BY the time the service began at 11 on the morning of April 27 in the cathedral splendour of Saint Mary’s along Jalan Raja, the car parks in the Royal Selangor Club, across the road, were full and the church itself was packed.
More poignantly, the people who came to pay their last respects to virologist, bon vivant and all-round gentleman Datuk Dr Lim Teong Wah (pic) encompassed all shades Malaysian and then some.
The fact that so many Malays, Chinese, Eurasians, Indians and Caucasians – many titled, most not – joined hands to pay tribute to the man, spoke volumes about the pettiness of race or religious pretensions, and the ease by which it was transcended when confronted by friendship, respect or love.
In many ways, it was also a measure of the continuity of Malaysia, both as stable national entity and as commonality of experience, which allowed long standing friendships of the sort exhibited in the church that morning.
In his tribute to Dr Lim, Geoff Miller, a retired Australian diplomat, spoke about the doctor with nostalgia and deep affection. He’d first met Dr Lim in 1956 in Singapore while the young medical student was in his final year and he, a visiting Australian undergraduate.
And that, he recounted, was a beginning of a friendship that spanned sixty years and two countries..
Dr Lim had a post graduate degree in bacteriology with which he began his career in the Institute of Medical Research (IMR), a body which achieved worldwide acclaim in its work on tropical diseases and one that Dr Lim rose to helm in 1981 as its 20th Director.
He was also an eminent virologist. In 1971, for example, the IMR Journal reported that Dr Lim and a team of pediatricians had been the first to identify the presence of dengue haemorrhagic fever – then thought to be confined to Korea - in Malaysia.
Tan Sri Dr M Jegathesan, who succeeded Dr Lim as IMR’s director in 1987, recalls his predecessor’s success “at creating for himself the perfect work-life balance.” But he kept his triumphs to himself.
I’d known of Dr Lim when I’d served as a junior biochemist at the IMR in the early 1980s and got to know him much better when I joined the Royal Selangor Club in the 1990s – Dr Lim had been a two-term president.
But I never knew that the good doctor was a dab hand at bridge, so good in fact, that I read in this paper four years ago that, at age 79, he’d led Malaysia’s bridge team to compete in the-then SEA Games.
If bridge might be considered mental athletics of a sort, then Dr Lim must have been a prodigious athlete because, according to the records, he represented his country at the sport for over a period of 55 years!
That must surely rank as a national, if not an international, record. It was Ernest Hemingway who probably best defined courage, calling it “grace under pressure.”
In that case Dr Lim, 83, faced pancreatic cancer, that most brutal of invasions, gracefully, without complaint or self-pity.
In January this year, my family was returning to Kuala Lumpur from Penang when I was disturbed to see Dr Lim being escorted into the airplane on a wheelchair. He looked to be weak and in seeming pain.
The same night, I’d gone to the RSC for a function that involved rock and roll. To my great astonishment, I spotted Dr Lim with no wheelchair in sight, chatting amiably with friends and sipping a beer.
He spotted me, lifted his glass and grinned.