It’s winter time down under, and there’s anxiety in the air. The famous Bondi beach in Sydney – which is usually populated with bikini-clad women – is now being searched thoroughly by the police. There’s a nationwide search for one man, and oddly enough, he isn’t a criminal or a terrorist.
The Malaysian High Commissioner to Australia has disappeared, leaving behind a trail of clues.
Tun Lim Yew Hock wasn’t exactly well known in Canberra at that point — he was just one diplomat, in a city filled with them. But as soon as he disappears, everyone suddenly recalls seeing him at parties or at the race track where, it was rumoured that he had lost more than he won.
While rumours about Lim’s disappearance run wild, the High Commision of Malaysia goes on a media blitz in an attempt to find the man. His wife and two children cry on national television, begging Lim to come back home. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Prime Minister of Malaysia gives a phone interview in which he says: “Come back, my dear friend, and I will welcome you. I will be happy to let bygones be bygones.”
This man, however, was no ordinary ambassador.
He was the man who helped Singapore gain its self-governance and independence.
He was Singapore’s Second Chief Minister.
Lim Yew Hock is a controversial and often forgotten figure in Singapore’s political history. As an exceptional student, Lim was granted a four-year scholarship to Raffles Institution, but his plans to study in England were crushed when his father passed away. Hence, Lim started work for Cold Storage as a clerk and became an active member of the labour movement. So much so that he rose to the rank of President in the Singapore Clerical and Administrative Workers’ Union.
Eventually, this interest in labour issues led him into politics. He founded the Labour Front (predecessor to today’s Workers’ Party) together with David Marshal in 1954 — a time of transition. You see, after the Second World War, greater calls for Singaporean independence pushed the British into making concessions. More specifically, the Randel constitution of 1955 allowed for 25 out of the 32 members of a Legislative Assembly to be elected. It was under this constitution that David Marshall became the first Chief Minister of Singapore, with the LF winning the 1955 elections.
David Marshal’s term as Chief Minister was tumultuous. There was rising unemployment and the threat of a communist insurgency. Worst of all, he failed to secure self-rule for Singapore during talks with the British government. They thought that an independent Singapore would not survive because of the increasing communist activity. In 1956, he resigned from his Chief Minister post, precisely because of this.
Lim Yew Hock, who was already the Minister for Labour and Welfare in Marshall’s government, thus took over as Singapore’s second Chief Minister. Lim quelled British fears of a communist takeover, by taking aggressive actions against the leftists. During the 1956 Chinese School Riots, for example, students with leftist tendencies held demonstrations at Chung Cheng High School and the Chinese High School. In response, Lim’s government sent the police to the schools and cleared the students using tear gas. Almost 900 people were arrested in the aftermath of the riots.
While these actions impressed the British and allowed the self-rule negotiations to continue, it completely alienated Singapore’s Chinese population — who increasingly supported Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party. The British, who also noticed this, shifted support to the PAP during the 1958 self-rule talks.
To add to this, under Lim’s premiership, Christmas Island (technically Singaporean territory) was sold to Australia at an abysmal price of $20 million in 1957. While it was far away from Singapore, and while most subjects would not have even been to the island, it provided Singapore with much needed revenue from Phosphate mining. Thus, more people resented Lim for selling away the Island. Ironically though, the decision to transfer the island from one colony to another was made by the British government, and Lim was unlikely to have much say on the matter.
By the 1959 elections, Lim Yew Hock, and his newly created party (the Singapore People’s Alliance) lost almost all political influence to the PAP — with Lee Kuan Yew becoming Singapore’s first Prime Minister.
Becoming a Malaysian Diplomat
In 1963, after a referendum was held in Singapore, the Federation of Malaysia was proclaimed — containing the former colonies of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo. All Singaporeans, including Lim, automatically became Malaysians because of the merger.
Barely 3 months into merger, the then-Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman appointed Lim as Malaysian High Commissioner in Australia, a position he held even after Singapore was ejected from Malaysia. He and his family also elected to take up Malaysian citizenship instead of Singaporean ones. But, he described himself as a “child of estranged parents” and always longed for the days when the two nations would reunite.
On June 10 1965, Tun Lim Yew Hock mysteriously goes missing from his diplomatic duties in Canberra. In the frenzy that follows, the High Commission of Malaysia revealed that he had been seeking medical treatment for an undisclosed illness for two months, and that he last told his staff that he was going away for a quiet weekend. By Monday, however, he was nowhere in sight, and the Australian police had launched a nationwide search for him.
Meanwhile, theories about his disappearance sprung up in the local media. A reporter alleged that the Tun took a plane to Sydney (nearly 200 miles away from Canberra) with the pseudonym Hawk. Others reported that Lim Yew Hock frequented Sydney’s sleazy King’s Cross district. In particular, his fondness of a certain Paradise Club and Sandra Nelson – a 19-year-old stripper – was revealed. Weirdly though, the police were unable to locate Sandra for questioning.
Nearly 9 days after his disappearance, “a good Samaritan” named Vincent Laus brought Lim Yew Hock back to the High Commission. According to Vincent, Lim was found ill, vomiting, and wandering Sydney, shortly after he disappeared. Without knowing who the Tun was, Vincent brought him back to his house and cared for him for the next eight days, and discovered who he was for the first time on the ninth.
Journalists were not impressed by this explanation. How could have Vincent not read newspapers or looked at the television appeals? Why did he decide to drive down to Canberra, instead of calling the police, Lim’s family, or even a doctor? How about Sandra? Why was she missing and why did she mysteriously reappear on the exact same day as Lim?
There were a lot of unanswered questions.
After the embarrassment of Canberra, Lim Yew Hock was brought back to Kuala Lumpur, where he eventually resigned from the foreign service. In 1968, the King of Malaysia also stripped Lim of his Tuntitle. While no official reason was given, being associated with strippers and disappearing without notice definitely stained Lim’s image.
Things continued to get worse for Lim, who met with a car crash and a broken marriage around the same time. To start fresh, he converted to Islam and migrated to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, adopting a new name: Haji Omar Lim Yew Hock.
He lived the rest of his life in obscurity and passed away on 30 November 1984 at his Jeddah home, at the age of 70.