In the face of monolithic institutions, and the weight of history and culture, what can one person do?
Consider Dr Lim Boon Keng, a man born of a transculture (the Peranakans) who bridged the progress of Britain at its height of empire and the socio-cultural values of Confucianist imperial China, for the good of Singapore.
His contributions in public health, education, poverty relief and other social and reform causes helped promote the idea of shared purpose in Singapore during the colonial era. Guided by the compass of empathy, Boon Keng did not allow cultural and institutional barriers to deter him.
“Dr Lim epitomised the human spirit of compassion and morals. He was charitable, he was altruistic and he had these public spirited humanitarian values,” says Alex Tan Tiong Hee, trustee of the Settlement of Dr Lim Boon Keng (1921).
“Lim Boon Keng stood for championing and defending the humanitarian causes of basic rights and dignity, and he believed in self sacrifice in order that others may gain from what he could offer.”
Born in Singapore to a Peranakan family, Boon Keng was the first Chinese to be awarded the colonial-era Queen’s Scholarship in 1887. Having been educated at Raffles Institution and later at the University of Edinburgh, his outlook was shaped by Western progressivism. However, this did not divorce Boon Keng from his cultural roots. An adherent of Confucianism, he returned from Britain determined to advance his community with the help of the progressive ideals of the West.
At the age of 24, Boon Keng started a private medical practice in Singapore, where he offered free medical treatment to those who could not afford it. Particularly troubled by how opium addiction was ravaging the Chinese community, he founded the Anti-Opium Society and opened the Opium Refuge, where addicts could seek medical help to break their compulsions.
He constantly wrote newspaper articles denouncing the ill-effects of opium consumption, and campaigned against the opium trade, to the anger of the British colonial authorities and the merchants who benefited financially from it. Despite potential threats to his safety for opposing a lucrative trade, he would not be silenced.
Boon Keng also fought against other social ills, from the practice of female child slavery, known as mui tsai, to foot binding and gambling.
“Being a Confucianist as well as a Christian by faith, Lim Boon Keng had a deep feeling for the unfortunate and underprivileged – especially those who suffered misfortune by nature of their circumstances,” says Alex. “He cultivated strong convictions and motivations to eradicate social ills through his belief and faith in social reforms.”
Boon Keng’s path led him to the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements at the age of 26, even though his appointment was initially opposed by colonial Governor Sir Charles Mitchell. The Governor felt Boon Keng was too young and was wary of his reputation as a reformist firebrand. But strong public support eventually saw the appointment through.
In the Legislative Council, Boon Keng argued for the implementation of laws to alleviate poor housing conditions and overcrowding, improve public sanitation, mitigate poverty and curb the opium trade and gambling. He campaigned for these and other social causes across five three-year terms between 1895 and 1921, and also served on the Municipal Commission, Chinese Advisory Board and as a Justice of the Peace – all before he was 30.
As a bearer of the cultural torches of East and West, Boon Keng co-founded the Straits Chinese British Association, and other cross-cultural literary and philosophical associations that promoted the best of both cultures. He also supported reform movements in China, and worked briefly as Inspector-General of hospitals for the Qing government before becoming Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s confidential secretary and personal physician.
In Singapore, Boon Keng co-founded newspapers to promote the cause of the Chinese reformists, wrote The Chinese Crisis From Within in 1901 and was one of the leaders of the Singapore branch of the Tong Meng Hui (Revolutionary League) in 1906. His concern for his community spanned both cultures and oceans, and Boon Keng served as president of Amoy University (also known as Xiamen University) founded by his good friend Tan Kah Kee in 1921. Having given up his thriving business interests in Singapore to go to Xiamen, Boon Keng served the university without a salary until 1937, when his resources had whittled down to their lowest point.
Boon Keng’s self-sacrifice for a cause he believed deeply in did not come as a surprise to those who knew him – he had already demonstrated his zeal for education in Singapore. In 1899, he co-founded the Singapore Chinese Girls School and served as its president, at a time when education for girls was considered unnecessary and of no consequence. A multi-linguist, he conducted Mandarin classes for the Straits Chinese and promoted the Chinese language among the Peranakan community.
“Especially for education, (Dr Lim) felt very strongly that this area of social institution be encouraged and promoted to give every child the opportunity of an education, thereby improving their livelihood (prospects) and hence the eradication of poverty,” says Alex.
Having led fundraising in Singapore for war relief efforts during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Boon Keng became a target during the Japanese Occupation. He was appointed as president of the Overseas Chinese Association, which was used to force the Chinese community into raising a $50 million “gift” to the Japanese government. To avoid being further used as a political tool by the Japanese, the elderly Boon Keng often feigned drunkenness.
A polymath and an academic, a social reformer and an advocate for his community, Boon Keng made his reformist presence felt across society. Most importantly, his compassion was apparent in all of his undertakings. As Alex says: “Above all, it was the Confucian traits and character in him, coupled with his Christian faith which drove him with passion and fervour to help uplift those less fortunate.”
By Alvin Chua
Video filmed by Alvin Chua and edited by Tok Swee Geok