Lim Kit Siang, a bright man who dropped out to marry his sweetheart at 19

PETALING JAYA: Well known as a fearless opposition leader for decades, Lim Kit Siang started early in going against the grain.

At 17, he scored 5As in his Cambridge School Certificate of Education examination (or Senior Cambridge as it was otherwise known). He was among a handful in the country to have made such an achievement.

At 19, he was a top student with the world at his feet. Or so it seemed. Two months into his Form Six, Lim abruptly stopped school to marry his sweetheart – a shy classmate who he befriended at his night tuition class.

His parents were aghast and made their anger plain, but Lim stuck to his guns, ignoring his family’s pleas not to quit school and “throw away” a bright future.

“He was only 19 and his parents had wanted him to become a doctor. According to his family members and relatives, his parents saw an exceptional potential in him and had great hopes for him.

“However, it was not to be so. He went on to seek gainful employment,” according to a book on the man who has been in politics for a good 56 years.

In 52 of those years, he was active as an MP or assemblyman, or both. Lim was also always in the opposition, except for the 22 months when Pakatan Harapan (PH) held Putrajaya between May 2018 and February 2020.

Neo Yok Tee with her children. She had her hands full raising her four children alone with Lim Kit Siang being away from home for long periods.

The book, titled “Lim Kit Siang: Malaysian First, Volume One – None But the Bold”, was written by former journalist Kee Thuan Chye, who chronicles Lim’s political struggles as well as his family life. It will be available in bookshops on Oct 25 and will be officially launched on Nov 8.

Lim, according to his friends, consistently finished his exams much earlier than the stipulated time, sometimes even with an hour or 90 minutes to spare.

“He just finishes and leaves the exam hall, prompting some teachers to say he’s a gone case, but he will end up topping the class.

Author Kee Thuan Chye.

“Even when he sat for his law exams in London, he finished all the papers well before the given time. And yet he passed his LLB with distinction, even to his surprise,” said a former DAP member with whom Lim stayed while in the United Kingdom.

Some of his schoolmates and friends interviewed by the author describe him as a “nerd” with a book in his hand always, an introvert who dislikes parties, and one who never talked about girls in his schooldays.

“However, it was a girl named Neo Yok Tee he met at a night class who won his heart. They were drawn to each other at the age of 15 with a common interest for the love of comic books which featured sword-fighting heroes who stood for honour, justice and righteousness,” one of them recalled.

One of his classmates, Jin Siew, described them as a perfect couple and that they were deeply in love, with Lim trying to see her as often as he could.

“Even the teachers who had high hopes of him doing well in the Form 5 Senior Cambridge exam said he was spending too much time with Neo,” he said.

He added that when Lim sought his parents’ blessing to marry Neo, they refused, with his father threatening to disown him and cut off all financial help.

However, the 19-year-old went ahead and got married to Neo in a quiet ceremony, taking up a job as a temporary teacher in Batu Pahat.

The book goes on to describe how Neo stayed at home, raising four successful children, while her husband had to be away very often fighting political battles, including being incarcerated twice under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1969 and 1987 for a total of 36 months.

In 1960, he got a job as a reporter with The Straits Times in Singapore. He was to live and work there for about five years. But in 1965, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia proved to be a defining moment for Lim, and he decided to return to Malaysia as political secretary to Devan Nair, who was then the MP for Bangsar, in Kuala Lumpur.

This was the same Devan Nair who went on to co-found the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in 1966. He eventually returned to Singapore, and much later became the president of the republic.

Taking the job as Devan’s political secretary was the turning point in Lim’s life. It marked his entry into politics. By 1969, only three years after he had joined the party, he was appointed the DAP secretary-general.