Gong Gong says

This is a posthumous blog of our father's (Lim Kok Ann) life. When our father passed away on 8 March 2003, he left behind an unpublished autobiography. We'd like to celebrate his life by sharing his autobiography through this blog.


"I have dredged these anecdotes from memory just to pass the time; if they amuse my grandchildren their purpose will have been served; if they provide any instruction, it will be a happy coincidence; that they are disjointed is probably to be expected.

Aurora was the name of my grandfather’s house in Kulangsu.   Amoy, where I spent the first five or six years of my life.   I still have vivid memories of events that took place when I was barely three years old.

Lim Kok Ann
October 1996"

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

4:11 Doctor of Medicine
I was so fired up by the above that on my return to Singapore I decided to write up my work on combination antiserum pools as a thesis and submit it for the Doctor of Medicine degree in Edinburgh University. Whereas most MD theses that had passed through my hands when I was Dean of Medicine were hefty tomes about 3 cm thick, my theses was barely one cm thick, including the hard covers! Mine was an original idea, and there were no clinical cases to report, no review of articles by other authors on the subject. It was a stand alone thing that the examiners thought well of for they awarded me the degree without an oral examination. Who would quiz the inventor of something proven to work? I went to Edinburgh in 1973 to receive my degree in my brand new MD gown that I have worn only once or twice since.

4:10 Visiting Scientist at NIH

In 1971 I took six month’s sabbatical leave to study slow viruses with Carleton Gajdusek who arranged an appointment for me as Visiting Scientist at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. The appointment was salaried on a daily basis, even to the extent that I earned paid leave and was paid double rates if I chose to work instead of taking leave. It was an exciting time for Carleton because it was soon after his first successful attempts to transmit kuru to chimpanzees, and he was trying to also transmit CJID in chimpanzees. Our three older children having already left the nest, Rosie and I brought Su I-Iui and Sing Yuen to Bethesda where we set up house in one of the quarters provided for Visiting Scientists. The children went to a local school, Rosie kept house and visited museums while I walked to Carleton’s laboratory nearby. It was a great experience for the children and I thought they would easily get over the cultural shock of changing school for a year, but I think Su Hui never recovered from the interruption to his Chinese lessons.

For a while I looked through Carleton’s recent publications to up-date myself on the current knowledge about slow viruses. In a couple of instances, the articles were in the final stage of preparation for submission to journals and I helped to proof-read the final draft and to double-check references. I did this, too, for Dr. Joe Gibbs, Carleton’s senior assistant and colleague who directed Carleton’s department during his long absences on field trips, and for Dr. Paul Brown, another senior assistant. I studied and helped to bring up-to-date the kuru transmission charts that showed the sources of materials injected into monkeys or chimpanzees and the subsequent passages. Carleton had organized a nation- wide collaborative project with American primate centres, mostly in zoos, whereby the Zoo took care of chimpanzees owned by Carleton’s department, most of which had been inoculated with brain suspensions from a variety of conditions thought to be due to slow viruses. For this trouble and expense, the zoos benefitted from the prestige of being described as a collaborator of the NIH, Bethesda, when they sought grants from their sponsors. Every few weeks Carleton would take me on a trip to visit one of these centres and I could sometimes identify an animal whose particulars I had just entered in a transmission chart. On a few occasions, Carleton sent me on trips to bring back brain biopsies from patients diagnosed as suffering from CJD, for his transmission experiments. One of these trips took me right across America to Santa Barbara near Hollywood, when I took some leave so as to play in a chess tournament.

Carleton shared a house in Chevy Chase, a suburb adjoining Bethesda with Dr. Joe Wegstein, a computer expert who was writing a program for the FBI that would digitalize finger-print data. Imagine that you have 100,000 photographs of wrong-doers on file and you want to match a photo of a suspect with your file. This can be done very quickly by codifying the various features on a face by which we normally describe people: colour of hair, colour of eyes, distance between the eyes, shape of nose, shape of chin, shape of ears, and so on. Finger-prints which never change, also have distinguishing features; for example, a finger-print may be an arch or a whorl, and certain lines may be split, and so on. Dr. Wegstein’s task was to decide what features would identify a finger-print and to codify these features. When the millions of finger-prints the FBI have on file were codified, a omputer could rapidly search its data base for a match with data sent in electronically from one of its many “customers”. In practice, once the finger-print is identified, it is retrieved from the micro-file and compared visually with the “request-print”.

Over the years Carleton had been adopting bright children of about ten years of age from the native tribes that he visited on field trips and bringing them to America to be educated at his own expense. It was his theory that children from primitive cultures could rapidly adapt to modem society and he proved this by putting Micronesian and New Guinean children through the American grade- school system and through college. Ultimately, most of Carleton’s adopted children went home well qualified to take leading positions in their community for Carleton was careful not to alienate them from their original cultures. Joe ran the household as a sort of “den-mother”, and disciplined arleton’s children strictly, ensuring that they did their home work properly and their share of house- hold chores. Thus he made up for Carleton’s easy-going ways, for Carleton treated his adopted children as adults, and tried by reasoning, and cajoling, to get them to do what they should do, which, being children, they sometimes did not.

At the last count, Carleton had over thirty adopted children, some of whom were married and had families of their own. Both Carleton and Joe were confirmed bachelors, and Carleton explained to me that because he did not want to give up his field-work which often placed him in life-threatening situations and he did not wish to have a wife who might be widowed any time.

I wound up my visit to the NIH by co-authoring a paper delivered by Carleton at the 1972 Pan -American Health Organization Conference in Washington, entitled, “Prospects of vaccines against slow viruses”. Carleton’s conclusions were that the prospects were poor because of the nature of slow viruses. He also waxed lyrical when he touched on the question whether aging was a virus disease and if so, would we wish to be vaccinated against old age. I helped to put the paper together by tidying up the transmission charts used for the paper to illustrate examples of transmission of slow viruses, and by checking the references. It was a privilege to share a publication with a future Nobel Laureate. I took the chance to take my reduced family to visit the Melnicks in Houston where I learned of the latest development with the LBM antiserum pools. Joe was almost ready to start making freeze -dried ampoules of antiserum pools for international distribution by WHO and it reminded me that genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration; I had the inspiration and it was Joe who put in the perspiration.

4:9 Carleton and Kuru
To go back a number of years, let me tell the story of what Carleton was doing in 1957 when I was discovering Asian Flu. The publication of Carleton’s (and Burnet’s) studies on auto-immune antibodies attracted great interest in the scientific world and he and Sir Mac were invited to speak at an international conference in Helsinki on their discoveries. On his way to Helsinki Carleton paid a visit to Port Moresby in New Guinea to tidy up some unfinished business left over from his earlier visit. One of the people he wanted to see was Dr. Van Zigas, formerly head of the Viennese Venereal Diseases Unit who had emigrated to Australia, and not being allowed to practice medicine because he did not have a recognized medical degree, had been working as a janitor in a hospital until he was given permission to serve as a medical officer in New Guinea. Van Zigas told Carleton that he was taking a vacation to visit some natives in the Fore (pronounced “four-ray”) highlands in north New Guinea who seemed to be suffering from a neurological disease of some kind.
“Do you know much about neurology,” Carleton asked Van Zigas, knowing his background.
“Very little,” Van Zigas replied, “but I want to see for myself if there is something there that deserves government action.” “Do you mind if I come along and help?” asked Carleton, “if the trip will not take too long.”
Van Zigas was delighted at the prospect of having a second opinion and assured Carleton that the trip would take not more than ten days which Carleton figured would still allow him time enough to get to Helsinki. In the event, Carleton stayed with the Fore natives for six months and Sir Mac had to speak for both of them in Helsinki. The Australian authorities considered New Guinea their special preserve, to be brought gradually into the modern age. They were furious that an American had been working in their back-yard without permission although he was doing what they had not attempted to do. Carleton’s boss in Washington, however, gave him full support and air-dropped thousands of dollars worth of equipment and materials to him including movie-cameras and colour films.

Carleton said that the Fore natives had gathered together some of their sick in anticipation of their arrival and he saw within a day such a spectrum of neurological symptoms as few neurological specialists would have encountered in a life-time of practice (Carleton’s hype, but most likely true.). The symptoms were readily identified as due to a breakdown in the brain areas that co-ordinate movement, subsequently confirmed by discovery of destruction of brain cells in tissue sections. The disease was clearly of an epidemic nature in that many people were affected, but no infectious agent that Carleton knew of had such a disease pattern. The natives called the disease “kuru” and it was by that name that Carleton reported it.

In the next few years studies were undertaken by international teams of scientists to determine whether the cause of kuru was of a dietetic, genetic, environmental or infectious nature. All failed until Carleton found that chimpanzees inoculated with brains of kuru patients developed kuru-like symptoms two years later. Moreover, the brains of diseased chimpanzees when inoculated into other chimpanzees caused similar disease after long incubation periods. This was a classical demonstration that kuru was a transmissible disease. Because microscopic examination of affected part of both human and chimpanzee brains showed that the nuclei of nerve cells had disappeared, leaving empty spaces resembling a sponge, the condition was described as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy or TSE. It was thought at first that the kuru agent was a virus but further research showed that it was much simpler in structure than viruses and the kuru agent was named a prion.The disease was transmitted in the Fore people by contamination with brains of their dead that they removed and ate in their funeral rites. When this cannibalistic practice was banned, kuru died out.It has been shown that a number of other conditions in man and animals including scrapie in sheep,“mad-cow disease” in cattle and “Creutzfelt-Jacob disease” (CJD) in humans were caused by similar agents. For nearly twenty years, Carleton spent six months each year in New Guinea and Micronesia to study kuru as well as other topics and for his part in the discovery of slow viruses, Carleton was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1985.

Note: Prion: A life-form simpler than viruses. A virus has a core of desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) surrounded by protein. The smallest viruses are about 10 microns in diameter. A prion is even smaller and is made up of protein that somehow causes the host-cell to make more prions. Prions have no identifiable DNA or foreign protein and do not stimulate antibody response. They are very resistant to chemical and physical agents that destroy viruses.

4:8 Family

By 1969 Sing Po had finished University, majoring in Philosophy, and was an Assistant Lecturer in the University; she also married Mark Kon, a dentist in the Faculty of Dentistry. Su Chong had won a Colombo Plan Scholarship and had gone to study Medicine in Edmonton, Canada. It was about 1966, I think, for he won a prize with his entry, “Five Stars arising” in the First National Day song-writing contest. Su Min had graduated and married a class-mate, Sing Yu, the daughter of Ling Lee Hun from Sarawak, a rubber and pepper trader and a prominent member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Lee Hun was of Foochow origin as many Chinese in Sarawak are. He spoke highly of my Grandfather Hwang and was a devout member of the Foochow Church. At the wedding dinner, held in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the bride and groom escorted by their parents lined up on the stage and proposed the grand toast with orange squash (F&N). It was the first time I had seen this done, but routine in the Foochow church and appropriate for a groom whose name included the name of his Saviour. Su Min had joined the University Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Kandang Kerbau hospital; his wife had entered the government medical services.

Amak died in 1969, at the mahjong table. She had long suffered from hypertension, and her mahjong partners were shocked when in the middle of a game she put her head on the table and passed away. What a way to go! She was buried in the Christian Cemetery at Chua Chu Kang. She was a great character, a typical nonya, and a fine representative of the Tan Tock Seng family. Amak left each of her nine grand-children, four by Eu Jin and five by Rosie, one of the block of nine houses she had in Cairnhill Road, numbered 128-128H. They were fine nonya-styled dwellings and in 1995 each was worth nearly a million dollars.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

4:7 FIDE West Asian Zone Championship

The Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE), or the World Chess Federation, held its annual congress at the same venue as the Olympiads and I attended the congress when not required to play for our team. One great problem facing FIDE then and which concerned Asian countries was the championship of the West Asian Zone that included both Mongolia and Israel. These two were by far the strongest teams in the Zone. Mongolia had won the event when it was held in Mongolia and Israel had won the event when it was held in Israel. It was now Mongolia’s turn to host the event, the other countries in the Zone not having shown any desire of doing so. When the FIDE General Assembly discussed the venue, however, the Israeli delegate said that if the event was held in Mongolia, Israel would abstain. There was nothing wrong with the organization of the competition, he said, but getting to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and then getting home, had been so difficult for the Israelis the last time they were in Ulan Bator, that they did not want to suffer the same way again. The said difficulties, we were told in asides, were caused by having to pass through the Soviet Union which did not recognize the State of Israel.

The Mongolian players would have easily won the Zone Championship in the absence of the Israelis and qualified for the next stage in the World Championship, but the Mongolian delegate felt most uncomfortable about this. In a state of euphoria, I got up when Campo nudged me. “In 1969,” I said, “we shall be celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the founding of Singapore. As part of the celebrations we offer to host the championship of the West Asian Zone, if no one else will host it.” To this the Mongolian delegate agreed with some relief.

Came 1969, the 150th Anniversary of the founding of Singapore by Stamford Raffles, for which celebrations I bad given some thought. Our Zonal Championship was the star event, for which the Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Inche Eusoff Ishak was the Patron. Each participant was presented by Inche Eusoff with a S150 gold coin as a souvenir. The Champion was Renato Naranja of the Philippines, and the runner-up was Walter Browne, then representing Australia. This result had an interest sequel, for Browne thereby became an International Chess Master, and on returning shortly afterwards to his native New York, was invited to play in Cuba, replacing Bobby Fischer who had pulled out of an international tournament at the last minute. Browne’s result in the Cuban tournament gave him a Grandmaster result and he was awarded the full title very shortly afterwards.

Late in the year, we hosted the West Zone Championship which was won by Ujtamen of Mongolia with Simon Peres of Israel the runner-up. I did not know till then that to get to Singapore, the Mongolians had first to travel to Moscow, and the distance of their round trip was more than once round the world. Not long afterwards, the Israeli team was transferred to the West European Zone and did not have such great travel problems. The Mongolians played in the West Asian Zone at great disadvantage until the break-up of the Soviet Union., when they were joined to a new Central Asian Zone.

4:6 Singapore Chess Federation

When Singapore was granted Statehood in 1959 and societies were required to be registered, I took the initiative in 1961 to register the Singapore Chess League under the name Perseketuan Chatur Singapura. With the government aiming at becoming part of Malaysia, Malay had been adopted as the “national” language, the Bahasa Kebangsaan (I took a class in Malay and passed Standard One) hence this name. I also had an artist draw our badge that incorporated the state badge of crescent moon and five stars on red background. Since those early times the Singapore government has limited the use of the state badge to government bodies and I believe that the Singapore Chess Federation (SCF), our present name, is the only private society with a badge incorporating the badge of the Republic of Singapore.

I was president of the SCF 1961-82, with a year’s interruption in 1981. I was taking a greater interest in international chess than I had previously and had become acquainted with Florencio Campomanes (Campo) whose chess career in the Philippines sort of paralleled mine. Campo persuaded me to make our 1967 Pesta Sukan Championship an International event and brought two other Filipino masters, Renato Naranja (who won it) and Rosendo Balinas with him to play in it. We also had some Malaysian and Indonesian players. The expenses were sponsored by the Chung Khiaw Bank whose General Manager was Lee Chee Shan, a great friend of Amak.

The Chung Khiaw Bank was largely owned by Aw Cheng Chye the son of Aw Boon Par and Chee Shan had married Cheng Chye’s sister. Chee Shan had managed the bank since it opened after the Occupation, personally supervising the staff by arriving daily at work at eight o’clock. Our support from the Chung Khiaw Bank came to an end when the bank was sold to the United Overseas Bank in curious circumstances.
Jim Slater, the English fmancier, under the name of his company Slater-Walker, had persuaded Cheng Chye to sell him shares in Haw Paw Brothers, a pharmaceutical company derived from Tiger Balm, after which Slater-Walker somehow got control of the Chung Khiaw Bank. One day Chee Shan was surprised to receive some visitors who told him they were from Slater-Walker and had come to take over the management of the bank. The Singapore government was no less surprised, but decided that a “local” bank should not be taken over by foreign interests. After some arm-twisting here and there, Wee Cho Yaw, owner of UOB was persuaded to pay $50 million for Chung Khiaw Bank, and SCF lost a good sponsor.

In 1968, Campo invited me to play in an open championship in Manila where I finished near the bottom, one of the young Filipinos who crushed me being 16-year old Eugenio Torre! I was able to get leave to play in Manila because of a government ruling that the staff of government departments and of statutory boards such as the university could have “unrecorded leave” (leave beyond their ordinary allowance) when representing Singapore in sport. Though some denied that chess was a sport, the Singapore Sports Council took the broad view that it was.
Campo said that it was time Singapore took part in the Chess Olympiads, the next one being scheduled for 1968 in the Swiss city of Lugano. I was of a like mind and to help prepare the Singapore Team I invited Nikola Karaklajic to play in the 1968 Pesta Sukan Open Championship. Nik won the event with the clean score of 9 wins in 9 games, which feat Americans describe as a picket fence result.. More remarkable was that the six members of the Indonesian Olympiad Team had played in the Pesta Sukan for practice and each had to play against Nik.

Singapore’s first Chess Olympiad Team comprised Tan Lian Ann, Lim Kok Ann, Tan Lian Seng, Giam Choo Kwee and Choong Liong On. It was a formidable undertaking for me to raise the expenses of the trip but it was worth it. At that time, the Olympiads was played with preliminary groups and final groups and being last in our preliminary section, we found ourselves in Group D Finals. In this group we found our opponents more of our standard and ran out first, ahead of France. It was great to report that we were FIRST in Final Group D. Nik was our honorary coach, accepting from us only pocket money and board and lodging.

Note: The first International Team Tournament was held in Paris in 1924. There are now separate Olympiads for men and for women. Four players and two reserves make a men’s team; three players and one reserve, a women’s team. Women may play in men’s teams. The host country provides board and lodging for all teams.

4:5 Dean of Medicine

The University Faculty comprised all the staff members of the departments serving the Faculty. As my Department served the Faculty of Dentistry as well as the Faculty of Medicine I was a member of both Faculties. Each Faculty elected one of their members for three year terms as Dean of the Faculty whose function was to chair Faculty Meetings and represent the Faculty in the University Senate, as well as to administer the Dean’s Office which took care of teaching programmes and tudent matters. The most important function of the Dean, however, was to help department heads prepare their budget for submission to the University Council. Generally, this “help” was advice on what items should be trimmed, what should be cut out so that the overall budget of the Faculty would be within what the Vice-Chancellor had told the Deans they might reasonably expect to get away with. Thus, the Deans served as the Vice-Chancellor’s advisors and as his hatchet-men.

As soon as I took office I made a familiarization tour of the Faculty, to visit all the teaching staff for whom I was the co-ordinator. They were the orchestra and I the conductor. The University did not have facilities for all disciplines in the medical syllabus and relied on government specialists as part-time teachers to teach such subjects as Psychiatry and Opthalmology. To get to know the part-time teachers I visited the Mental Diseases Hospital in Yio Chu Kang, the Skin Diseases Clinic in Middle Road and the Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the Middleton Hospital located in Moulmein Road. I also visited the Medical and Surgical Units belonging to the University and to the Government in the Singapore General Hospital, as well as our own Department of Social Medicine and Public Health in Outram Road.

The University, renamed the National University of Singapore, had moved from Bukit Timah to Kent Ridge when Dr. Toh Chin Chye was the Vice-Chancellor. The Medical Faculty proposed that an University Hospital should be built there and be managed by the University. The Singapore Government agreed because there was need for a new hospital to serve the industrial area in Jurong. It was natural that the non-clinical departments should also be relocated at Kent Ridge and co-ordinating the building plans for the Faculty of Medicine at Kent Ridge became one of my most interesting assignments as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. The detailed plans for the Department of Bacteriology naturally concerned me most and it was with some trouble that I overcame objections to the siting of an animal house in the hospital area.
The non-clinical departments were the last of the Medical Faculty to move to Kent Ridge, and this took place after I had left the University so I never occupied the rooms that I had planned with loving care to house the Department of Microbiology, the new name for my department. The old Faculty of Medicine building in College Road was then taken over by the Ministry of Health; the student accommodation, too, was moved to Kent Ridge in a new King Edward Hall.

Meanwhile, great things were taking place around us about this time. The British had granted Malaysia independence, incorporating North Borneo and Sarawak as Eastern Malaysia. When it was proposed in 1962 that Singapore should also be part of the Federation of Malaysia some Singaporeans objected. They suggested that Singapore should first receive her independence from Britain, and then negotiate with Malaysia the terms under which Singapore should join Malaysia. I was of this opinion with which Chong Eu concurred (maybe it was the other way round).

Chong Eu encouraged us to form a new political party in Singapore, named the United Democratic Party, with aims similar to that of his party in Penang. When a referendum was held in Singapore on whether Singapore should join the Federation of Malaysia, there was some doubt whether the secrecy of the ballot would be preserved so they decided to cast blank votes, a pretty futile gesture. Our reservations were justified in 1965 when Singapore was thrust out of the Federation to find its own way as the Republic of Singapore.

One by-play in this drama was the formation of the Barisan Socialist Party, a splinter-group of the People’s Action Party that had the majority in Singapore. In 1963, the Malaysian Security forces rounded up the Barisan leaders on suspicion that they were Communists and accusing them of sedition under the Internal Security Act whereby a suspect could be detained without trial. The sweep took place in the early hours of the morning, but the leading suspects were not at home. Instead, they were found in the home of Dr. Poh Soo Kai, the husband of my sister Grace. Soo Kai was, in fact, staying in his wife’s house in River Valley Road, my former home, and he was taken in along with the Barisan leaders in his company, James Puthucheamy and Lim Hock Siew.
Soo Kai’s fault was that he was a Barisan sympathiser, but he denied persistently in the 13 years he was detained that he had ever been a member of the Communist Party. He could have been released had he “confessed” and gone abroad to study as some of those detained with him did, but Soo Kai would not confess to something he was not. In the end, when the communist threat had abated he was released, but his life had been ruined.

Grandma Yin was most agitated when she learned of the arrests and on the pretext that she feared the government would confiscate her house, she asked Sai Soo and her family to find alternative accommodation. By this time Sai Soo’s children had all grown up. My two sisters had already married and left River Valley Road, my sister Margaret had married Frank Lam who came from Vietnam, my brother Robert had also married and moved out, Edward had gone to study in England, Grace had married Soo Kai of course and both George and Lucy were also married, so Sai Soo was on her own when she moved to a HDB flat in Queenstown.

When I ceased to be Master of K.E. Hall I moved my family to the University houses in Leyden Hill, and Amak moved to one of her houses in Cairnhill Road.