Image reproduced courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore
By Dingjian Xie
During his life, Lim Boon Keng (Lin Wenqin, 林文庆), a Chinese Singaporean, was celebrated as one of the most eminent figures of Southeast Asia. Lim was a medical doctor, legislator, scholar, educator, entrepreneur, community leader, social reformer and philanthropist, leaving his traces not only in Singapore but also in China and Britain. He is remembered in China because of his role both as private secretary to Sun Yat-Sen, the ‘father of Republic of China’, and as president of Amoy University (Xiamen University).
Born in Singapore on 18th October 1869, Lim Boon Keng was the third son of Lim Thean Geow, and the grandson of Lim Mah Peng who emigrated from Fujian Province, China, to Penang, Malaysia in 1839 (Siang, 1923). After briefly studying at a school founded by the Hokkien (a group of migrants from Fujian), Lim began an English language education at the Government Cross Street School in Singapore which was followed by studies at Raffles Institution, a school the sons of local chiefs (Prasad and Koh, 2004). Lim’s talent attracted the attention of the then Principal, Richmond William Hullett, who persuaded Lim’s family to permit him to continue his studies after his father’s death. Living up to the expectation of Mr Hullett, Lim made rapid progress and became the first Chinese national to win a Queen’s Scholarship in 1887, which enabled him to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. At the annual prize giving of the Raffles Institution in February 1888, Hullett said:
“I am quite sure that Boon Keng will distinguish himself, for I have watched many boys leave school and go out into the world, and I seldom parted with anyone of whose future I feel more confident.” (Siang, 1923).
According to letters sent to his friend Song Ong Siang, Lim was satisfied during his medical studies at Edinburgh between 1887 and 1892, and in 1890, he became a librarian for the Royal Medical Society in Edinburgh (Siang, 1923). Lim, nevertheless, also faced numerous difficulties. He witnessed other Chinese being humiliated by white Scots, and was, allegedly, isolated from other Chinese students by his inability to speak Chinese well (Lee, 1990). Ashamed over his inability to translate Chinese, he went on to learn Mandarin and Cantonese, and upon his return to Singapore he read numerous Chinese classics. Lim later came to champion Confucianism, and advocated Confucian ethics both in Malaysia and Republican China. In August 1892, Lim Boon Keng passed his medical examinations with first class honours and graduated with a M.B., C.M., winning the Atholl Medal. He went on to research pathology at Cambridge University for a year before returning to the British colony of Singapore.
Advocating moral, social and educational change
On his return in May 1893, Lim Boon Keng began working as a doctor, and quickly earned a reputation as a skilful and attentive physician. In 1897, Lim, together with Dr T. Murray Robertson, opened ‘The Dispensary’ at Raffles Place, where he served as a doctor for about 10 years. In 1895, he was also appointed as the Chinese member of the Legislative Council. Lim was reappointed in 1898, 1901, 1915 and 1918 and made Justice of the Peace in 1897 (Siang, 1923).
As a first generation western-educated Chinese leader, Lim Boon Keng was an enthusiastic supporter of “moral”, social and educational reform, and sought to change everything from the wearing of a towchang to funeral and marriage rituals, opium smoking, foot-binding and concubinage (Siang, 1923). In 1899, Lim began a crusade against the towchang by persuading a few followers to discard long hair as a sign of their willingness to adopt necessary social and other reforms (Siang, 1923). In the same year, together with the other two Straits Chinese elites (Song Ong Siang and Khoo Seok-wan), Lim launched a new school, the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. In 1900, he participated in the Straits Chinese British Association and founded the Chinese Philomathic Society, which brought together intellectuals for the regular study of English literature, Western music and the Chinese language (Siang, 1923). Because of his contributions to education, Lim was awarded an honorary degree by Hong Kong University in January 1919 (Siang, 1923).
However, rather than being totally westernised, Lim was an intermediary between “West” and “East”. In 1897 Lim co-edited the first edition of the Straits Chinese Magazine, an English-language ‘quarterly journal of occidental and oriental’ with Song Ong Siang. Asserting that Chinese needed to learn from both “East” and “West”, Lim noted in an address on ‘Education for the Chinese’, that:
“[…] the method of educating public opinion and of elevating the tone of public sentiment is to be done by the spread of sound views on the duties of citizenship, and by the creation of a public spirit or conscience amongst the masses. When the common people have recognised the real source of their strength, they will appreciate the teaching of Mencius and will profit by the experience of Europe. Not waiting for governmental action, they will initiate reform work and compel the authorities to give them a hearing. To effect such a desirable change, the Chinese people must survey their own social world with impartiality and with a clear vision.” (Siang, 1923, p235).
Promotion of Confucianism
To some extent, Lim’s personal quest to discover his own identity led him to argue for the necessity of learning the Chinese language and ‘the superiority of Confucianism over Christianity’ (Siang, 1923). It is arguable that his promotion of Confucianism through lectures delivered between 1894 and 1910 led to a Confucian revival throughout Malaya.
While Lim Boon Keng showed loyalty to the British Queen, he also passionately engaged in the social transformation of the newly-founded Chinese Republic. From 1911 he worked as the Inspector-General of hospitals in Beijing. And the following year, when the Republic of China was founded, Lim became private secretary and personal physician to Sun Yat-Sen. Between 1921 and 1937, Lim acted as the president of Amoy (Xiamen) University, where he continued to advocate Confucian ideals. He was met with criticism from some Chinese intellectuals, however, and his desire for a revival of national culture irritated the famous May Fourth writer Lu Xun (鲁迅, 1881–1936), a radical critic of Confucian ethics, in particular. During a renowned clash, Lu dismissed Lim as a “Chinese with [a] British nationality who cannot open or shut his mouth without the word “Confucius” (Chan, 2015).
After resigning from Amoy University in 1937, Lim returned to Singapore. There he founded the Straits Chinese China Relief Fund Committee of Singapore, to support China during the war. When the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942, he was appointed president of the Overseas Chinese Association by the Japanese. Under the requirement of the Japanese, Lim allegedly “pretended to support the Japanese Military Administration but actually resorted to passive resistance” (Singapore Heritage Society, 2007).
‘Singapore’s Grand Old Man’ passed away on 1st January 1957 (The Straits Times, 1957). He and his first wife had four sons: Robert, Francis, Walter and John. His second wife bore his daughter Ena and son Peng Han. It is worth mentioning that Lim’s eldest son Robert Lim Kho Seng (林可胜, 1897-1969), following his father’s step in medical studies, also obtained his degrees of M.B., B. Ch. at the University of Edinburgh in 1919, and earned a PhD in 1921 and a D.Sc. in 1923. In 1923 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Lim Kho Seng became Minister of Health in the Republic of China until 1948, when he resigned to become Professor of Physiology at the University of Illinois, U.S.A. (Soon, 2014).
Chan, S, 2015, ‘The case for diaspora: A temporal approach to the Chinese experience’, The Journal of Asian Studies 74, no. 1, pp.107-128.
Lee, G.K., 1990, The thought of Lim Boon Keng: Convergency and contradiction between Chinese and Western culture [Lin Wenqing de sixiang: zhongxi wenhua de huiliu yu maodun], Singapore: Society of Asian Studies.
Prasad, V.J. & Koh J, 2004, “Raffles Institution”, National Library Board Singapore, available at the National Library Board Singapore Website
Siang, S.O., 1923, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, London.
Singapore Heritage Society, Lim Boon Keng- A Life to Remember. 1869-1957, Singapore Heritage Society, available at the Singapore Heritage Society Website
Soon, W, 2014, Science, Medicine, and Confucianism in the Making of China and Southeast Asia—Lim Boon Keng and the Overseas Chinese, 1897–1937, Twentieth-Century China 39, no. 1, pp.24-43.
The Straits Times, 1957, ‘Singapore’s Grand Old Man Dies”, The Straits Times, 1st January, page 1.