Thursday, March 08, 2007

Lim Book Keng - Retrospective at Singapore National Library

I was fortunate enough to visit the small yet very nicely-developed exhibit on Lim Boon Keng (1869 - 1957) currently on display at the Singapore National Library (until Sunday 18 March).

This fascinating man, the first Chinese to win a Queen's Scholarship (1887), was not only a prominent medical doctor, but also a legislator in the Straits Settlements Legco from the age of 26, entrepreneur (rubber tycoon, co-founder of OCBC Bank), a philanthropist (founded Singapore Chinese Girls School and many other societies), a vocal social reformer (anti gambling, anti-opium and pro-confucianism), educator (president of Amoy university in 1921), media baron (he and his father-in-law bought over a Chinese newspaper, renaming it 日新报) and an outspoken political activist (leader of a local anti-Manchu society and president of Singapore's branch of the Kuomintang).

In spite of being a third generation baba Chinese, Dr. Lim identified strongly with his Chinese roots and throughout his life strove to improve his Chinese language skills and reacquaint himself with the Chinese Confucian values that he believed were so lacking in the straits Chinese community. As president of Amoy University between 1921 and 1937 he was perhaps not prepared for the intensively negative reaction his support of Confucianism would have in the post 1919 May Fourth era (the writer Lu Xun publicly clashed with Dr. Lim for his encouragement of Confucianism).

I left the exhibit wondering if a man such as Dr. Lim could exist in modern day Singapore. For example, would a wealthy tycoon of his caliber be willing to speak his mind on a social issue such as gambling if it contradicted the party line? If he had been born even thirty years later would his pro-China outlook have put him on a collision course with other members of the Peranakan community that distrusted the China patriots? What do you think?

Try to visit the exhibit if you can. You can also read more about Lim Boon Keng from the following links:


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