The late Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik was born in Tapah and studied at St Michael’s Institution (SMI). He graduated as a doctor from the Queens University of Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1964.
Back home he served at the Taiping government hospital before setting up his clinic at Chemor. For his poor patients he provided free service while for the sick children he would play the clown for them, earning him the sobriquet of ‘the mad doctor’ from both the mothers and children.
That was the late Tun Lim Keng Yaik, a man of principle who was focused and passionate about whatever he set his mind to. Dr Lim entered politics in 1968 by joining the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA). He contested in the Pekan Baru state seat in Perak in 1969 on an Alliance ticket but lost.
Dato’ Azumu Tak, currently the Permanent Chairman for UMNO Ipoh Barat Division, knew Lim then. “I used to be his interpreter. For ten days during the campaign period, Lim would stand on the (soap) box (kotak sabun) speaking in English and I would translate. I would go to the MCA office to teach him simple Malay and later on when Lim became a Member of Parliament he would always introduce me as his ‘Malay teacher’”, he reminisced. Azumu described Lim as an outspoken politician, “If he disagreed with an issue he would freely speak his mind but he was a very fair person who spoke up for his Chinese community,” he added.
In 1971, Lim was made the Chairman of MCA Perak only to be expelled in 1973 for going against the MCA Chairman then, the late Tun Tan Siew Sin. He subsequently joined Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia(Gerakan) the same year. In 1974, he was made Perak Gerakan Head, the party’s Deputy President in 1976 and Gerakan President in 1980. Lim held the President’s post till he retired in 2007 and was succeeded by its current President Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon.
Lim became a state Exco when he won the Jalong state seat in 1978 and an MP when he won the Beruas Parliamentary seat by a handsome margin in 1986. Lim last contested at the 2004 General Election retaining his Beruas seat with a clear majority of 4564 votes. He retired from his Cabinet post shortly before the 2008 General Election. In the Malaysian Cabinet, Lim was made the Minister of Primary Industries from 1986 till 2004 and then appointed the Minister of Energy, Water and Communications.
In the ‘70s when Lim became an MP, Dato’ Brother Vincent Corkery, then Brother Director of SMI, received a call from the Cabinet Secretary asking after Lim’s school records. Brother Vincent, considering that Lim was a “safe investment” gave him a clean bill of conduct.
Dato’ Chang Ko Youn, currently the Deputy President of Gerakan, described Lim as a well known figure in Malaysia who was highly respected by all races on both sides of the divide. Chang joined Gerakan in 1983 after returning from overseas. Gerakan then, was an established non race-based party under the leadership of Lim and it was just what Chang was looking for.
According to Chang, Gerakan first started in Penang under Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu and was strong in Penang and Perak. However, when Lim took over the Presidency in 1980, due to his strong organizational skills, he brought the party to the rest of the country. “Lim had a lot of ideas and the ability to make things happen,” said Chang and an example was what he did for the palm oil industry when he was the Minister for Primary Industries.
Indeed it was during Lim’s time that the Malaysian products of timber and palm oil was developed and transformed through value-added products such as rubber wood furniture, enabling it to be competitive and sustainable to penetrate global markets.
Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian, CEO of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Plantations Bhd, was the Chairman of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and served under Lim for 13 years. According to Lee, in the mid ‘90s, Malaysia’s output of palm oil was 3-4 million tonnes. Today it is 19 million tonnes while Indonesia’s output is 26 million tonnes.
Lee mentioned Indonesia because even in the ‘90s, Lim had anticipated the exponential growth of the palm oil industry and encouraged Malaysian plantation owners to expand overseas and for Indonesian owners to expand their production base.
Lim’s strategy to market palm oil to the world was multi pronged. He streamlined and structured the local industry and formed MPOB. He created POPCA or the Palm Oil Promotion Credit Arrangement scheme and did extensive research on palm oil. He then marketed it to the world and promoted it to scientists, nutritionists and decision makers through conferences worldwide.
His extensive knowledge on the positive qualities of palm oil stood him in good stead when going against the powerful soyabean lobby where he effectively proved that palm oil was a healthier product. Lim encouraged the players to see the world as a market and playground where several local companies have now maintained refineries and distribution centres overseas.
For all of his rough and tough attitude, Lim was “a man who never bore any malice” said DAP Perak Chairman Dato’ Ngeh Koo Ham, “in fact he was always very witty”. Ngeh recalled that he and DAP Chairman Lim Kit Siang bumped into Lim in 2010 at the Tropicana KL. Lim offered to buy them lunch to settle any political animosity. When the bill came up to RM200, Lim smilingly told them “aiya you are very cheap to settle” and they all had a good laugh.
That was Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik, politically respected, always passionate about what he did and stood his ground for what is right, not forgetting his witty style of address, or as Brother Vincent described it, “a forthright style of expression but invariably getting the message across”.