by Harleen Kaur, Chairman, Kuala Lumpur Bar Committee
Lim Phaik Gan, also known as PG Lim, was one of Malaysia’s pioneer women lawyers. Born into a privileged and affluent family, she could have taken the path of least resistance, but she studied law and was called to the English Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1948. She was among the first Malaysian women to have obtained a Master’s degree in Law, from Girton College, University of Cambridge, London.
What would it have been like for a woman in those days? Luckily for her, she had the full support of her family to pursue law. Alas, being a woman, she was barred from attending her graduation ceremony after obtaining her degree. Although she had sat for and passed the same exams as the men studying for a law degree, she was only awarded a titular degree — a fancy piece of paper that meant very little at that time. This injustice was rectified years later after the University of Cambridge gained some sense and sensibility. We should pause here for a moment and imagine how, even today, women are often still regarded as being less than equal merely on the basis of their sex.
Once she returned to Penang after completing her law degree, PG Lim explored the possibility of joining the newly set up Straits Settlement Civil Service for locals, only to be told that it was not open to women. Mind you, this was at a time when there were no institutions of higher learning in Malaya yet, but she was still not “qualified” or “suitable”. Undeterred, and determined to gain financial independence, she accepted a position to teach English Literature to school students before returning to England to complete her Bar exams. Almost two decades after obtaining her degree, she was admitted as an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya in 1954, and she practised law for 17 years, until 1971. She was a member of the Bar Council for several years, and served as Secretary of the Malaysian Bar from 1955 to 1956.1
As a lawyer, PG Lim was an advocate for the underprivileged, and of trade union rights. Among the unions she represented and provided legal advice for were the Railwaymen’s Union of Malaya, National Union of Plantation Workers (“NUPW”), Transport Workers’ Union, and Customs Union of Malaya.2 She was counsel in the landmark Railwaymen’s Union of Malaya case that accorded government employee status to 14,000 railwaymen.3
She specifically took up cases for workmen’s compensation, particularly for workers who had died in rubber plantations without their families receiving any compensation. The trade unions did not treat her any differently because she was a woman lawyer — one of the few at the time. According to her, “Gender or religion didn’t matter then to a trade unionist who didn’t have the money to hire an expensive lawyer. I was trying to help them stand up for themselves.”4
PG Lim was involved in the famous Privy Council case of Lee Meng, a female Communist guerrilla leader arrested in Perak, which led to the introduction of trial by jury for all cases involving the death penalty.5 In 1968, she defended 11 young people who had been sentenced to death for collaborating with Indonesian forces during the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation. She secured pardons for all 11 defendants, from the Sultan of Johore.6
When the Malaysian Parliament was suspended in 1969 in the aftermath of the riots in the country on 13 May, PG Lim was one of only two women to be appointed to the National Operations Council, which came up with the Rukun Negara. The National Operations Council governed Malaysia from 1969 to 1971. Members of the Council approved the New Economic Policy in 1970, which was implemented in 1971.7
In 1971, the then-Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein named PG Lim as the Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, a position with the rank of Ambassador to the United Nations. She later continued her diplomatic career as the Malaysian Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Austria, Belgium, and the European Economic Community. She was also appointed as the Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and served as the Vice-President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (“ECOSOC”), and as the Chairperson of the Social Committee of ECOSOC from 1971 to 1972).8
After 10 years of being abroad, she returned home in 1980. Two years later, she was appointed as the Director of the Kuala Lumpur Regional Centre for Arbitration, and held the position for 18 years, from 1982 to 2000.9
Honours and Awards10
(1) Awarded the “Red Bag” in 1964 by The Right Honourable Sir Dingle Foot, QC, the former Solicitor-General in Britain, for her contribution in assisting him to establish the Railwaymen’s Union of Malaya;
(2) Conferred the Tun Fatimah Gold Medal Award by the National Council of Women’s Organisations Malaysia on 25 Aug 1982;
(3) Awarded state medal Darjah Yang Mulia Pangkuan Negeri (“DMPM”) by the Governor of Penang, Tun Hamdan Sheikh Tahir on 12 July 1997. Carries the title “Dato’”.
(4) Awarded the Merdeka Award in 2009; and
(5) Conferred the Panglima Setia Mahkota (“PSM”) by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin on 8 June 2011. Carries the title “Tan Sri”.
In addition to her illustrious career, PG Lim was actively involved in social and recreational fields, and held several key positions, such as the following:11
(1) Founding member of the Labour Party of Malaya;
(2) Secretary of the Malayan Legislative Council (1955–1956);
(3) Board member of the Star Publications;
(4) Member and representative of the Cambridge Women’s Fencing Club;
(5) Committee member of the National Consultative Council;
(6) Deputy / Acting Chairperson of the Board of Trustees for the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur (1963–1971);
(7) Member of the Mediation Commission on Wage Structure between Malayan Planters Industrial Employers Association (“MPIEA”) and the NUPW (1964);
(8) Member of the Royal Commission on Reform of Marriage and Divorce Laws (1970);
(9) President of Women’s Aid Organisation (1986–2000);
(10) Member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (“ISIS ”) (1986–2007);
(11) Founder member of the Malaysian Historical Society; and
(12) President of the Malaysian Ceramics Society.
PG Lim’s distinguished legal career, professional achievements and commitment to the causes dear to her, are inspiring. To quote her own words, “If I find that something is wrong, I fight … If there is a need I take the case sometimes when no one else will.”
The Malaysian Bar is proud to recognise an iconic woman famed as an internationally known trial lawyer, public figure, leading art patron, concert pianist, and “fighter for social justice”. PG Lim fearlessly served, and shaped, our nation since its independence.
PG Lim passed away at the age of 98 in 2013.
Her memoir, Kaleidoscope: The Memoirs of P.G. Lim, was published in 2012.
2 P.G. Lim. Kaleidoscope: The Memoirs of P.G. Lim. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2012. Page 163.
6 P.G. Lim. Kaleidoscope: The Memoirs of P.G. Lim. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2012. Page 209.
7 Pioneer woman envoy dies, The New Straits Times; Malaysia's first woman envoy dies at 97, The Star Online.
10 www.arkib.gov.my/en/web/guest/dato-p.g.-lim; P.G. Lim. Kaleidoscope: The Memoirs of P.G. Lim. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2012.
11 www.arkib.gov.my/web/guest/dato-p.g.-lim; Malaysia's first woman envoy dies at 97, The Star Online; In Memoriam: Tan Sri PG Lim.
All photos used here are taken from Kaleidoscope: The Memoirs of P.G. Lim.