Whilst welcoming the New Year, we should not forget the contributions of our past leaders.The PR Penang state government has marked Tun Dato Seri Utama Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu’s immense contributions by renaming longest Expressway in Penang of 18km and the PDC Building in Jalan Mayang Pasir after him.The personal tribute by me to Tun Dato Seri Utama Dr Lim Chong Eu is reminder to all that in embracing the new, we should not forget the old. After all we must understand the past to be connected to the present so that we can peer confidently into the future.
The inaugural “Unforgettable George Town” Heritage Festival in July this year beckoned to halcyon days gone by when Penang was a premier free port, a prosperous trading hub, the centre of intellectual vigour and learning as well as possessing a vibrant cultural community.
Many cultural, literary and political icons passed and resided here from Modern China’s founder Sun Yat Sen, novelists Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, legendary actor P. Ramlee who was born here, together with an assortment of kings and queens.
George Town was unforgettable because the denizens were simply the best – showing energy, enterprise and expertise.
Tun Dr Lim epitomizes these qualities. That is why his death on 24 November 2010, even though expected, is still felt keenly by all both in and outside Penang. In recognition of his immense contributions, the Penang state government accorded him a state funeral, ordered flags flown at half-mast and renamed the longest road in Penang and the PDC Building after him.
What made Tun Dr Lim unforgettable was that he had a sense of history around him. It was this realisation as men of manifest destiny that they went about creating that history.
History credits Tun Dr Lim with transforming the landscape of Penang’s economy over 3 decades, from a sleepy agricultural economy to a thriving manufacturing industry. The Penang GDP has grown nearly 60 times in 38 years from a mere RM790 million in 1970 to RM46.8 billion in 2008 at an annual growth rate of 7% and a per capita GDP of over RM30,000 which is 58% higher than the national average at RM 19,120.
This increase is largely due to the expanding manufacturing sector that now accounts for 54% of Penang’s economy, with the services sector at 42%%. A quarter of Malaysia’s exports and nearly 70% of Malaysia’s tourism receipts originate from Penang.
Tun Dr Lim turned Penang into the Silicon Valley of the East with the Electronic and Electrical Cluster as the most vibrant in the world and the most recognizable free trade zone in Malaysia. This gave employment to hundreds of thousands, training them and arming them with the skill-sets to compete against the world.
More importantly, Tun Dr Lim gave Penang a sense of self. First a political self forging an alternative based on basic rights and freedoms, social justice and reforms. Then, after surrendering to the political calculations of the day, constructing an economic self for Penang. Whilst one may disagree with his political judgment, there is no doubt that Tun
Dr Lim excelled in economic management and instilled a pride of professionalism and excellence in Penang.
The Free Trade Zones in Bayan Lepas, Prai and Bukit Minyak were his lasting legacies. Although he retired in 1990 from politics, the foundation he built was strong enough to see Penang through for at least another 20 years, at least until March 8, 2008, when Penangites decided that “enough was enough”.
After Pakatan Rakyat took power in Penang in March 2008, I had the extraordinary privilege on numerous occasions of dining with Tun Dr Lim and discussing Penang’s past and future development with him. He was an impressive man indeed.
I sensed a deep yearning from him to see his legacy not just cemented but continued. He advised me on the challenges I would face, drawing parallels with his earlier experiences as an opposition party winning power. He warned me about the potential pitfalls and that the most onerous task would be to fashion a dedicated corps to implement the reforms to get Penang moving again.
I did not follow all his advice. Tun felt that I had to exercise full executive powers in all the key portfolios to succeed, but as I lacked his abilities I prefer to rely on teamwork. But I did listen to him to enhance my personal security as “your enemies are unseen, but they see you”.
He never mentioned the historic win by PR in Penang in the 2008 general elections which decimated the party he founded. He ignored it. He earnestly wanted Penang to succeed again. And Tun Dr Lim was generous enough to forget old enemities and past grudges to proffer me his help. For that I am personally grateful.
Clearly Tun Dr Lim not only had a sense of history but also a sense of responsibility. As much as being a man of action, he was a man of ideas. Tun Dr Lim always kept the big picture in mind. That big picture stretched beyond Penang, despite the state being where his ideas were realized. It stretched beyond Malaysia, despite the well-being of the country being his primary concern.
He would always treat his audience to juicy details taken from local history, national history and global history. We forget today how radical the idea for a free trade zone in Penang was, and how it revealed an understanding of global economics and politics that one would not have expected from a medical doctor.
His belief in multiculturalism and in Penang’s special role in leading the way towards a progressive and prosperous Malaysia is something that will continue to inspire Malaysians.
Even though I will miss his nuggets of advice, I can still draw upon his historical record of how he handled economic challenges as a guide. We need to understand our past to be connected to the present to enable us to peer boldly into the future.
With his passing, I hope that Malaysians of all races will take a hard look at the history of our country, for few lives reflect the conflicts, successes and hopes of the country the way his eventful life did.
Tun Dr Lim’s passing is more than just a time for contemplation. It is also a time for action. What he wished for Penang and Malaysia is still achievable. We have been sidetracked too long. Tun Dr Lim’s life story serves as a rich mine of important lessons and pointers that what was lost can still be regained.
• That Penang can be a beacon of hope for ideals, ideals, diversity, multi-cultural harmony and human dignity,
• That economic prosperity for all matters most of all.
• That Penang possesses the best and brightest talents
• That Penang can lead again.
Tun Dr Lim’s success in delivering what he promised was what made him unforgettable. From a state that is as unforgettable as Penang, we shall miss one who is equally unforgettable.