Dato’ K.K. Lim – Visionary and Iconoclast


By See Foon Chan-Koppen

There are only a handful of people who come into your world, and touch your life in a meaningful fashion. Some of the people are just flickers of light while others are a bright flame for years. For many, Dato’ Lim Keng Kay was that flame, a bright torch that lit the way for his family and community in Ipoh. On January 20, that flame went out and many in Ipoh mourned the loss of this giant of a man.

He was an iconoclast, a man who loved life and threw himself wholeheartedly into any project with passion. He was truly a ‘Renaissance’ man, with a 360 degree range of interests and passions ranging from food, to the arts, to classic cars and antiques.

I first met Dato’ KK over a bed. While this may raise a few eyebrows, it was about him coming down to Kuala Lumpur to inspect an antique Chinese bridal bed which I was selling prior to my move to Ipoh. He came, he saw and concurred – “pack it and bring it with you” was the order and he was gone.

I was subsequently introduced to the ‘bon vivant’ KK Lim who would come over on a Sunday, pick me up with his wife Datin Stella and he would drive all over the countryside in search of good food.

His generosity knew no bounds. One day on one of these Sunday forays when I got into the car upset after a run-in with the landlord whose house I was renting, he promptly took me to his ‘farmhouse’ in Chemor and offered it to me rent free!

Oh for the halcyon days when I first moved to Ipoh when KK was still in full swing and I was introduced to home concerts with visiting musicians, where the soirees would end with sumptuous spreads of delectable taste treats.

He loved to engage in debates and we could argue endlessly on any number of topics, with him always taking the role of Devil’s advocate. He was not known to suffer fools gladly and was often to be found castigating family, friends and staff in his usual deep throated voice. However, everyone who knew him, knew about his big heart and most of the chastisement would usually end up as water off the proverbial duck’s back. In fact, towards the end of his life when he was suffering from his deteriorating emphysema, every time he was heard shouting at someone, I would smile and say, “Oh he sounds like he’s in good shape today”.

Born in Tapah in July 1936, Dato’ KK had his early education at the government English School there, followed by secondary education at St Michael’s Institution, Ipoh. He was awarded a Federal scholarship to read Mining Engineering at London University and entered the Royal School of mines at Imperial College in 1956 where he received a Bachelor of Science in Mining Engineering. He was a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and Institute of Mining Engineers.

Returning to Malaysia in 1961, he joined Government service and worked for nine years as Mines Inspector in Ipoh, Batu Gajah and Johor Baru. Subsequent work as a Tin Mining Consultant led to connections that saw him eventually take over Rock Chemical Industries and the Mamut Copper Mine in Sabah.

This led to heady days as a corporate player where he was involved in rescuing ailing companies and acting as a ‘white knight’, injecting profitable assets and relisting them. Gifted with uncanny sixth sense, he sold Palmco and its assets just before the currency crisis hit in 1996. Facing a temporary cash flow bind in 2003, Dato’ KK sold the rest of his holdings and quit the corporate scene for good.

With his penchant for reviving under-performing companies, and in preparation for his ‘retirement’ as he wound down from the corporate world, he started to acquire stakes in 3 high profile ‘ailing’ property projects in Ipoh, Greentown Business Centre, Klebang Industrial Estate (now known as EcoCity in Bandar Baru Sri Klebang) and Meru Valley Golf Resort.

The success of these three projects now speak for themselves and is testimony to the skilled entrepreneurship exhibited by Dato’ KK in his business life.

As his health deteriorated in the latter years with the emphysema which eventually took his life, he became more and more involved with his passion to bring Ipoh, his hometown which he loved, back to its former glory. In his philanthropic activities, he adamantly avoided publicity, preferring to donate and support in private.

He supported the preservation of history through his involvement with Ipoh World Sdn Bhd, was a founding member of the Perak Academy and a patron of the Perak Society of Performing Arts in Ipoh. He recently supported the formation of the Kinta Valley Wind Orchestra and was the sole donor to get it started.

When the Ipoh Echo ran into financial difficulties and was about to be downsized by founders Sivaprasagam and Fathol Zaman  Bukhari in 2007,  Dato’ KK stepped in and injected funds and extra manpower, which enabled Ipoh’s own community paper to be the vibrant and lively paper that is today, aligning with his vision of ‘bringing the buzz back to Ipoh’.

The most lasting impact his philanthropy has achieved is in the establishment of the Siwu Education Trust which runs the Tenby Educare Schools. This not-for-profit Trust which is run by a team of professional educators with schools in Shah Alam, Penang and Ipoh, will continue to carry forward the legacy left behind by Dato’ KK, whose vision is that of a ‘United World At Peace-through Education’.

Dato KK had a firm belief that it is only through education that many of the world’s problems can be solved. He used to say, “Children are our future. It is the positive experience of growing up, playing and studying together in a harmonious environment in school that will shape them to be open-minded adults. More importantly, in inculcating a genuine understanding of all cultures, religions and differences, then unity and world peace can be achieved.”

We will miss you Dato’ KK.

G. Sivaprasagam:

I have known KK since he had a mining consultancy practice in Hale Street.

He was meticulous and had an unrelenting obsession for detail. To him there was no matter that was too small or insignificant that did not deserve total undivided attention. It was a quality that I was to observe in all his dealings.

An early project I did with him was the formation of the Old Michaelian’s Association. He began the tradition of employing the Association to raise funds for the school which continues to this day.

He appreciated good food and had intimate knowledge of what was good whether it be hawker or fine dining.

In 2001 I was involved with him in the formation of the Perak Academy, a platform for the private sector to play a role in reviving Perak. It was to realise his philosophy ‘stop complaining – do what you can to bring improvement’.

My most recent association with him has been in the Ipoh Echo.

Though domineering by nature he was often generous to a fault. He was one of the rare beings who would go an extra mile to support any project he felt would benefit society.

During the entire time I had known him he never ceased to amaze me not only with his determination and desire to improve everything but the knowledge he possessed of what he was talking about.

His passing is not only a loss to his family and friends but to the Ipoh community.

Fathol Zaman Bukhari:

My introduction to Dato’ Lim Keng Kay (or KK Lim to many) would not have happened had it not been for Ipoh Echo, a community newspaper G. Sivapragasam and I started in mid-2005. The country’s only community newspaper would have died a natural death had not KK Lim thrown a lifeline. We were on the verge of giving up, as funding for the paper was fast dwindling. The one option left was to downsize operations or to reduce frequency to one issue per month instead of two, as allowed by the Home Ministry permit.

I made it a point to hand-deliver Ipoh Echo to KK Lim’s house and it must have been on one of these forays that the man came to realise our predicament. He called Siva and me over to his house one day and we had a long chat. He asked how he could help make the paper viable and to prolong the project Siva and I had started. Sensing his sincerity in wanting to help, we accepted his offer with open arms.

KK Lim’s attention for detail was phenomenal. I liken him to a seasoned general who plans his battle meticulously before committing his troops to battle. And being a former soldier, I find this commander-subordinate relationship most conducive. He was not an easy man to please. I learned this early by observation rather than by experience. In spite of his failing health, he took it upon himself to prepare a solid foundation for the paper to flourish. The rest, like they say, is history.

KK Lim’s altruism is not confined to helping a struggling community newspaper only but a slew of other projects, of which education is one. He will be sorely missed by all Ipohites, especially those whose hearts he touched.

Jerry Francis:

A Man Who Treasures Friendships

I have some fond memories of the late Dato’ K.K. Lim since we struck a friendship way back in 1982 when I joined the Royal Ipoh Club. Dato’ was elected as the club’s president in 1985.

As I was one of the members, who was instrumental in moving the dart activities from the “Men’s Bar” to another section of the club-house, he appointed me as darts’ secretary. With his support, darts became popular in the club.

After his second term as club’s president ended in 1987, he was rarely seen in the club. We hardly met. He was busy with his business activities and I was busy as a journalist covering the security operations in Perak.

I was surprised some years later to receive an invitation to his son, Lim Si Boon’s wedding. Instead of the customary invitation card, it was very personal in the form of a well-worded letter. I always remember his words that he was planning the wedding reception in a resort in Pangkor Island as an “excuse” to be reunited with his old friends.

As a journalist, I have often received invitations to various occasions and therefore sometimes wonder whether I was being invited as a friend or for publicity purposes.

However, Dato’ seemed to have read my mind, ringing two days later and assuring me that he did not want any publicity for the wedding, but my presence as a friend.

How can anyone turn down such an invitation, so my wife and I accepted the three days – two nights stay in the island resort, which he had fully booked. It was a memorable “fantasy island” experience with a well-organised reception team to look after the guests.

It was indeed a reunion of old friends. He had succeeded in getting together over a hundred friends and their spouses for the function. Among them judges, politicians, senior police officers and senior government servants, who had once served in Ipoh and had since transferred to other parts of the country or retired and moved abroad. It was a testimony of how much he treasured their friendships. I was honoured and privileged to be one of his friends.

Ever since we re-established our contact, we have been keeping in touch with each other. Just prior to my retirement as a journalist, he even made me some job offers, which I declined as I wanted to relax after working for over 30 years. When he learned that I had written a book “Turbulent Years in Perak – A Memoir”, he volunteered to help publish it.

In late 2009 when he rang me and requested that I join the editorial team of the Ipoh Echo as he wanted to make the newspaper the voice of the local community, I found it hard to decline as it came from a dear friend.

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