Passing of a gentle scholar

LEE Poh Ping (pic) was a giant of a man in build and intellect. His passing is mourned. Lee’s writings, both academic and public, evince acumen, analytical rigour and intellectual provocation.

In 1967, he earned a first in History from Universiti Malaya and returned there to lecture. He was awarded the rank of full professor in 1992. Upon retirement in 1997, he had served for a decade at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas).

His colleague, Tham Siew Yan, remembers with fondness Poh Ping’s “sharp wit and wicked sense of humour that cheered many otherwise dreary meetings.”

His PhD dissertation on Chinese Society in 19th Century Singapore, submitted to Cornell University in 1974, signalled a bold approach to historiographical retrieval and was welcomed within the portals of academic discourse.

As chair of the Malaysian American Commission on Educatio­nal Exchange (MACEE), Poh Ping inaugurated a relocated Lincoln Cultural library in KL. At the launch, he described Cornell in the 60s and 70s as the Mecca of South-East Asian studies with Kahin and Benedict Anderson, among others, presiding colossus-like over the discipline.

He once observed that classic texts on SEA contemporary history were written without Internet and data bases and challenged the new generation to do the same with the resources that are now available.

More recently, Poh Ping’s writings within the pages of this paper, and in particular on Sino-Japanese relations and America’s presence in East Asia, demonstrated a fervent desire to work for the amelioration of the international order.

Poh Ping was awarded the Order of the Rising Son by the Emperor of Japan in 2010, which he received with his characteristic humility.

Upon hearing of Poh Ping’s death, Japanese ambassador to Malaysia, Dr Makio Miyagawa, wrote: “As an outstanding scholar on East Asia, particularly on Japan and China, I have received from him myriads of solid convictions and piercing suggestions on history issues. What always stays in my memory, as unforgettable words of his, is his repeated reference to a phrase of George Orwell: ‘Who controls the past controls the future’.”

Poh Ping imparted his intellectual capaciousness to young scholars and had friends throughout academia. He brought to our shores Anderson, Samuel Huntington, Joan Nelson and Tony Milner, all of whom enriched the scholarship of our institutions.

His collaboration with Lee Kam Hing and Cheong Kee Cheok on various papers showed a breadth and depth of scholarship that ranged from Chinese business personalities to alternative views of history in the novelistic form.

In a forum moderated by Poh Ping, Tan Sri Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, chairman and chief executive officer of ISIS Malaysia, observed “a top notch performance, top notch.”

Milner attests to Poh Ping’s formidable analytic skills, his inspirational and generous mentoring of students and colleagues, and his determination both at UM and UKM to enhance Malaysia’s international horizons.

All who were fortunate enough to know him will concur with Milner that Poh Ping will be missed for “his kindness, his advice and constructive criticism, his music, and his ‘bull****’ (Poh Ping’s characteristic self-deprecation).”

Ayame Suzuki, a young Japanese academic, reminisces over Poh Ping “driving his blue Honda to the UM staff house on sizzling hot afternoons, and over endless cups of black tea animatedly discussing East Asian international relations, Japan, and life.”

She penned this haiku in his honour: “Stillness of Black tea

Warmth, Wisdom, Wit linger.”

Farewell, Poh Ping.”


Kuala Lumpur

> Lee Poh Ping passed away peacefully on Monday, Nov 21, at the age of 74. He left behind his wife Lee Suet Mooi, son Andrew and daughter Caroline. The funeral service will be held at 10am today at Trinity Methodist Church, 6 Jln 5/37 PJ. The cortege will leave thereafter for Nilai Memorial Park.

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