Rooted in Service: Legacies of a Family of Old Rafflesians

By June Lee


Lim Boon Keng and Tan Tock Seng have been much credited with the development and building of early Singapore. But an interesting contest run by the Old Rafflesians’ Association (ORA) in 1979 revealed much more.


The ORA ROOTS contest sought to find the family with the largest number of old Rafflesians. The winning family had 45 Rafflesian members at the time, with the runner-up and second runner-up having 22 and 18 names respectively. (Click here to see the winning family tree, updated with help from Professor Patricia Lin)


Among these 45 members is famous author and playwright of Emily on Emerald Hill, Stella Kon (RGS, 1960). ‘I went to the RGS at Queens Street, which was the same school my mother and grandmother attended,’ she said proudly. Her sense of pride also stemmed from the fact that Stella is the great-great-great-greatgranddaughter of Tan Tock Seng and the great-granddaughter of Lim Boon Keng.


Stella Kon (Photo courtesy of the Peranakan Museum)

As we traced her family roots of old Rafflesians, we discovered that they spanned four generations with the oldest graduating in 1893. Among the 45 names were five Queen’s Scholars: Dr Lim Boon Keng; his grandson, Dr Lim Kok Ann; Tan Thoon Lip and his sister Dr Maggie Lim, who were both great-great-grandchildren of Tan Tock Seng; and Lim Hong Bee, Dr Maggie Lim’s husband. The Queen’s Scholarship was the colony’s most prestigious academic prize at that time as it enabled two promising students in Malaya to enrol at a British university each year. The coveted scholarship, therefore, went only to the best and the brightest.


There were also three Head Boys in the family: Tan Thoon Lip, Seow Sieu Jin (great grandson of Tan Tock Seng) and Lim Hong Bee. Our research has not only revealed the deep roots the two eminent families had with RI but also how many of them have come to this institution in search of the best education, and gone on to serve the country well. Many have left indelible marks in the nation’s building history. We put the spotlight on a few of the areas where this family of old Rafflesians has left its legacy.




His brilliance, heart for the people and boundless energy helped Dr Lim Boon Keng to be the medical doctor, legislator, scholar, educator, entrepreneur, community leader, social reformer and philanthropist that he was.

(Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore)



Among the family’s numerous notable alumni, Dr Lim Boon Keng (RI, 1887) was a phenomenon. He was a medical doctor, legislator, scholar, educator, entrepreneur, community leader, social reformer and philanthropist.


Even though Boon Keng was an outstanding student, he almost didn’t graduate from RI. Three years after he entered RI, his father passed away. As his father was the family’s sole breadwinner, Boon Keng was expected to leave school and find a job to help support the family. However, his headmaster, R W Hullett, did not allow it. Hullett was so impressed with Boon Keng’s intellect and thirst for knowledge that he personally tutored him. He also called on Boon Keng’s father’s former employer, Cheang Hong Lim, to get him to persuade Boon Keng’s grandmother to allow him to continue with his schooling after Boon Keng’s father passed away.


Thanks to the persistence of the headmaster, Boon Keng went on to become the first Chinese in Singapore to take up the Queen’s Scholarship. Incidentally, much later in 1914 at the request of Boon Keng, a road on Emerald Hill was named in honour of his beloved teacher and principal.


Hullet Road was given its name by Lim Boon Keng in honour of his teacher and headmaster, R W Hullett

Upon his return from studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Boon Keng started a clinic and soon built a strong reputation as an able and astute doctor. But the multi-talented doctor gave up full-time practice and taught pharmacology and therapeutics at the newly-established King Edward VII Medical School (founded 1905) and later at the Straits and Federated States Government Medical School. During this time, Boon Keng also published a number of articles in the Journal of the Straits Medical Association.


His philanthropic activities began when he started a King Edward VII Memorial Fund when the king died in 1910. The fund he raised grew considerably and by 1912, a sum of $120,000 Straits Dollars was donated to the fledgling King Edward Medical School – where his grandson, Dr Lim Kok Ann would later be a lecturer, a Professor and eventually the Dean. Since 2005, it has been renamed the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.


But his reputation as a physician spread far and wide. In the last days of China’s Qing Dynasty in 1911, Boon Keng was appointed Medical Adviser to the Ministry of the Interior under Prince Su as well as Inspector-General of the hospitals in Beijing. Boon Keng represented the Chinese government as their delegate in international medical conferences in Paris and Rome. He was also a director of the International Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden, Germany.


When Dr Sun Yat-sen became provisional President of the Chinese Republic in 1912, Lim Boon Keng was appointed Sun’s confidential secretary and personal physician.


Beyond the medical field, he also became very active in public affairs. He was made Justice of the Peace in 1897, and also served as a legislative councillor (1895–1921), Municipal Commissioner (1905–1906) and member of the Chinese Advisory Board (1897– 1898 and 1913–1922). Serving in these capacities put Boon Keng in a position to petition the British colonial government for various improvements to the lives of the Chinese.


As a community leader, he also urged local Chinese to join the re-organised Singapore Volunteer Corps, formed to tackle lawlessness on the island. To lead by example, Boon Keng enlisted as a private in the Chinese Company of the Singapore Volunteer Infantry when it was established in 1901. By then, he was already 32 years old but his age did not seem to put a stop to his zest.


Around the same time, together with other prominent Straitsborn Chinese, Boon Keng founded the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) to promote interest in the British Empire and loyalty to the Queen. Boon Keng served as its president in 1904 and 1906. The SCBA also led in advancing the welfare of Chinese British subjects in the Colony and encouraging higher education.


During World War I (1914-1918), Boon Keng garnered support among Straits Chinese for the Prince of Wales Relief Fund which was used to purchase war planes. He also donated generously and raised funds for the British Red Cross to the tune of more than $40,000 in 1916. In recognition of his work on behalf of war charities, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1918.


The ever-progressive Boon Keng also believed that Chinese girls needed an all-round education, so he and a small group of British-educated Peranakan Chinese men like Song Ong Siang and Tan Boo Liat founded the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS), the first English school exclusively for Chinese girls in 1899. SCGS has become one of the top girls’ schools in the nation today.




Just like his grandfather Lim Boon Keng, Dr Lim Kok Ann (RI, 1938) was a Queen’s Scholar and a brilliant doctor. The father of Stella Kon was also a Head Boy at RI. Kok Ann gained worldwide fame in 1957 when he was the first to isolate the flu virus at the height of an Asian influenza epidemic which had caused the deaths of over a million people worldwide, and he also worked on a vaccine that brought the epidemic to a stop.


Dr Lim Kok Ann (middle) with his grandfather Dr Lim Boon Keng (right).
Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore

Affectionately called the ‘Flu Fighter’, Kok Ann had a long and successful career as a research scientist. In 1949, as a young lecturer, he conducted the world’s first clinical trials of the new Sabin polio vaccine for the World Health Organization (WHO). Kok Ann oversaw the process of administering the vaccine to thousands of Singapore school children. Because of these trials, the once-dreaded disease of polio has been almost eradicated throughout the world.


Besides being the head of Microbiology Department at the University of Singapore for nearly thirty years and later Dean of the Medical School, Kok Ann also worked for the WHO in Singapore and elsewhere in the world.


It was while working at the Houston headquarters of the WHO in 1959 that he recorded his most memorable professional achievement: devising a simpler way to identify enteroviruses (viruses which cause enteritis). Instead of running 49 different identification tests for the 49 known types of enteroviruses, Kok Ann’s method only required six rounds of testing, with each round testing for a combination of several viruses.


‘It was the principle of the football pools; another instance of the playful element in the Lim character, being put to good use,’ Stella explained in a tribute to her father.


Stella’s grandaunt, Dr Maggie Lim née Tan, was also a trailblazer in her time and a well-known doctor who battled unwanted pregnancies and fought for better medical care for women and children in Singapore.


Maggie’s father was the greatgrandson of Tan Tock Seng. The extraordinarily intelligent girl began her studies at Raffles Girls School in 1919. She skipped several grades and completed the then equivalent of secondary school at age twelve. ‘In those days, students deemed to be material for the Queen’s Scholarship were placed in special preparatory classes in RI and the minimum age for contenders was 16. (My mother) had to wait three years before being permitted to join the Queen’s Scholarship class in 1930,’ related Professor Patricia Lin (RGS, 1960), her eldest daughter. Maggie made history by becoming the first female ever to win the prestigious scholarship, a year after her brother, John Tan Thoon Lip, won it himself.


Maggie and John were best friends in Cambridge (Photo courtesy of Professor Patricia Lin)

Like her ancestor Tan Tock Seng who was moved to build a hospital for the poor after he saw the plight of the sick left to die on the streets, Maggie had a keen sense of societal inequities. Her husband Lim Hong Bee’s (RI, 1936) passionate views about social justice also helped to crystallise Maggie’s commitment to the health and welfare of the poor.


Maggie specialised in maternity and child health. She was concerned by the number of women who had more children than they could afford. ‘Time and again, women drained by childbirth or poverty would beg her to buy the newborn infant they could not hope to support. Over and again she faced the consequences of botched abortions,’ related Professor Lin.


In 1949, she joined the newly-founded Family Planning Association of Singapore as its Honorary Medical Officer. The association provided information and services relating to birth control. In her capacity, Maggie expanded the association’s work by developing a network of maternal and child care clinics in the 1940s and 50s in Prinsep Street, Tiong Bahru, Joo Chiat and Outram Road. ‘Before these clinics, there was nowhere mothers with sick children could turn to, or receive pre-natal check ups and advice,’ her daughter added. Maggie would volunteer her time after work to advise patients. And it was in her work in these clinics that she encountered the plight of poor women faced with unwanted pregnancies.


‘The idea of available birth control was perhaps (my mother’s) most daring innovation, one that placed her at the forefront of both international recognition and controversy. The notion that women could regulate their own fertility went against the established place of women in a society that was locked in centuries of cultural practices that essentially negated the idea of female individuality. Even among the upper classes, the whole notion that a woman could control anything, including her reproductive rights, was seen as an act of rebellion. There were women who had their devices and later pills thrown out not only by husbands but outraged motherin laws,’ Professor Lin shared.


The opposition that Maggie and her team faced for empowering women to control their own fertility was recorded in Family Planning Association of Singapore’s annual general meeting in 1964: ‘[they] faced open opposition…consigned to [burn] in hell for [their] wickedness in interfering with nature, and were accused of corrupting the young and scheming to depopulate the earth.’ Apart from this and the reluctance of women faced with the stigma and embarrassment, Maggie and her team also faced some official indifference.


‘For her part, (Mother) knew that the directions she took were right: right for the poor, right for the thousands of women and children who came through the doors of the clinics, and right for the times. She was supremely aware of her role as a trailblazer and wasn’t falsely modest about her charge,’ said Professor Lin. But thanks to the elected People’s Action Party in 1959, the government was willing to sponsor an ambitious publicity programme that Maggie proposed. The programme reached tens of thousands of people, and within a few years the number of visitors to the association’s clinics doubled.


In 1963, Maggie became the head of Ministry of Health’s Maternity and Child Welfare Department and succeeded former President Benjamin Sheares as the President of the Family Planning Association of Singapore. In her capacity, Maggie attended many international family planning conferences and was elected to the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s regional council.


‘Perhaps the biggest gift my mother made to the world was the fact she was a forerunner of the women of my generation who would make up the women’s movement of the 1960s,’ Professor Lin proudly concluded.




Maggie’s brother, John Tan Thoon Lip, was equally brilliant, privileged and compassionate. In his education and legal career, he had achieved many firsts. He became the first Singaporean Queen’s Scholar in 1929. ‘It was a victory that went beyond a personal achievement. For several years, this prestigious scholarship had been awarded to candidates from Penang. His achievement was collectively shared by Singaporeans who had for several years felt themselves to have been overshadowed by Penang, and RI even declared a special holiday for the whole school,’ Professor Lin said of her uncle. John went on to study law at St John’s College, Cambridge and served as secretary of the ORA in 1934. Beyond this, John was also the first Asian to serve as Registrar of the Supreme Court of Singapore, the first Chinese police magistrate in Singapore and is best remembered for making justice accessible to all, especially the less privileged.


John Tan Thoon Lip was the first Asian to serve as Registrar of the Supreme Court of Singapore and was instrumental in establishing Southeast Asia’s first state-run Legal Aid Bureau. (Photo courtesy of Professor Patricia Lin)

When he returned from England, John’s talent and brilliance was quickly recognised and put to good use. He became one of the first two Asians accepted into the Straits Settlements Civil Service (SSCS) and in 1940, John joined the new Straits Settlements Legal Service which was established to enable college-educated young Asian or Eurasian British subjects to work in junior ranks of government.


After the war, John was recruited by the postwar British Military Administration as an assistant legal officer. After civilian rule returned in early 1946, John was appointed an acting district judge, and shortly following that, he became Deputy Registrar of the Supreme Court and Sheriff of Singapore in 1947—only the third native Singaporean elevated to the Colonial Legal Service. He was also Commissioner for Workmen’s Compensation.


His most significant contribution came in 1952, when he became the first Asian to be confirmed full-time in the post of Registrar of the Supreme Court of Singapore. In 1955 Singapore’s new Chief Minister David Marshall sent him to New South Wales to study its legal aid programme. John returned with recommendations for a Singaporean programme, which led to the launching of Southeast Asia’s first state-run Legal Aid Bureau in 1958. It became a vital part of Singapore’s legal system in facilitating access to justice for the less privileged.


‘The whole direction of his career was directed at the accessibility of legal services for the layperson. At heart, John was an infinitely compassionate man and I believe this part of his career was motivated by his concern over access to justice, the right to representation and equality before the law for all. John’s work in the municipal and later Supreme Court were career moves that were directed at providing assistance to people unable to afford legal representation and access to the court system,’ said Professor Lin.




Besides making a name for Singapore in the medical arena, ‘Flu Fighter’ Dr Lim Kok Ann also put the small country on the chess world map. Many in Singapore would also remember him as a spokesman and promoter of the game. ‘For over forty years, he has taught the game to others, organised competitions, collected funds and generally built up this area of the national sports field. It is mostly due to his efforts that in 1992, Singapore could muster a National Team for the Chess Olympiad in Manila, and from our small population, there were three International Masters on that team,’ recalled his daughter, Stella Kon, in an article she wrote about her father in 2003.


lim-kok-annSingapore’s first National Champion, Dr Lim Kok Ann devoted much of his time in popularising chess in Singapore and putting in place training and selection structures

Kok Ann became Singapore’s first National Champion in 1949. The chess advocate then went on to win the National and British Veteran titles twice over, and dedicated himself to developing the chess scene in Singapore.


‘He was absolutely missionary and evangelical about it. His mission was to have a chessboard in every home. He gave a great deal of his time going around schools teaching and coaching and building up the chess clubs,’ Stella recalled. ‘He taught schoolboys and schoolgirls, university students, and even blind students, using his own teaching system called the Bartley system (having first been used at Bartley School).’


He set up the Singapore Chess Federation, became its first President, organised competitions and tournaments, and raised—almost singlehandedly—millions of dollars for chess events. ‘Singapore’s welfare and survival depends on our own intellectual and social skills—not manpower numbers but on brainpower. Moreover, mere technological know-how would not be sufficient; you need wisdom, too. A chess player learns to develop his mental skills: wisdom comes from within by interaction with other chess players,’ Kok Ann would say to potential sponsors of chess events, telling them that playing chess was good for both the individual and the nation.


After retiring from the medical fraternity, he went to Switzerland in 1982 to become the Secretary General of the World Chess Federation (FIDE). In 2012, 10 years after his death, FIDE honoured Dr Lim Kok Ann with a ‘Candidate Master’ title. This year, the federation organised a Lim Kok Ann Memorial Blitz Tournament to commemorate his 10th death anniversary.




The love of theatre ran strong in Stella’s family, stemming from her grandfather, Seow Poh Leng, whom she had never met. Poh Leng, was one of the few English-educated Chinese deeply imbued with English literary tradition and even took part in amateur theatricals in the early 1930’s. And as a great lover of Shakespeare, Poh Leng named one of his houses—a seaside bungalow in Siglap—‘Titania’; and his house on Emerald Hill, ‘Oberon’. Oberon has since been, in a way, ‘immortalised’ in Singapore theatre, as the mansion in Emily of Emerald Hill. ‘I suppose this would have pleased him!’ laughed Stella.


A family photo of Seow Poh Leng, Polly Seow (whose life was the inspiration behind Emily in Emily of Emerald Hill), Rosie Seow and Dr Eugene Seow Eu Jin (RI, 1939) (Photo courtesy of Stella Kon) (Edit: Dr Eugene Seow was previously captioned as Duke Seow Siew Jin. We apologise for the error.)

Poh Leng’s love of theatre must have also greatly influenced his daughter and Stella’s mother, Rosie Seow, who became an actress and went by her stage name, Kheng Lim—the Chinese form of her name Guat Kheng—after her marriage to Lim Kok Ann.


Kheng studied in Raffles Girls’ School and then Raffles College (which later became the National University of Singapore) in 1939.


In December 1941, while she was still an undergraduate in Raffles College, Kheng acted in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. She was the governess, Miss Prism, and acting opposite her was former Minister Mentor, Harry Lee Kuan Yew, who played Canon Chasuble. The cast also included former Law Minister Eddie Barker. ‘At the height of the final rehearsals, with the looming threat of the Japanese invasion, we lost our director who was called up as a reservist by the British Army. Our geography lecturer who took over was also working in the evenings at Radio Malaya Broadcasting, monitoring war news. So he could only come after his duty period and we would begin rehearsing after midnight,’ she wrote in her memoirs.


Rosie Seow aka Kheng Lim was a serious actress, theatre buff and play-goer, having amassed a huge collection of theatre programmes of plays seen in Singapore and abroad (Photo courtesy of Professor Patricia Lin)

She left for Britain when war broke out to join her then fiancé, Lim Kok Ann, who was studying medicine in Cambridge. Between 1952 and 1953, at the age of 30, Kheng entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, one of the world’s most prestigious drama schools. She performed as Lady Hardcastle in She Stoops To Conquer.


‘She was a serious actress in Singapore theatre in the ’50s and ’60s,’ Stella said. On the Singapore stage, Kheng acted as Desdemona in Othello, the Empress Dowager in the Chinese Imperial drama, Motherly and Auspicious, Silver Stream in Lady Precious Stream, as well as Ariel in an open-air production of The Tempest by Peter Wise.


With such great influences in her life, it is no surprise Stella found her flair in writing and theatre. Like her mother and grandfather, Stella has put her stamp in Singapore theatre. The award-winning playwright brought Emily of Emerald Hill, the enduring and famous one-woman play onto the world stage.


The play won the First Prize in the National Play-Writing Competition 1983. Since then, Emily of Emerald Hill has been presented more than a hundred times, by eight different performers, in Singapore, Malaysia, Hawaii and Edinburgh. It has been translated into Chinese and Japanese and even broadcast over Radio Iceland. Her love for writing began as a nine-year-old girl studying in Raffles Girls’ School. ‘In the old school, there were two porches at the entrance. In those porches was a little annex where girls would wait. So that became a tiny theatrette and the end-of-term plays were performed there,’ she recalled.


Stella had many opportunities to develop her talent at RGS. The first play she wrote was one that was assigned to her and her schoolmates. ‘My teacher asked us to write a play based on a story she had called “The Fisherman and the King” because she happened to have a very big wicker fish. The rest of the girls said it could not be done. I went ahead and wrote it in my little jotter book,’ Stella related. The play was later performed by her classmates.


At the age of 15, Stella directed and produced a class production of Twelfth Night which featured her aunt and playmate, Professor Lin, as ‘Sebastian’. They attended RGS at the same time.


Stella Kon performed in King Henry VIII put up by the Raffles Players (Photo courtesy of Stella Kon)

Developing stories came naturally to Stella even as a child: ‘I had been watching my mom act in drama for years. I was also acting out my little stories and dramas for myself, so it didn’t seem a long stretch to write it for others,’ she explained.


Stella’s writings focus mainly on themes that are distinctly Singaporean, such as national awareness, moral values, cultural and social heritage, and personal integrity, and she has been highly successful at portraying the Singaporean consciousness. Quite evident in her works, too, are her Catholic heritage and strong interest in fantasy. Stella had most of her writing successes in the early eighties. She won first prize on all three occasions when the Ministry of Culture organised the National Playwriting Competition in 1979 (The Bridge), 1982 (The Trial and Other Plays) and 1985 (Emily of Emerald Hill). Her favourite work, ESTON, won a Merit Award in the Singapore Literature Prize Competition of 1994.


Actors who played Emily (from left): Neo Swee Lin, Ivan Heng, Stella Kon, Pearlly Chua and Jalyn Han (Photo courtesy of Peranakan Museum)

Even at 69, Stella continues to be actively involved in shaping the theatrical landscape in Singapore. She is currently working on Emily–The Musical, writing lyrics for the songs. ‘If I look at my earlier plays, they are full of lyrics. I’ve been writing lyrics all this while without realising that a musical would be the perfect vehicle for my expression,’ she quipped. Emily–The Musical, is slated to be staged at the end of the year.


Besides theatre, another member of the family also broke new ground in the area of Singapore television. Professor Patricia Lin became one of the first presenters on the then TV Malaya at 16 years of age. ‘I went for an audition and screen test. Maureen (the producer) looked me over, said “You’ll do” … Along the way, I was absorbed into the radio staff as an announcer and fell delightedly into producing and recording a variety of radio programmes,’ she recalled fondly. Professor Lin went on to obtain her PhD and taught at the California State University, Pomona, for over 30 years. She is now retired. Professor Lin, together with Stella and some other family members, has been actively keeping historical records and writing about the contributions of their eminent ancestors.


Professor Patricia Lin (Anna Patricia Lim), pictured on the far left, was one of the pioneers in TV presenting. (Photo courtesy of Professor Patricia Lin)

And thanks to their efforts, it is clear to see that this family of old Rafflesians were trailblazers in the fields of medicine, law, the arts, philanthropy, and even chess; making a difference in lives of people and helping to build the nation they passionately serve. This family of old Rafflesians has indeed left behind a legacy and indelible footprints for future Rafflesians to follow.


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