Interview with Dr Lim Whye Geok and Mrs Leow Oon Geok, son and daughter respectively of the late war hero, Lim Bo Seng
With Rosie Wee
Lim Bo Seng came to Singapore from China at the age of 16 to study in Raffles Institution. After graduating from the University of Hong Kong, he returned to Singapore to manage his father’s business. He also got married and fathered nine children. When war came to Singapore in 1942, he was actively involved in anti-Japanese activities, including joining Force 136. In May 1944 he was arrested by the Kempeitai and subsequently tortured when he refused to divulge information about Force 136. He died in prison a few months later.
The objective of the interview is to garner the memories from his children, of Lim Bo Seng as father and husband besides his public persona as a war hero, for the edification of future generations of Singaporeans.
The interview covers three parts:
Part 1: Lim Bo Seng as husband
Part 2: Lim Bo Seng as father
Part 3: Lim Bo Seng’s involvement in anti-Japanese activities and the impact this had on the family.
Amidst the bucolic setting of MacRitchie Reservoir lies a tomb. But this is no ordinary tomb. It is the tomb of a war hero, Lim Bo Seng. But why house him at MacRitchie?
“He loved to go to MacRitchie. Mother requested for the tomb to be there,” says Dr Lim Whye Geok. “He would bring my mother there during their courtship days,” quips Oon Geok.
The contributions of Lim Bo Seng as a war hero have been memorialised in the matrix of history, but Lim Bo Seng as husband to a devoted wife and father of nine children will add another dimension to this larger-than-life man.
Lim Bo Seng’s father, a prosperous business man, had engaged a tutor to teach his daughter. Apparently the tutor, demure lady with an endearing personality, must have caught the attention of young Bo Seng who did not hesitate to win her love.
“Mother would say to him, ‘Look, I cannot marry you, I’m a Christian and I have to support my younger siblings.’ Then Father would reply, ‘Don’t worry, I will support your siblings.’ My grandfather was wealthy,” says Oon Geok.
The first ten years of marriage were blissful until war came to Malaya in 1942.
Bo Seng was a keen photographer and loving husband.
“He would take Mother to Cameron Highlands and he even painted a picture of her from a photograph,” says Dr Lim.
Secure in his love and devotion, Mrs Lim Bo Seng bore him nine children. She remained faithful to him and held the fort when he joined Dalforce – Singapore Chinese Anti-Japanese Volunteer Battalion and later Force 136. It was during these trying times that Mrs Lim was at her stoic best.
“She had to sell her jewellery to feed us,” reminisces Oon Geok. “My mother never expected him to die,” she adds. “One day, Father was at High Street when he met a stranger who told him: ‘This war is going to make you famous and you will live to see it,’ so she was devastated by his death,” she says.
There was no satisfying denouement to the soothsayer’s prediction. Her husband never returned. The day she received his last letter was a poignant moment for her and the children. The letter was handed to Mrs Lim by his colleague, Tan Chong Tee of Force 136. In it, he expressed his confidence that his wife would bring up the children in his absence. The letter also mentioned how he wanted the children to be brought up and to be conversant in Chinese.
“He wrote that he will never forget the stunned looks of the children when he last saw them,” says Oon Geok. “He also said that once you start something, you must see it through,” recalls Dr Lim.
Having come from a family steeped in Taoism and ancestral worship, Bo Seng converted to Christianity after his marriage, but out of respect for his elders he abstained from attending church. However he did not deter his wife from bringing up the children as Christians. It was this faith that saw her through the darkest days of her life.
“Mother would make us pray to God before bedtime,” says Oon Geok. “It is through her upbringing that we are Christians today,” adds Dr Lim.
Oon Geok was 13 when her father passed on, so her memories of her father were more vivid than Dr Lim’s, who was only four at that time.
“I used to dismantle toys, clocks and stuff like these much to his annoyance. One day, he threatened to take me to Changi prison and I replied: ‘OK, let’s go’ which annoyed him further,” laughs Dr Lim. “He would hide under the bed whenever his father returned,” Oon Geok quips.
Besides possessing business acumen, Bo Seng was also a polymath who loved books, music, and photography.
“On weekends he would take us to the book shop at High Street and leave us to read comics while he browsed the books there. The day usually ended at Polar Café for ice-cream and cakes,” says Oon Geok. “TMA music store was another regular haunt for him. Although he didn’t play a musical instrument he would make us play for him. I played the piano while my brother played the violin. He also had this book of poems which I used to read,” she recalls.
“If my father had come back, the family business would have done well. None of us picked up the business after the war but we all received a university education,” says Dr Lim.
Oon Geok recalls the passing of one of his favourite children, a daughter, Leng Geok. Bo Seng grieved over her death; subsequently his next daughter was named Ai Geok; Ai, means love in Chinese. According to Dr Lim, Leng Geok’s death was unexpected. She was bleeding after a fall and adrenalin was inadvertently administered to stop the bleeding. The doctor alleged that her death was due to the fall. Later they had another daughter, Siew Geok.
“We were, of course, a little jealous when Father showered so much love for Leng Geok, but she was very beautiful and intelligent,” says Oon Geok.
1936 was a time of intellectual and political ferment that was sweeping Europe. Hitler’s forces occupied Rhineland, then, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Stalin’s Russia was eulogised as the bastion of anti-fascism and the embodiment of the dialectics of Marxism.
In 1937, the Sino-Japanese War broke out. Tan Kah Kee, a successful businessman and philanthropist, founded the Singapore China Relief Fund. Lim Bo Seng who was a staunch supporter of the Kuomintang, was roped in to raise funds for the course.
“He was very anti-Japanese especially after the rape of Nanjing. He went all out to collect funds,” Dr Lim recalls.
The rape of Nanking, or Nanking Massacre, was an atrocity that occurred during the Second Sino-Japanese war. Japanese troops invaded the city of Nanking and in six-weeks brutally killed 300,000 civilians and soldiers. The incident infuriated the Chinese in Nanyang (also known as South Seas, which include Malaya and Singapore) whose allegiance was to China. Bo Seng was privy to the political trajectory of China during that period.
The impact of the war on Malaya and Singapore was not felt until towards the end of 1941 when Japanese planes started bombing the country. The myth of British superiority was dispelled when Singapore under British rule, surrendered on 15 February 1942. The country also awakened from its complacency and went through a seismic shift. Bo Seng was already engaged in anti-Japanese activities even before the war came to Singapore.
“He would leave the house and return only late at night,” says Oon Geok.
“Father was not with us before the fall of Singapore. He was actively involved in the cause. The British wanted him to recruit volunteers,” recalls Dr Lim.
It was within this cacophonous environment that Lim Bo Seng began to play an increasingly active role. He succumbed to a higher call—to rid his country of the Japanese. It was to this end that Bo Seng enrolled in Dalforce and remained ineluctably wedded to the course. Bo Seng was too aware of the implications for his family should he be arrested by the Japanese. The safety of his family remained his priority. With his wisdom and perspicacity, he gave his family sound instructions.
“How we survived was a miracle. Father told us to leave the family home. On the night when our neighbour’s house was shelled, we went to stay in the family office in Telok Ayer Street. We also stayed in Tan Tock Seng hospital,” says Dr Lim.
“I remember the day he came to say goodbye to us. We were all very stunned,” recalls Oon Geok. “Later, my mother’s cousin, whose husband was a doctor, took us to St John’s island,” she says. “When they couldn’t get my father, they took away some of our relatives,” Dr Lim adds.
Oon Geok recalls some hilarious moments while they were at St John’s.
“The Japanese would pop into St John’s island once a while. We would hide in the trenches until they left. On one occasion, we were playing along the beach when we saw a pair of boots before us. We screamed and ran for our lives. Fortunately, they did not harm us,” she laughs.
As children, they were too young to understand the implications of war and the dangers they were facing. Life was actually quite fun with lots of children to play with. Mother did not allow them to attend Japanese classes so she engaged a tutor to teach them Chinese.
They did not remain in St John’s island. A year before the war ended they relocated to their family home. The Japanese had used it as a camp in their absence and even built tunnels there!
“The Japanese were actually quite friendly towards us,” says Dr Lim. “They had a camp at Paya Lebar. After some persuasion my mother actually allowed me to visit. Lunch was rice with a raw egg cracked on it,” he laughs.
“Towards the end they were no longer brutal,” says Oon Geok. “One of them even took a fondness for my younger brother. He must have reminded him of his own family members,” she says.
C.M. Turnbull documented that:
In May 1943 British Force 136 agents, including Lim Bo Seng, arrived in Malaya to establish contact with the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army. Lim fell into Japanese hands and died after torture a few months later without divulging any information.
(Turnbull, 2009: 212).
The siblings do not bear any animosity towards the Japanese despite of what they did to their father. Instead, they choose to remember their father as someone who lived and died for what he believed. What was even more admirable was that he put others before himself.
“He was supposed to send the family to India; he wanted Mother to leave with the family and others so that mother could help them as well. There was some problem with the visa and by then it was too late,” says Oon Geok.
Lee Geok Boi, in her account of the incident had this to say:
The whole operation of building up an intelligence network and supporting guerrilla groups was funded so inadequately by the British that Lim Bo Seng was forced to attempt the highly dangerous operation of raising funds through his Singapore relatives and friends. In March 1944 the Kempeitai round-up started. Although Lim had been given early warning of danger by Tan Chong Tee before he was nabbed, Lim had refused to get away from his hideout in Ipoh at 9 Connolly Road. He was said to be awaiting the arrival of one of the fund-raisers.
(Lee, 2005: 216)
N.I. Low, Bo Seng’s teacher and friend from Raffles Institution, wrote about his impressions of Bo Seng when they were engaged in guerrilla activities in their jungle camp.
He took up his cooking as he took up everything else, determined to make a job of it, and in the short time he was with us, he made himself a first-class jungle cook. This was typical of the man. At one moment deep in plans of the highest importance, at the next bending over a cooking fire, and in each case, putting his whole soul into the work in hand.
(Low, 1973: 105)
Today, Lim Bo Seng’s tomb in MacRitchie stands as an embodiment of historical significance. Embraced by trees and flowers, earth and sky, it tells the story of not only an intrepid patriot but a loving husband and father who left behind a wife and nine children when he sacrificed his life for his country.
His son, Dr Lim Whye Geok has this to say:
“I believe Singaporeans do have strong feelings for their country. As for the tomb, when we pass on, who will take care of it?”
Singapore Memory Corp Volunteer
Low, N.I. 1973. When Singapore Was Syonan-to, Eastern University Press Sdn. Bhd.
Lee, G.B. 2005. The Syonan Years Singapore Under Japanese Rule 1942 – 1945. National Archives Of Singapore And Epigram Pte Ltd.
Turnbull, C.M. 2009. A History Of Modern Singapore 18