Lim Bo Seng was born on 27 April 1909 in Fujian Province’s Nan’an County. A loyal Chinese patriot and freedom fighter during World War II, he sacrificed his life at the age of 35. Today, Lim is widely regarded as a local war hero in Singapore.
The first son to be born in the Lim family following 10 daughters, Lim came to Singapore from China at the age of 16 to study at Raffles Institution. His father, a businessman, was also stationed in Singapore to oversee his biscuit factory, and brick factory – which provided the bricks for the construction of the VictoriaMemorial Hall (now known as Victoria Concert Hall) and the Goodwood Park Hotel. While the younger Lim was furthering his education at the University of Hong Kong, his father passed away and he was forced to disrupt his studies to return to Singapore to take over his father’s businesses. Following in his father’s footsteps, Lim soon became a talented entrepreneur.
Portrait of Lim Bo Seng c. 1941-1944
Credit: Lim Leong Geok Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
In 1930, Lim Bo Seng married Gan Choo Neo, who was Peranakan Chinese. They had eight children together but one of their daughters died at a very young age.
Anticipating an invasion
In the late 1930s, the Sino-Japanese War motivated Lim to be a strong supporter of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party). He joined Tan Kah Kee – a businessman and philanthropist who had founded the China Relief Fund – in an effort to raise money to support China’s war effort. Lim also took part in anti-Japanese activities in Singapore such as encouraging the boycott of Japanese goods. Upon Governor Sir Shenton Thomas’ request, Lim also formed the Chinese Liaison Committee to assist in civil defence. When the Japanese troops began their advance down the Malaya peninsula towards Singapore, Lim, in his capacity as head of Labour Services Corps, provided the British government with 10,000 men to maintain essential services in preparation for the invasion.
With Singapore’s imminent fall, Lim was advised by the Governor to leave Singapore. Lim gathered some clothing and bid his wife and seven children a sad farewell. The British had offered places for his family onboard an evacuation ship but with Japanese planes attacking every ship that was leaving the harbour, Lim felt that it was too risky and it would be safer to leave his family in Singapore. However, he advised them to leave the family home for their safety. When Singapore eventually fell, as Lim had anticipated, the Japanese came looking for him. Unable to get hold of him, they took away his remaining relatives instead. His wife kept one step ahead of the Japanese by moving the children from place to place before safely seeking refuge at the neighbouring St John’sIsland.
Joining Force 136
Meanwhile, Lim had caught up with the British resistance group Force 136 in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Force 136 was a special operations force formed by the British in June 1942 to infiltrate and collect information to prepare for the British re-capture of Malaya. Local Malays were also recruited into the force. However, the unit needed Chinese agents who could blend in and infiltrate the larger cities in Malaya that had a significant Chinese population. For that, Lim used his connections with China to recruit Chinese-educated youths to be trained into Force 136 agents.
The training of Force 136 Malaya’s new Chinese agents took place at a training school in the hills of Kharakvasla, in the western gulf near Poonah in India. After their field training, agents of Force 136 Malaya were organised into teams that consisted of four to seven agents who were to be deployed into Malaya one team at a time. Out of the total 107 agents recruited by Lim, forty-six agents were selected to embark on field operations in Malaya.
Lim infiltrated Malaya in 1943 to help link up with the local resistance organisations like the Malaya Communist Party (MCP). In December 1943, Lim, together with senior British officers who had infiltrated Malaya, negotiated the Bidor Agreement with the MCP. The agreement set the framework for the MCP to work with the British. However, the agreement also led to the arrest of Lim.
During the Bidor Agreement negotiations, the MCP was represented by itsSecretary-General Lai Teck, who was working secretly with the Japanese. During negotiations with Force 136 Malaya, Lai Teck discovered the identity of Lim BoSeng, who at the time went by the alias of Tan Choon Lim. Lim was wanted by the Japanese and Lai Teck promptly alerted his handlers where their man could be located.
In March 1944, the Japanese launched a crackdown in several towns in Perak. Lim and many Force 136 Chinese agents had been operating in the town areas, and were quickly arrested. The captured agents were sent to Batu Gajah prison where they were interrogated and tortured. Conditions at the Batu Gajah prison were appalling. It was an unhygienic place and the arrested agents were given meagre food rations. They all soon came down with dysentery. Lim’s health quickly deteriorated as a result of Japanese torture and interrogation to extract more information about the operations of Force 136. On the morning of 29 June 1944, Lim was found lying motionless on his cell floor. He had died and was immediately buried near the jail.
After the war, Lim’s remains were brought back to Singapore, where he was finally laid to rest with full military honours at the MacRitchie Reservoir. On the 10th anniversary of his death, the Lim Bo Seng Memorial was unveiled at the Esplanade. The unique bronze pagoda with its three-tiered roof and four bronze lions at its base is the only structure in Singapore that commemorates an individual from World War II. Constructed by funds donated from the Chinese community, the pagoda features four plaques that display the account of Lim’s life in English, Chinese, Tamil, and Jawi. On 28 December 2010, the memorial was gazetted as a national monument.
Lim Bo Seng’s grave at Macritchie Reservoir c. 1946-1959
Credit: Tham Sien Yen Collection
Lim Bo Seng’s 50th-anniversary memorial ceremony at Esplanade c. 1994
Credit: National Archives of Singapore
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