©New Sunday Times (Used
by Wilson Henry
Every newspaper clipping and magazine article on Datuk P.G. Lim is never complete without her string of achievements. That is why she is one of Penang’s most accomplished daughters, says WILSON HENRY
THE firecracker red lipstick is not out of place. Where many women in their 80s might struggle to get through the day, lipstick is the last thing on their mind.
But on Datuk P.G. Lim, it is simply part of her.
She still makes an impression dressed in a dowager brown blouse and pants. She has also taken the trouble to apply cherry red rouge as well and nothing is out of place.
Her hair is coiffured in a style suiting her. Ever the hostess, she carries it
"I do my own hair and make–up," says Lim. "I think it is important to take pride in the way we present ourselves."
Now 86 years in one tiny and slightly hunched frame, it is hard to imagine she has been UN representative, diplomat, noted lawyer, union champion, director of the KL Regional Centre for Arbitration, feminist, wife and mother.
She has lived a privileged life and it still shows in her Kuala Lumpur residence.
It is precisely the sort of place you would expect her to call home. Pricey real estate in the right side of town.
And inside her modern four–storey residence, the busy traffic of Kuala Lumpur is exchanged for vintage Batavia furnishings, Straits Chinese marble–topped tables, Chinese furniture, antiques, Persian rugs, paintings and a sculpture of herself.
Ostentatious. But of course.
And when she tells you without missing a beat that she had to cook when she was a diplomat because "I didn’t have a wife", you know that underneath all that legend of a dragon lady is someone with a wry sense of humour.
There is mischief in her eyes when she confirms she is a romantic lady.
"I must have been otherwise how else would you explain why I was married twice."
Countless newspaper and magazine articles describe her as a woman of great achievements and accomplishments whose mere mention itself can overshadow most resumes.
Time may have slowed her down. But she is still occasionally spotted among the cocktail set.
And for those who know her well enough say she is busy when she writes articles and keeps to herself most of the time.
There are all this superlatives that run through your head when you read previous articles about her and it seems endless.
When we meet for the interview she sticks her hand out and it is a firm handshake.
It is a hand that has shook the hands of countless important personages both locally and internationally. And with it comes a precise well–enunciated greeting that’s aristocratic.
It’s been ages since she left Girton college in Cambridge University after reading history and law between 1935 and 1939 but decades later she still retains her precise enunciation.
That’s the colonial link for you.
She talks about her international career, her family and her passion.
In the 70s, the newspapers carried stories of her and her work with the National Conference of Women, her involvement in the UN and as a diplomat.
She always photographed well and was quite the chic lady and even age has not been able to rob her entirely of that.
She is no longer as active these days.
"But I am not lonely. I have so much to do," says Lim, who lives by herself.
She has two children, lawyer Wee Han Kim and former newscaster Alexandra Caryn Turnbull, better known as Caryn Lim.
When she is not with her family she is busy with consultancy and writing for international journals.
"Writing articles for law journals can be time consuming. Most of my time is spent researching and writing."
When she isn’t doing any writing, she plays the piano.
And she plays it well, once having had ambitions of becoming a concert pianist.
"My parents discouraged me. It made sense of course. Back then an Asian pianist may not have had the breaks they have now."
Lim’s love for the piano was something her mother imparted.
"My mother insisted we all played the piano. And she would be delighted to hear all three pianos at home being played by us every afternoon."
"Of course now that I am in my 80s, it has affected my playing."
Occasionally she shows up at select social functions.
"Sometimes, to get around, Caryn comes and picks me up. I am not so mobile after injuring my hip," says Lim.
It has been a year since her injury and she still finds it difficult to climb stairs and so restricts her movements.
"I was privileged to have had the opportunities I had. Not many girls were then as fortunate to go to university, travel and do the things I did."
These were opportunities she had growing up in Penang’s wealthy Northam Road in a beautiful colonial–styled mansion called Hardwick.
Then of course there was no one called P.G. Lim. She was Phaik Gan.
The eldest of eight siblings, her grandfather was a well–known rice merchant, Phuah Hin Leong, and as she tells her story, it is incredible to see how she remembers details.
Her life is as rich as a beautiful oriental silk organza, rich, textured and the memories she talks is as lavish and cinematic. But what’s more impressive is the way her mind remembers details.
She tells the story of how her parents met and fell in love in England before the first World War.
"Father was a lawyer from Cambridge and mother was studying medicine in Edinburgh University. I was born in England and when the war broke out we came back to Malaya.
"Life in Malaya was typically English. We dressed for dinner, rode horses, had soirees and spoke English at home.
"Additionally we learnt Mandarin as well so as to be able to retain our Oriental identity."
Her father, Lim Cheng Ean, was a noted barrister from Penang and her mother, Rosalind Ho–Lim from British Guyana, used to work at the Po Leung Kok rehabilitation centre in Hong Kong for Chinese prostitutes.
"I think it was the way my parents lived their lives that subsequently determined the choices we made. I was always impressed with the way my parents stood up for people who didn’t have ‘voices’."
For her it meant standing up for underdog.
The combination of her legal training and her ability to be articulate has always meant she made an impact.
Her courtroom battles are said to be legendary, whether it was the one where she tried to save 11 men sentenced to death for communist activities or the one where she tried to save a communist woman from a death sentence.
Equally she was respected in trade union circles since she always tried to get unions better deals, better working conditions and higher wages.
Presently working on her memoirs, she recently published her youngest brother’s memoirs.
"We found Lim Kean Chong’s papers after he went into a coma. I thought it would make interesting reading since much of what he wrote was unknown to the family as well."
Many who know her have also pressed her for own memoirs.
"There is so much to write. I started some time ago, but I have not completed it. I am now at the fifth chapter, which is about the Japanese occupation."
A considerable amount of the book will also relate the achievements of her family.
Unlike Kean Siew, who made his mark in politics in Penang as the Pengkalan Kota State Assemblyman, Lim lost in the 1964 elections in Kuala Lumpur contest under the Labour Party.
Lim, despite her age, is as sharp, her wit still intact whether discussing politics, race relations or arbitration.
"I don’t think age should determine what we do or should do. I do whatever I want. And this is exactly how I want it to be."
She is of course glad to have had a career at a time she did.
" I would not have wanted it any other way."