Tuesday May 15, 2012
Reflections of a world long gone
CERITALAH By KARIM RASLAN
Lawyer and diplomat PG Lim shows us she is very much the original lady activist through her colourful memoirs, Kaleidoscope.
WE are not a nation of writers. Malaysians aren’t great diarists or memoirists. Indeed, our collective Malaysian story – our national narrative – has tended to lose out in terms of subtlety, intimacy and diversity precisely because of this weakness.
However, the lawyer and diplomat PG Lim’s memoirs Kaleidoscope provides us with a superb addition to the dominant and at times tiresome, national narrative.
The book also reminds us that history is an accumulation of different stories, perspectives and experiences and that we are diminished as a people if we disregard the diversity at the very core of what it is to be Malaysian.
PG’s account is elegantly written, insightful and deeply felt. In Kaleidoscope, PG reveals a hitherto unknown talent as a story-teller as she weaves the great events of the 20th Century with her own personal triumphs and failures.
It’s also been an eye-opening read for someone such as myself, who’s known PG for nearly 30 years. The book has made me realise that she’s very much the original lady activist – a forerunner to Irene Fernandes, Zainah Anwar and even Teresa Kok – principled, unflinching and always, always on the side of the dispossessed and down-trodden.
Moreover, PG’s shift from activism and opposition politics to national service (she was to be an Ambassador for over nine years in New York, Vienna and Bruxelles) underlines both the high regard with which the establishment viewed her as well as the less divisive nature of politics back in the 60s and 70s.
Indeed PG (along with Tan Sri Dr Aishah Ghani) was one of only two women on the National Consultative Council which was set up by the National Operations Council in the wake of the May 13 riots and the suspension of the Malaysian Parliament.
Born in 1915 in London, the daughter of a prominent Penang-based lawyer, Lim Cheng Ean, and a British Guyana medical student, Rosaline Hoalim, PG grew up amidst great wealth and an enormously supportive family.
She studied at the famous Light Street Convent School before pursuing a law degree in Girton College, Cambridge, in the late 1930s.
PG was to be shaped by both her mother’s independent, strong-willed nature as well as her father’s well-known civic-mindedness (he served on the Straits Settlement Legislative Council alongside Tan Cheng Lok and H.H. Abdoolcader).
Indeed PG’s large posse of over-achieving and good-looking brothers and sisters have left an inedible stamp on Malaysian public life.
Entering legal practice after the Second World War, PG went on to carve a name for herself as a fearless lawyer and a champion for labour rights, at a time when plantation workers in particular were very poorly treated.
These earlier sections of the memoirs are the most illuminating and exciting. PG conjures up the rich, culturally intriguing milieu of Baba Nonya life in pre-War Penang, the uncertainty of the Japanese Occupation (not to mention the gutlessness and perfidy of the retreating British forces), as well as the exuberance of post-Independence life in Kuala Lumpur.
Along with the magisterial roll-out of history, PG also touches on her own personal disappointments. She’s unflinching in this regard as she recounts her two failed marriages: proof that successful women face multiple challenges.
PG never shied away from controversial or difficult cases, from Confrontation-era insurgents being threatened with the death penalty to trade unionists seeking better conditions for workers – there was no cause too big or too small for her.
Indeed, it’s interesting to compare the current trade union activism with the events of the 50s and 60s.
PG’s interests extended way beyond activism. She was a major stalwart of the Art’s Council which, in turn, became the nucleus of Malaysia’s National Art Gallery.
The book reflects her varied interests. She was a voracious reader, she fenced and punted in Cambridge, while also being an active supporter of the arts.
Kaleidoscope provides us with a view of a world that has long disappeared, of a Malaysia that was and could have been.
It reminds us of a time when it was still possible to learn French and Latin in a Malaysian school. Of a time when Malaysia had a Labour Party and when the various races mingled without resentment or reserve.
This was a time when politicians behaved like gentlemen and honest debate was not seen as a form of treason.
Her life and writings are a firm rebuke to the gutter politics that Malaysian public life has descended to. As she writes at the conclusion of Kaleidoscope:
“I remember my father telling me, if you are right in the causes you champion, you should be fearless in pursuing them. I sometimes feel Malaysians are too timid to champion worthy causes. Technology now provides us all with greater opportunities to get our voices heard.”
PG Lim is a great Malaysian: bold, brilliant, principled and utterly human. Her story is an integral part of our national narrative. Read it.