It’s regrettable that Lim Chin Joo has to be introduced by way of his late elder brother Lim Chin Siong.
The latter, who is seen by some as the man who could have been Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (had certain historical events played out differently) is remembered as the charismatic leader of the Barisan Sosialis who in 1963 was arrested and detained under Operation Coldstore.
And who is Lim Chin Joo?
Now the younger Lim, the third of 12 kids, also experienced a suitably eventful youth — in fact, he was detained in 1957 for nine years, from when he was 20 years old.
And despite his activism in the early 1950s with the Singapore Chinese Middle School Student Union, Lim wasn’t actually — or perhaps he never got the chance to be — in politics, unlike his older brother.
“You can actually see that I am not involved in politics for any meaningful period,” he says.
Sure enough, his detention under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (the present-day Internal Security Act) spanned the 1959 Legislative Assembly election, the 1962 merger referendum, the 1963 Legislative Assembly election as well as Singapore-Malaysia separation in 1965.
Lim, now 82 years young, volunteers as honorary adviser of the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a gentlemen’s gathering for (ahem quite wealthy) Chinese businessmen. Sitting down with us at a breezy, neither inside nor outside table at the Singapore Island Country Club, he adds in a mixture of English and Mandarin,
“But I can tell you that I do follow (politics), not because I have a brother who was a political leader in the left.
It is my nature from young days as a Chinese school student. 我觉得 (I feel that), We thought we were more ‘早熟’ (sensible and mature) lah, we get to know things much earlier because of our own personal experience. We were made to know what is life — life meaning food, lodging, clothing.”
Lim was likely thinking in Mandarin, using the popular term “食衣住行” (food, clothing, housing & transport; a person’s basic needs) to describe what a person’s priorities in the 1950s were.
A rare opportunity
That’s a taste of our conversation with Lim, by the way. We connected across time, posing questions in Mandarin and English, with him responding in both languages.
And the privilege we had, being his first media interview in quite some time, was not lost on us at all.
He tells us he understands that he was meeting us for the publicity, (“宣传”, in his words), of his new book — the English translation of his 2014 autobiography titled My Youth In Black And White.
And so we dive in, spending the next 90 minutes quizzing Lim about his family, his epic early years and his memories of his famous political brother.
Spending his “prime years” behind bars
Many a young Singaporean would attest to the fact that one’s 20s is a period for much to be done and achieved: taking brave risks, achieving milestones, graduating from school, starting work, roughing it out travelling.
And as we noted above, the period of Lim’s 20s was an extremely eventful one that he missed out on completely because he was in jail, with no clear idea of when he would be released — indeed, he reflects in his memoir that those were his “prime years”.
Picked up 6 academic qualifications, including a law degree
He wasted no time, though — while in detention, he cleared a host of examinations and academic qualifications that are immensely impressive even in today’s context.
At the age of 28, Lim was awarded a Bachelor of Laws from the University of London with second class honours.
When Lim was first detained in 1957, he had not even completed his Chinese Senior Middle III examinations.
What are those, you might ask? In those days, the structure of Chinese schools in Singapore followed the education system in China, which comprised six years of primary school, followed by three years each of junior middle and senior middle school.
Lim was pretty much the equivalent of a JC2 student who finished his junior college studies, but didn’t sit for his A-Levels.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Lim additionally learned Malay. He passed the Standards I, II, and III Malay examinations conducted by the Singapore government.
Here’s what he wrote in his book about how he made his detention space conducive for his studies and exams:
“[T]he first thing I did before I settled down (in his new detention complex in Changi), was to find a few wooden crates to make myself a writing desk in my new home. Luckily, that was not difficult as the prison kitchen was constantly throwing out crates of all sorts.
There was plenty of light and fresh air in my room. The new environment was no doubt much more conducive to my studies and I was intent on taking full advantage of it to complete my degree course”.
He is a lot more self-effacing about his academic achievement, though, describing himself as just being “very individualistic”. After all, he says, he wasn’t doing something others couldn’t do.
In fact, he thinks his father was happier about how he performed than he was, sharing how he went to The Straits Times with the news as soon as he had heard about Lim’s results.
“I can’t explain, honestly. Maybe I am quite an odd man out lah.
My mind was a disturbed mind. In the first place, not being free. In the second place, I had a so-called girlfriend lah. There are lots of distractions. Anyhow, I bit the bullet. And I studied hard”.
The “so-called girlfriend” who waited 9 years for him
Lim’s earlier mention of his wife as his “so-called girlfriend” was a way in for us to discover the love story that formed the backbone of his arduous nine-year detention.
By this point, we’ve gotten quite used to his tendency to outwardly downplay personal achievements, things and people whom he holds dear — after all, Lim’s enduring relationship with his “so-called girlfriend” is one of Singapore’s sweetest untold love stories.
And we also know his self-deprecation was out in full force, mingling with a surprising shyness that betrayed his true feelings about her — well, coupled with the fact that we already knew he had dedicated both his books (an earlier version he wrote in Mandarin was first published in 2014) to her.
“She waited for me (while Lim was in detention). She’s so foolish,” Lim says, laughing like a shy young man in love.
Lim also shared that he did not have the chance to confess his love for her before he was taken away. “We had not even firmed up (our interest in each other yet)”, he added.
He said that made detention really “很辛苦” (very difficult) for him, especially in the first year.
Without a firm promise made to each other, he was unsure if she would wait for him. Recall also the fact that he was being detained indefinitely — in many ways, detention without trial is worse than a prison term, because the end of the latter of which can at least be worked out with some degree of certainty.
To make things worse, only parents and family members can visit Lim when he was under detention. So there was zero chance of her coming to see him.
Got by with a little help from a friend
Be that as it may, this is Lim we’re talking about. Of course, he tells us with a gleam in his eye, he came up with an alternative plan.
In short: a warden helped to play love messenger for him — how, we shall leave you to infer. Heh.
And what did he write in these legendary love notes that inspired her faithfulness to something that didn’t even properly exist?
“I signal to her, I want her to wait,” he said simply, to our awestruck faces.
And finally, three years in, Lim and his fellow detainees were let out on Chu Xi (Chinese New Year’s eve), and were allowed to return on the third day of the Lunar New Year.
He wasted no time, and met her on Chu Yi (the first day of Chinese New Year) to watch a midnight movie. As it came to a close, he mustered all the courage he had, asked her if she would go for a walk, and then…
“This gave me the first opportunity to meet my girl and to say, and exchange the three words lah”.
But any reticence on his part in sharing juicy details from his exciting love story was pardoned when he volunteered the following:
“Because I think she is the most important figure in that time of my life… She remains faithful and kind, and trusts in me. Nine years of suffering. All because of me.”
There’s a fairy-tale ending to this story, too — Lim’s still-so-called girlfriend had been studying in the UK when Lim was eventually released, but decided to cut her degree programme short, return and get married.
True love if we’ve ever seen it.
The man who acquired Pulau Tekong (for the government)
Here’s another fascinating thing Lim did, his imaginable unhappiness with the government notwithstanding: the first job Lim took upon his release was with none other than the government’s elite administrative service — where he stayed for seven years.
Lim explains that he met with the late Lee Kuan Yew, who was by then Prime Minister, and agreed to take on the role of a collector of land revenue at the Ministry of Law.
What that essentially meant was he assisted the government with land acquisitions.
“I did a lot of acquisitions, the biggest being the acquisition of Pulau Tekong. I acquired the whole of Pulau Tekong!”
And who owned Pulau Tekong previously?
Lim says it belonged to many individuals.
He was in charge of acquiring Pulau Tekong Besar, the bigger island of Pulau Tekong. Pulau Tekong Kechil, he says, was owned by a lawyer, who got the land from the family of the Sultan of Johor.
According to Lim, about 300-400 households lived on Pulau Tekong Besar. There were farmers who grew tomatoes and reared pigs.
And of course, Pulau Tekong should sound familiar to you because most young Singaporean men shuffled on and off ferries to and from the island at the start of their national service.
Lim nods, confirming that he was indeed appointed to acquire Tekong for defence purposes.
“You know the kind of prices we were paying were peanuts! Per square foot, 30 cents, 40 cents,” he adds.
A self-professed beneficiary of Singapore’s progress (ahem, capitalism)
After leaving the civil service, Lim began his law practice in 1973.
Lim, who retired in 2002, said that he had no regrets going to the private sector.
Lim specialised in property law, and focused on conveyancing work.
During Lim’s prime as a partner at Jing Quee & Chin Joo, he employed 15-20 lawyers, with a total of 60-70 staff working for him.
Lim shared that joining the law practice was when he made his “better, ample living”.
As Singapore was fast flourishing with lots of property developments coming up, there was a shortage of lawyers.
And Lim makes no bones about the fact that he benefited, significantly, from Singapore’s economic progress.
“I cannot complain, honestly. The nation has progressed, despite my past. I cannot deny that I am one of the beneficiaries.
I benefited. I came out at the right time. But one thing is if I were to think of my own ideals in the past, my conscience pricked me — because when we were young, we were thinking of fighting for the poor, devoting ourselves to that. But now the world has changed.”
But what about now?
So what is Lim’s view of Singapore now?
He responds that he doesn’t want to think about it.
Although he is not a politician, Lim becomes more careful in his replies to the more political questions we pose.
Is Lim optimistic about Singapore’s future post-Lee Kuan Yew, for instance?
Lim jokes that he had never been optimistic about Singapore’s future with or without Lee, because Lim’s own beliefs and ideas of politics have always been different.
And how does he assess Lee’s legacy?
Again, he prefers not to speak about it.
So we decide instead to ask him about his brother.
Preserving Lim Chin Siong’s legacy
Two sections of Lim’s book include material written by his brother, as well as Lim’s own reflections on the 18th anniversary of his brother’s death.
It contains Lim Chin Siong’s handwritten answers to questions he had been posed for a Singapore Broadcasting Corporation video interview in 1992 that did not take place in the end.
Lim says he is also glad that there are now more books and literature about his late elder brother.
“The good thing is these writings are by people who are much more academic,” Lim says, adding that there are more historians writing about the late Lim, rather than the politicians of his time.
“And these people’s writings, in my view, are more objective. Because there are more materials that have been uncovered in the archives”, he said.
We asked for his personal views on his elder brother, to which he responds simply:
“He’s a good brother. To his family, he is a good father. His two sons are now very successful.”
As a politician, Lim views his elder brother as a “man with a big heart” who was always trying to accommodate people.
Young Singaporeans know too little about our history
Lim also feels young Singaporeans should know more about Singapore’s history — from where he’s standing, we know too little and are taking things for granted.
And it’s interesting he should share this view with us, which also informs his decision to publish an English translation of his autobiography in the first place — because, he explains ruefully, his own children couldn’t read his Mandarin one.
“I want my children to know where did I come from. Hopefully, from my story they can learn something,” he says.
And thankfully, this gargantuan effort seems to have paid off — he shares that his children and his two oldest granddaughters have read the book and even managed to sell more than 100 copies of it.
My time and your time is “beyond comparison”
Elaborating on his views on the younger generation, Lim says it’s a “different thing” for younger Singaporeans looking at life these days — today’s children, he opines, do not know the hardships and realities of life.
For example, he observes that his generation’s mentality, Singapore’s pioneer generation, is no different from that of his parents. Both generations had their livelihoods as their primary concern.
Young Singaporeans, nowadays, focus more on studying and enjoyment. That’s the “basic difference”, he notes.
And what is Lim’s advice for young Singaporeans in their 20s if they are faced with challenges and tremendous hardship?
“It will be beyond (their) imaginations for you to tell them that if they were to face a situation (detention for a decade) like this, what shall we do? What shall you do? Because things are different, times are different. In those days, we are in a state where we have no nation of our own. We have no government of our own. We work in a colony ruled by foreigners. It’s different. It’s beyond comparison.”
Many more stories to tell
One thing I realised after finishing Lim’s autobiography, which I shared with Lim when we met, is that it’s incomplete.
And indeed, by Lim’s own admission, it covers just the first 30 years of his life — from his birth in Pontian, Johor, to his days as a student activist and trade unionist, and as a detainee for nine years.
How about his experiences acquiring Pulau Tekong? Or his involvement as a lawyer in the Teh Cheang Wan case?
So many questions. So will he work on a sequel, perhaps clumsily titled My Life as a Singapore Professional in Black and White?
Lim “hopes so”, provided he lives long enough.
He later on repeats his commitment to us that he will try to write a second book.
“I got more stories to tell, you know.”
Top photo by Rachel Ng.