Kua Kia Soong
Mar 17, 02
Lim Fong Seng (departed March 13) shall be remembered as a visionary Malaysian Chinese educationist who fought courageously for the mother-tongue education of all Malaysians to be recognised as a basic human right.
As the chairman of the Chinese School Committees of Malaysia (Dong Zong), he led the movement through many landmark episodes in its history.
In 1973, he provided the leadership to the Duzhong (Independent Chinese Secondary Schools) Revival Movement which succeeded in developing the organisation from 14 independent schools in 1961 to the present 60 schools.
He was the key figure in fund-raising and organising the committees which made this possible. Throughout this movement, he displayed clear vision, implacable resolve and courage.
In 1975, when the Chinese education movement decided to hold the first Unified Examination for all the independent Chinese secondary schools, they were asked to rescind that decision by the then Education Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The grounds given were that the independent schools were trying to set up a separate education system and that this would disrupt national unity. When the Unified Examination was about to begin, the Chinese educationists led by Lim Fong Seng were summoned to Parliament House by Mahathir.
The latter did not mince his words but told leaders of Dong Jiao Zong (United Chinese Schools Committees and Teachers Association) that the Unified Examination had better not be held or else& He did not ask for any response and dismissed the Chinese educationists with a curt &that is all. (Kua Kia Soong, A Protean Saga: The Chinese Schools of Malaysia, 1999:106)
Under Lims leadership, Dong Jiao Zong decided they were prepared to face the consequences and the first Unified Examination was held as scheduled at the end of 1975.
Through his foresight and courage, the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) is today recognised all over the world except in Malaysia. The National University of Singapore for example, accepts hundreds of UEC graduates every year.
Lim will also be remembered for his courage in taking the Merdeka University case to the highest court of the land. This became a cause célèbre when the then Education Minister Mohd Khir Johari announced that students going overseas for further studies needed to have a credit in SPM Bahasa Malaysia.
This would have deprived many students the opportunity to continue their tertiary education. In 1978, the Home Affairs Minister Ghazali Shafie summoned the Chinese educationist leaders and warned them of the consequences of their action and that the government would not change its policies.
The police banned a meeting called by all the registered Chinese associations on Oct 22, 1978. The Merdeka University case was dismissed in the High Court and the Chinese educationists also lost the appeal at the Federal Court on July 6, 1982.
Despite losing this legal battle, the justice of the Chinese educationists’ cause was clear for all to see from their Queen’s Counsel’s presentation of their case and the dissenting judge’s summation.
During the 1980 controversy over the Education Ministrys 3 R system in which all subjects other than Chinese and Mathematics in Chinese and Tamil schools were to be conducted in Malay, Lim led the protests against this injustice.
Again in 1983, he was at the forefront of the opposition to the National Culture Policy, which he saw to be an attempt at eroding the non-Malay cultures in this country.
I first came to know Lim in early 1983 when he wanted me to campaign for the recognition of the UEC throughout the world. He had known about my human rights work and firmly believed that the struggle for mother-tongue education had to be carried out at the same level as all the other human rights issues.
Throughout my association with Lim, he has impressed me as a Malaysian Chinese leader who genuinely believed in the justice of the mother-tongue cause and the need for inter-ethnic understanding.
He was instrumental in initiating the historical dialogue with PAS leaders in 1986 after the then PAS vice-president Abdul Hadi Awang announced that the question of privileges for the Malays will not arise under Islamic law.
He was also one of the prime movers of the Joint Declaration of the Chinese Associations in 1985 which called for civil rights for all Malaysians and the subsequent formation of the Civil Rights Committee.
Through many attempts at changing the character of the Chinese and Tamil schools — for example, the KL Education Departments directive in 1984 and Integrated Schools in 1985 — Lim provided stoic leadership to withstand these challenges.
At the same time, he continued with his efforts to constructively develop the independent schools through fund raising, promoting the Unified Examination, compiling textbooks, publishing magazines, planning teacher training, awarding scholarships and loans.
Prisoner of conscience
Another unjust government directive in September 1987 to send non-Mandarin qualified officers to the Chinese schools led to widespread protests by the Chinese community.
Lim was one of the Chinese community leaders arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act together with Sim Mow Yu, Tuang Pik King and myself. Throughout his detention at Kamunting, Lim withstood the camp conditions with dignity despite poor health and advancing age.
The detention failed to break his resolve and commitment to justice.
In 1990, he was one of the prime movers of the Two-Front System when he led a group of civil rights activists into the opposition front to defend democracy and human rights in Malaysia. This action reveals his principled political analysis, courage and honesty.
Lim did not take an active part in politics but believed strongly that the issue of mother-tongue education in Malaysia had to be resolved politically. Few successful businessmen would have been prepared to risk victimisation and deprived opportunities as he was prepared to do for the sake of his beliefs.
As his comrade-in-arms for close to 20 years, he has been a great friend, a very human being, a true gentleman, a genuine fighter for justice and a wonderful leader to work with.
In contrast to many other busy lone rangers, Lim Fong Seng led a very congruent family life, convivial and proud of his “beautiful wife” and his “five roses”. He is survived by his five daughters and their families.
So long Fong Seng, its been good to know you&
Dr KUA KIA SOONG is a director of human rights group Suaram, principal of Dong Jiao Zong’s New Era College and former member of parliament for Petaling Jaya.