SINGAPORE – When Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew contested the 1955 general election in his first electoral outing, a rival for the Tanjong Pagar seat was a 33-year-old teacher named Peter Lim Seck Tiong.
A self-described political novice, Mr Lim lost but went on to be a pioneer university administrator who won the hearts of many poor university undergraduates with grants he got from foundations to help pay for their studies as well as the setting up of a cooperative more than 50 years ago for students to buy books and other study materials at affordable prices.
Also known in later years as Reverend Peter S.T. Lim, he died in Edmonton, Canada, last month. The family held a memorial service there on Oct 5, the day he would have turned 98.
Recounting his short-lived political career in 1994, he said: “I thought I could do some good in my life and I thought the best way I could do it was to go into politics, where you could influence the way things went on in Singapore.”
He was born and raised in Tanjong Pagar, and lived for many years in a Duxton Hill house.
But he had scant know-how in how to organise and run an election campaign when he stood in 1955 as a candidate of Singapore Progressive Party (SPP), a then leading political party, he recounted in interviews his niece Verena Tay recorded in 1994.
“In a sense, I was on my own,” he said.
The irony was that four years earlier, in 1951, Mr Lee was an election agent for an SPP candidate contesting the Legislative Council election.
Mr Lim recalled that Mr Lee “had come back from England full of experience. He had seen how it was done there and when he came back he actually became an election agent for John Laycock”.
“So he learnt the ropes from John Laycock, I didn’t get to learn anything from anyone,” he added. Mr Lee was then a lawyer in Mr Laycock’s law firm.
Mr Lim went on to be the deputy secretary general of Singapore People’s Alliance (SPA), a political party Mr Lim Yew Hock had founded in 1958.
He recalled being abroad during nominations for the 1959 general election and missed being fielded in another seat where, he said, his chances of winning were better.
He subsequently turned his back on politics and returned to being an educator.
Mr Lim became principal of Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) in Seremban in 1961 and was approached by the then chief of the Democratic Action Party Chen Man Hin to join them but he declined.
In 1965, he returned to Singapore and joined then University of Singapore, later renamed the National University of Singapore (NUS), where he worked for more than 30 years before retiring in 1996.
Among other things, Mr Lim was appointed a pastor of Fairfield Methodist Church in 1948, was made the first pastor of Barker Road Methodist Church in 1956 and was a teacher at ACS, Barker Road, his son Eric, 74, told The Straits Times in a phone interview from Edmonton where he lives.
“Dad lived a good, successful and long life and served his Lord well,” he added.
The NUS Office of Alumni Relations said: “His contributions as a former director of NUS Alumni Affairs and Development Office, and in his many other roles, ranging from student liaison officer to deputy registrar, will always be fondly remembered.
“Ideas he put in motion, like the NUS Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society Limited (previously known as the University of Singapore Co-op Bookstore) to help students, stand till this very day.
“In celebration of his contributions, the Peter S. T. Lim bursary was established by alumni of academic year 1993/1994 to help financially-disadvantaged undergraduates from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.”
Board director of the NUS cooperative Lim Bee Lum, who knew him for nearly 70 years, said he was “a man of great compassion”.
In the early years of the co-op that he started in 1969, he would hire a van to sell textbooks to undergraduates at the Bukit Timah campus. Today, it has three outlets selling, among others, personal computers, books, medical equipment and campus souvenirs.
Former chief of the National Kidney Foundation T.T. Durai said: “As then president of the university’s students’ union, I had approached him innumerable times to obtain grants from various foundations for poor students.
“He helped every one of them.”
Mr Lim, whose wife died in 2010, is survived by his son, daughter and several grand and great-grandchildren.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.