Maggie Lim: Winner of the Queen’s Scholarship


Pat Lin pays tribute to her mother on Mother’s Day:

“Mom, her brother Tan Thoon Lip and my dad Lim Hong Bee were all Queen’s scholars. The Queens Scholarships were established by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1560 and were meant to send worthy young scholars specifically to Oxford and Cambridge. These scholarships were not named for the reigning monarch, i.e. George V, George VI, Elizabeth II. Past Queen’s scholarship winners in England have included Ben Johnson, John Dryden, & John Locke. In the 1890s it was decided to award winners who competed through out the Commonwealth by exams to offer scholarships to students in the Straits Settlements. Malayan and Singaporean winners include Lim Boon Keng, Gnoh Lean Teck, Kwa Geok Choo, Justices Tan Ah Tah and J. Ambrose etc. The Kings scholarships on the other hand were foundation scholarships originally meant to send worthy students to Eton College, then later winners were sent to other designated institutions of higher education. My mother did her medical training at the Royal Free Hospital in London, as neither Cambridge nor Oxford offered medical training, while her brother and my dad headed for Cambridge.”


Maggie Tan, Pat Lin's mother (Photo: family album)


“My mother was cremated and her ashes are housed in a cemetery in Upland, California where I now live. Her last years were spent in the university town of Claremont California, where true her gregarious spirit she managed to have a very lively social life. After retiring from leading Singapore’s Maternal and Child Health services, she had a second career as a professor at the East West Center at the University of Hawaii.”

“It’s all about re-membering (deliberate separation of the word here) — Wiping out Bukit Brown is an act of dismembering the societal body. What has happened in Singapore is that it has been chopped up into dismembered fragments in the name of progress and efficiency. All the wonderful commitment to the preservation of Bukit Brown is, as I see it, a symbolic way of healing this terrible tearing apart that has occurred in the last forty years leaving a lot of people with a deep seated void. A look at the Peranakan Facebook threads is indicative of how deep the void is and how much many of us feel the loss of a really rich cultural heritage.”



Maggie Lim

(By Sutherland, Duncan, National Library Board Singapore)

Maggie Lim, née Tan (Dr) (b. 5 January 1913 – d. 1995) was the first girl to win the prestigious Queen’s Scholarship facilitating higher education in Britain. After qualifying as a doctor, she became a public health officer and campaigned successfully to raise awareness of birth control.

Early life
Lim was the daughter of businessman Tan Kwee Swee, a descendant of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng. Her education began in 1919 at Raffles Girls’ School, where she earned a record six distinctions in her Senior Cambridge honours examinations. This exceptional performance helped her to gain admission in 1929 to the all-male Raffles Institution, seen as one of two teaching centres for the generous Queen’s Scholarships, to prepare for the scholarship competition.In 1923 the scholarships had been opened to girls, though as Lim was a month underage when the 1929 examinations were held, she had to wait an extra year. In due course, her excellent results won her first place among the two scholars for 1930. She thus became both the first female recipient in the programme’s 45-year history and the second Singaporean since its revival in 1924, after her brother Tan Thoon Lip. In the following 18 years, just four more girls were selected.Lim attended the London School of Medicine for Women then practised at the Royal Free Hospital, London’s only women’s training hospital. In 1939 she became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London. (She completed her education in 1956 with a Diploma in Public Health from the University of Malaya.)Upon returning to Singapore in 1940 Lim became a public health officer, but during the Japanese Occupation relocated to the Endau Settlement in Johor. The Japanese had founded this community, and while there she and her medical colleagues helped maintain supply lines to the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army. After the occupation ended, she resumed working for the British authorities.Major accomplishments
Combating ignorance and hostility
Lim specialised in maternity and child health and saw 40 to 60 babies and mothers each day. She was concerned by the number of women with more children than they could afford, bringing malnutrition and misery to families who often had eight or more children, versus two or three among the better-educated and more affluent. In 1949 she joined the newly founded Family Planning Association of Singapore as Honorary Medical Officer.

Lim expanded the association’s work through clinics and volunteered her time after work to advise patients. During these years, she recalled, “[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” (Family Planning Association of Singapore, 1964 AGM). Aside from religious hostility and the embarrassed reluctance of those needing help, they also faced a measure of official indifference.

However after the election of the People’s Action Party in 1959, the association had a government willing to offer public support and more generous funding. Although Lim’s main role was recruiting doctors, recommending forms of contraception and helping to manage clinics, in 1960 she proposed an ambitious publicity programme. The government sponsored this campaign, culminating in a very successful exhibition at Victoria Memorial Hall that then toured community centres. The programme reached tens of thousands of people, and within a few years the number of visitors to the association’s clinics doubled.

Lim’s eventful presidency of the Family Planning Association of Singapore
By 1963 Lim was head of the Ministry of Health’s Maternity and Child Welfare Department and succeeded Benjamin Sheares as association president. She attended family planning conferences around the world and was elected to the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s regional council. Lim also served on the organising committee of the federation’s 1963 international conference, held in Singapore, and chaired a session.

In addition to hosting this event, other successes of her presidency included the government’s gift of a site on Dunearn Road for the association’s new headquarters and a laboratory in 1964. That same year, two foundations granted six-figure sums for building and equipping these and training and hiring staff.

The association needed the resources, as demand for its services had increased one hundred-fold since 1949, making its reliance on amateur zeal increasingly inadequate. A new constitution reformed the association in 1964 but it still struggled. It persuaded the health ministry to take over the clinics so it could focus on research and advising the government.

The ministry established the Family Planning and Population Board to assume 90% of the association’s work. Lim retired as president in 1965 but oversaw the transition and was appointed to the new board in 1966. She remained on the association’s executive until it folded in 1968, and continued to serve on the board, the Midwives’ Council and the Medical Advisory Council until 1969 or 1970.

After this she lived and worked abroad, including at the University of Hawaii’s School of Public Health and East-West Communication Institute. She died in 1995.

Lim was married to Lim Hong Bee (b. 8 July 1917, Kuala Lumpur – d. 1995 or 1996), Queen’s Scholar for 1936, left-wing political activist and co-founder of the Malayan Democratic Union. She had been a passive member of an anti-colonial organisation but was otherwise apolitical. Nonetheless in 1951 her house was raided and she was arrested and detained by colonial officials trying to pressure her exiled husband. Their marriage was later dissolved. The couple had two daughters.

(Author: Duncan Sutherland)



Editor’s note:

Pat Lin is a direct descendant of Tan Tock Seng (1798-1850), whose son Tan Kim Cheng (1829-1892) is reburied at Bukit Brown.

Genealogy: Tan Tock Seng > Tan Kim Ching > Tan Soon Toh > Tan Kwee Swee > Maggie Lim > Anna Patricia Lim