Tun Dato’ Seri Dr Lim Chong Eu

Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu

The Founder and Architect of modern Penang, Tun Dato’ Seri Dr Lim Chong Eu (1919 to 2010) is a towering Malaysian. Going by only the title of Dr. in all the twenty-one years as the Chief Minister of Penang (1969 to 1990) and with his vision, intelligence, integrity and will, Tun Lim developed Penang from its days as a backwater State in the 1960’s into a thriving electronics and semiconductor manufacturing powerhouse.

The development of the manufacturing sector in turn provided the resources for the services sector in Penang to thrive, transforming Penang to the modern state it is today. It is befitting that a coastal expressway named in Tun Lim’s honor connects bustling heritage-rich George Town (capital of Penang and where the office of the Chief Minister is located) to the high-tech industries of Penang’s Free Trade Zone (of which Tun Lim founded) to the South-East of Penang. Mid-way along the Tun Lim Chong Eu expressway is the Penang Bridge which links Penang Island to peninsula Malaysia. The Penang Bridge is a key instrument for the rapid growth of Penang and was a project championed by Tun Lim.

Penang Bridge

The people of Penang today benefit from the jobs created from the enterprise of Tun Lim and Penangites remember Tun Lim fondly.

It is all history now, but not that long ago, in 1969, the cessation of the free port status in Penang witnessed the loss of jobs followed by a tremendous brain drain situation. Many of the young talents of Penang who could not find a job in their home state had no choice but to migrate to the Klang Valley to seek greener pastures. Unemployment in Penang was a double-digit high (16.4%) then.

Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu in younger days

After taking over the helm of the Penang State Government, Tun Lim’s first task was to create employment for the people. The government, previously under the Alliance Party (which was succeeded by the Barisan National) had commissioned Messrs. Robert R Nathan to prepare a master plan for Penang in 1969. This plan called for a basic shift in the economic structure of the State. The report indicated that Penang would not be able to achieve economic development if it merely concentrated on the import-substituting manufacturing industry (as recommended by an earlier Munro Report). Instead, Penang was required to promote manufacturing industries, tourism, fisheries, health and research facilities to revive the State from its economic doldrums. Taking into consideration the recommendations, the State Government identified the electronics industry as having the best potential for rejuvenating the economy of the State. But how to kick start this major undertaking?

The late Tun Lim was a man of vision and foresight. Thinking out of the box, he persuaded the late Tun Abdul Razak, who was the Director of the National Operations Council (NOC) to approve the setting up of a free trade zone in Penang. The free trade zone was the tool used by the late Tun Lim to attract offshore investments to Penang.

The setting up of the free trade zones in Bayan Lepas and Seberang Perai succeeded in attracting labor intensive foreign direct investments (FDIs). Jobs were created and a reversed situation of resource outflow was observed.

Penang started to have brain gain, attracting semi-skilled and skilled workers from the northern region as well as the central and southern regions. This development generated a trickle-down effect that resulted in the development and expansion of townships to cater to the housing needs of the staff of the newly set-up factories.

The politics behind the Statesman.

Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu

Tun Dr Lim was fondly known as the ‘Old Man’ by members of his political party; the “title” was given as a mark of respect for his accomplishments in turning Penang into an electronics manufacturing giant and for his endeavors in polishing the ‘pearl’ so that it continues to shine (Penang was often referred to as the “Pearl of the Orient”).

As a politician, he adopted the non-racial approach. Tun Dr Lim formed a non-racial opposition platform, named the United Democratic Party (UDP) and later on, the Gerakan. He then decided to work with Tun Abdul Razak of the Federal Government in the formation of Barisan Nasional because his vision was to have a non-racial platform via the Barisan Nasional and to build the nation along non-racial lines.

Tun Lim was a consummate politician; he was able to get what he wanted from the federal government. Getting the first free trade zone set up in Penang is a classic example of his competence as a politician.

The Penang State officers who have worked with Tun Lim remember him as a straight to the point, no-nonsense person, who rarely showed his emotions in public. He was also known to be sharp and could put specialists/ experts in their field to shame with his vast knowledge. Since he was a no-nonsense and serious person, some of his officers would not even dare to excuse themselves for a bio-break during his meetings.

Tun Dr Lim Chong EuAs a ‘green horn’ in PDC, I was once asked to prepare some statistics for him. I had printed the statistics and graphs, stapled the papers together and put them in a new envelope. I had to pass the information to him at the PDC porch in front of the PDC’s General Manager, Dato’ Seri Chet Singh and other managers.  Upon receiving the envelope from me, Tun Lim commented that I should not have used a new envelope.  A used one would suffice. Then he looked at the table of figures and the graphs and gave some positive comments to me – in front of the others. What I learnt from the great man that day was that we have to be prudent and we should not waste resources.  Recycling was not talked about and adopted then but Tun Dr Lim was already telling me that using a used envelope to pass the information would suffice so as not to waste resources.

Many remember him as a man with honesty and integrity. They also remember him as a person who might be direct and hard-hitting in his remarks but those remarks were never personal. He always advised his officers to be honest in words and deeds.

True to his principles of being honest, he never negotiated any business deal alone, be it for the state or the PDC. Negotiations were always in the presence of an officer. He even empowered the General Manager and the Deputy General Manager to negotiate deals on his behalf. Following the examples set by their leader, the GM and DGM of PDC also negotiated deals in the presence of relevant officers.

Tun Lim had vision and always looked at the bigger picture. He never micromanaged. He empowered his officers to implement the details. The senior officers of the state agencies whom he trusted, had a free hand in managing their organizations. Likewise, he did not defend his officers directly but he allowed them the opportunity to grow, build their capacity and learn to defend themselves in cases of conflicts.

His passing in 2010 did not only result in them losing a leader. In fact, they lost a mentor.

Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu

As a man of integrity, the late Tun Lim also did not accept any state or national award until he had retired from politics. The “only” title he carried during his 21 years as Chief Minister of Penang was his medical doctor’s title. His rationale was that being an elected leader, he does not deserve any awards and titles until and unless he had done his job. His aim was to develop Penang to eradicate the high unemployment of the 1960s and early 1970s. He was also determined on stabilizing Penang in the aftermath of the May 13 (1969) incident, embracing multiracialism.

An altruistic person by nature, the late Tun Lim did not only focus on the development of Penang. He was also keen on promoting and developing the northern region of Peninsula Malaysia. He invited the Menteri Besars of Perak, Perlis and Kedah to participate in the Penang Week in Adelaide in 1973. All these happened before the Federal Government had even thought of endorsing the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth-Triangle (IMT-GT) and establishing the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER).

Some party stalwarts and state officers say, “Once Tun Lim decided on something and started working on it, he never backed down.” Tun Lim was not only a man of vision, he was also a man of action.

Penang Trails salutes the Founder and Architect of modern Penang, Tun Dato’ Seri Dr Lim Chong Eu, without whom the main export of Penang today may well be the betel nuts the state is named after.

Background Bio-Data

  • Born on May 28, 1919 and passed away on November 24, 2010
  • Attended Penang Free School, where he was the Queen’s Scholar in 1937
  • Obtained a degree in medicine and surgery from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in 1944.
  • From 1951 – 1954, he was a practicing medical doctor, serving in the Malayan Auxiliary Air Force. Went into private practice in 1954.
  • Passed away on November 24, 2010. Accorded a state funeral and state flag was flown at half-mast from November 25 – 28 as a mark of respect.

Political History

  • Appointed to the Penang Local Council in 1951.
  • Appointed a member of the Federal Legislature in 1955.
  • In March 1958 party elections, challenged Tun Tan Cheng Lock and won the presidency with a majority of 22 votes.
  • Founded the United Democratic Party (UDP) in 1962 after he left MCA in December 1960.
  • Contested in the 1964 election. He was the only UDP candidate elected that year.
  • Became the founding president of Parti Gerakan Rakyat in 1967. Gerakan wrest the state of Penang from the Alliance in 1969.
  • Gerakan joined Barisan Nasional in 1973 and held power in Penang until March 8, 2008. Tun Lim was Chief Minister until 1990. He served as Penang’s second Chief Minister for 21 years.

Iconic projects in Penang during the late Tun Dr Lim’s time as Chief Minister

  • The 66-storey KOMTAR administrative tower and commercial complex. When it was topped-off, KOMTAR was for some time the tallest building in Asia
  • The 13.5km Penang Bridge. The Penang Bridge one of the longest in the world at that time.
  • The emergence of Penang’s Free Trade Zones (FTZ) – later renamed Free Industrial Zones – which evolved into one of Asia’s most powerful electronics hubs.

The Georgetown City

Upon retirement from politics

  • Chairman and advisor for several large corporations.
  • 2007, named founding chancellor of Wawasan Open University.
  • Advisor to Sarawak State Government / Ministry of Industrial Development.


When I Was Young

When I was young and my spirit flamed
With the inward glow of youthful pride and fire,
My limbs were firm and full with youth’s energy
And warm red blood coursed through my pulsing heart
I felt I could conquer the world alone
And laughed at my own wild recklessness:
Then, I know no hindrance, nothing checked me.
Thoughts? Oh what were thoughts to me then,
What cared I for thoughts when my blood burned
With the heat which called for immediate action!

Poem extracted from “The Web Breaks” by Lim Chong Eu, 28th May 1966. (The “The Web Breaks” is a book of poems published by Tun Lim in 1966).

Lim Chong Eu, second of the 1937 (Queen’s) scholars, was a pupil of Penang Free School. He followed the footsteps of his father (Dr Lim Chwee Leong) in studying medicine, and proceeded to Edinburgh University, where he took his M.B., Ch. B in 1944. After a resident appointed at Accrington, Lancashire, he proceeded to Chungking and saw much war service as officer of the Chinese Army Medical Service. When the Japanese capitulated in 1945, he joined the teaching staff of the newly established Medical College of the Chinese National Defence Ministry at Kiangwan, Shanghai. Returned to Penang in 1947.

(extracted from p238, Penang Free School Magazine Vol IV No 6 dated 21st October 1966.)

An overview of Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu’s political career
By Dr Khoo Boo Teik (2010)

A young medical student in Edinburgh, Scotland, he was one of the leaders of the London-based United Kingdom and Erie Chinese Students’ Association which actively rallied support for China’s fight against invasion by Japan.

Once, when speaking at a memorial service for a young comrade who had died of illness, C E Lim, as he was usually known then, spoke warmly of his friend’s unstinting contribution to anti-Japanese resistance. Firmly, C E Lim told fellow-Chinese among his listeners, the most pressing thing was to go to China, live the cause there, and support the reconstruction that would have to come after the war. True to his own urgings, the newly graduated Dr Lim proceeded to wartime China and became a doctor in the ‘good fight’.

After more than two years in China, he returned to Malaya, specifically to Penang, which he had left almost ten years earlier. Dr Lim returned with a bride, now Toh Puan, who has been by his side ever since. But he also brought with him a new identity as postwar political developments washed chaotically all over the Malaya.

Leaving behind the sense of being a Chinese in the world, which he was in UK, he now regarded himself a Malayan. This crucial shift in identity was best expressed by the Radical Party he formed with several newfound comrades to contest the George Town Municipal Council elections. As Dr Lim explained, the party was ‘radical’ inasmuch as its members critically decided that their fate and fortune were firmly rooted in Malayan soil, and not some distant homeland.

He subsequently immersed himself in almost the full range of so-called ‘Chinese politics’. From the Radical Party, he moved to the Malay(si)an Chinese Association. Later, with others, he founded the United Democratic Party and the Parti Gerakan Rakyat. A member of the pre-Merdeka Legislative Council, he helped to draft the Constitution. He acted as the Alliance Whip in the post-Merdeka Parliament.

In 1969, he became the Chief Minister of Penang. He is probably best known for that position because in that capacity he led Penang to an astonishingly impressive advance from being a declining entrepôt port to an export-oriented manufacturing centre of the world. Under Dr Lim’s leadership, Penang showcased a rare example in the developing world of sustained success in socio-economic transformation.

Chief Minister Dr Lim Chong Eu was internationally respected for his clarity and foresight in policy formulation, his honesty and firmness in administration, and his competence and dedication in implementation. By these qualities, Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu is also noted in Penang and Malaysia today, not least by some of his most persistent critics and opponents in the arena of national politics.

In his long and indisputably influential career, Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu moved – and, surely, he and we would say, progressed – from being a Penang-born, Straits Settlements-bred, Edinburgh-trained, and China-supporting doctor to becoming a Malaysian politician.

Like several other national leaders among his peers, Tun Dr Lim went from the treatment of the human body to the management of the body politic, always imbued with his view, inspired by Joseph Needham, that ‘politics was none other than the latest in ethics’. The results of his struggles for a better Penang and Malaysia will long be remembered with admiration and affection.

by Anna Ong
February 2017

The author would like thank Ms Lim Pao Li  for sharing her thoughts and information on the late Tun Lim for this article.


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