racial riots broke up in Klang Valley, Penang, Malacca and several parts of the country. Penang was suffering from a massive unemployment of almost 15%. He had mooted the idea of Barisan Nasional to Tun Razak, his closest ally in UMNO when he was serving in the National Emergency Council.

As a leader, he had to support national reconciliation (the original purpose of Barisan) and ensure that the promises to the voters of Penang were met and jobs were created. The federal government under the premiership of Tun Razak was supportive to Dr Lim's plans and proposals to help create a new frontier for the city state. As a result, the Free Trade Zones were created after the MCA minister of transport had taken away Penang's free port status. It was Dr Lim who brought Intel to Penang in the early 70's. He had created the Penang Development Corporation to help him to implement his vision.

I had also asked him about the NEP. He did support the original intent of the NEP which he was sure that it will be repealed and liberalised in 20 years (1990). Unfortunately, Dr Lim was defeated in the 1990 GE by Lim Kit Siang and subsequently retired from politics. He had remained to his non-interference stance since then and dabbled in business instead. We did not get to find out if he would have objected to the perpetuation of NEP and Malay supremacy.

His stand on Islamic state was clear. He was unhappy that Gerakan did not do anything to stop or rebut the announcement of Dr Mahathir at the party's annual conference that Malaysia is an Islamic country. Consistent with his stand on the federal constitution just before the 1959 GE, Dr Lim was probably worried about such politicking which may hijack and alter the spirit of the secular federal constitution.

Dr Lim was a political giant and a very intimidating intellectual who would pit his wisdom against anyone trying to discuss politics and philosophy with him. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend two days with him in 2007 to interview him for a book. I visited him again at his Tanjung Bungah home after the political tsunami in 2008 to ask for his well-being and discuss his views on the GE outcome.

Dr Lim was not a pioneer of non-racial political ideology unlike Syed Hussein Alatas or Tan Chee Khoon. He was a MCA president and founder of Chinese based United Democratic Party but he was quick to see a need to support multiracial politics in his later years of political life.

However, like other politicians, he was not without his weakness and criticism. But Dr Lim's imprint on the Penang socio-economic landscape has survived until today and will continue to do so in the future. Many Penangites working in factories in Bayan Lepas FTZ or using the Penang Bridge should pay tribute to his contribution. His other project, KOMTAR, was very ambitious. It was the highest building in Southeast Asia in the 80's but has became an eye sore since the era of Koh Tsu Koon's administration.

I was honoured to be able to pit my limited wisdom with his during those visits.

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