Written by Junior Tay

Just prior to the SARS outbreak, on 8th March 2003, Singapore lost its ‘Father of Chess’ when Professor Lim Kok Ann passed away at the age of 83 from an apparent heart attack. Prof Lim was evidently famous in Singapore for his contributions to the game of chess. What was not so clear to the younger generation was his contribution to medical science. The older generation remembers the Asian Flu of 1957 where schools were closed and many people bedridden with fever. The Asian Flu was just as contagious as SARs and more significantly, a million people around the world had succumbed to it. However, at the height of the epidemic, a young Singaporean doctor isolated the flu virus. His name ­ Lim Kok Ann. I only got to know Prof in 1992 when Fong Ling ( then my girlfriend and now my wife ) introduced me to him. His passion for chess, his generosity and his bubbly wit was evident for all those who knew him. As for his achievements, I will leave it to his daughter to relate…

The Inspiring Achievements of
Lim Kok Ann

Written by STELLA KON

Stella is Prof Lim’s daughter, a well­ known playwright, novelist, short story writer and poet, whose works are frequently used as literature texts in Singapore schools


Most people know Dr Lim Kok Ann as a spokesman and promoter of the game of Chess. For over forty years, he has taught the game to others, organized competitions, collected funds and generally built up this area of the national sportsfield. 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. 


Dr Lim Kok Ann is also known as Singapore’s “Flu Fighter”, because in 1957, he was the first person to isolate a new strain of the virus which causes Asian flu. This was among his other contributions to science, in his chosen field of microbiology the study of very small organisms which cause disease. He has worked beside Nobel prize winners in the world’s leading research laboratories, and has a solid reputation in the scientific community. As a teacher and academic, he reached the top when he became Dean of the Medical School of the University of Singapore. For many years, he was a member of the Senate, the University’s governing body. Long before that, he was known as the youngest Professor in the University of Singapore. But Lim Kok Ann doesn’t regard his life as one of great triumphs, of challenges met and overcome. “I never imagined anything as a challenge in my life,” he said, in the sense of taking something which carried the risk of personal failure. “Maybe I never attempted anything I felt I could not accomplish.”


He described his return to the Christian faith of his youth, as a reevaluation of all he has achieved­ “When I had done all these things, I looked at them and they didn’t seem so important. All those things didn’t really matter much.” What does matter to him? Things like the desire for fame and money have never really been important to Lim Kok Ann. Asked where he learned his sense of values, “I suppose I learned this from my family tradition,” he said, “from the examples of my father and my uncles.”


Lim Kok Ann’s father and uncles were the sons of Dr Lim Boon Keng. Though Lim Boon Keng was eminent in his own time, the young Lim Kok Ann was not much aware of his grandfather’s achievements; he knew more about his eldest uncle, Dr Robert Lim Kho Leng, who was Professor of Physiology of the Peking Medical Board, in Chiang Kai Shek’s China in the 1930s. Robert Lim became Surgeon­ General of the Chinese Red Cross. He could have used his job, like many other in similar positions of responsibility, to enrich himself, sell off every movable asset, and pocket any foreign aid. Instead, “When Robert Lim retired in 1949, he left the Ambulance Corps with two years’ supplies of tires and batteries,” Lim Kok Ann said proudly. “Robert Lim was the only General who retired without any money of his own.” Millions of dollars of American aid were poured into China through Robert Lim’s personal bank account because the officers of the Rockefeller Foundation rightly trusted his integrity. Kok Ann’s father, Kho Leng, was a bank officer in Singapore. Capable and hardworking, nevertheless, he never got ahead in his profession, was often transferred and never got promoted to Director. “I heard my mother scolding him, ‘you don’t know how to do business!’ It means that he wouldn’t please his Directors by bending the rules, conniving at irregularities.” Like his brother Robert, Kho Leng set Lim Kok Ann an example of total incorruptibility, an idealistic integrity that cares nothing for material wealth. 

What about the other uncles, the other sons of Lim Boon Keng? Lim Kok Ann laughs. Two of the uncles were flamboyant characters, though perhaps not ideal role models. The third brother was a powerful influence in the shady world of the Amoy waterfront. The fourth brother, Lim Peng Han, was one of Singapore’s top racing drivers in the 1930’s, an exuberant personality who was a ‘bon vivant and hobbyist extraordinaire’, who enjoyed his life in the collection and appreciation of fighting fish, fighting cocks, fighting kites, matchbox labels, racing cars and beautiful women. And the message from these other figures of Lim Kok Ann’s past is perhaps that “Money is not that important. What is important, is to work hard at whatever you decide to do ­ and enjoy doing it!” 

Lim Kok Ann was a keen Boy Scout. The scouts were an important influence, with their ideals of honesty and service to others. He also learned ideals from books. “I went on a reading jag when I was about 11,” he remembered. “Every day after school, I would borrow a book from the Raffles Library, which was near Anglo Chinese School in Coleman Street. I’d walk back to Oldham Hall in Barker Road, reading all the way… down Clemenceau Avenue, along the railway track…” He mimes, as he’s good at doing, how he’d look left and right to cross the road and return to reading as he walked along. One sees a visual image of a small “specky” boy walking with his nose stuck in his book, putting the miles behind him and absorbing books by the yard. “I started at A on the Library shelves and worked my way through the alphabet”. Under the letter C, he found the adventures of Simon Templar, aka The Saint ­ whose gallant and quixotic idealism stirred his imagination. He wasn’t then aware that Leslie Charteris, the Saint’s creator, was a distant family relation, being a nephew of Lim Boon Keng’s wife ­ another uncle, though unknown! Other adventure novels by Buchan, Haggard and Wren told the noble deeds of gentlemen imbued with the ethos of the British public school; idealistic chaps who kept a stiff upper lip and always “played the Game”.


Speaking of games, the most important thing in Lim Kok Ann’s life has always been the game of Chess. He became Singapore’s 1st National Champion in 1949 and after his retirement from the medical fratenity, he went on to win the National and British Veteran titles twice over. There’s no counting the hours he spent not only pushing pawns himself, but teaching others, giving classes, coaching. The (then) Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said that Singaporeans should ‘play Chess, not dum (draughts)’. Lim Kok Ann picked up on that remark. He wanted to make Singapore a chess­ playing nation, with ­ according to his slogan ­ “A Chessboard in every home”. Over, the years, he succeeded in his aims; to popularize chess in Singapore; to train and build up a core of strong players; and to establish training and selection structures, which would enable chess in Singapore and develop without him. He taught schoolboys and schoolgirls, university students, blind students, using his own teaching system called the Bartley system (having first been used at Bartley School). He wrote regular chess articles in The Free Press and the Straits Times. He set up the Singapore Chess Federation; organized competitions and tournaments, and raised millions of dollars, almost single­-handedly, for chess events. 

“Singapore’s welfare and survival depends on our own intellectual and social skills­ not manpower numbers but on brain power. Moreover, mere technological know­how 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”. 


With these lofty words, backed by his authority as a university teacher, Lim Kok Ann would approach his potential sponsors of chess events, telling them that playing chess is good for individuals and good for the nation. Maybe it was too obvious to need mentioning, that people also play the game for fun.


In 1982, after retiring from the University, Lim Kok Ann left Singapore to become the Secretary General of the World Chess Federation, FIDE. Fidel Campomanes had just become the 1st Asian President of FIDE and invited Lim Kok Ann to help him in reorganizing and modernizing the organization. Lim Kok Ann threw himself into the job. For six years, he worked in FIDE’s headquarters in Lucerne, Switzerland, at a tremendous pace, administering the world­wide sport of chess with great energy and enthusiasm. He was happy. He was actually being paid, though modestly, to do what he’d been doing all his own life on his own time and at his own expense.


Lim Kok Ann had a long and successful career as a research scientist. As a young lecturer in Singapore, in 1949, he conducted the world’s first clinical trials of the new Sabin polio vaccine, for the World Health Organization. He oversaw the process of administering the vaccine to thousands of Singapore school children, and collated the results. As a result of these trials in Singapore, the once­ dreaded disease of polio has been almost eliminated throughout the world. Lim had the opportunity of working at major research centres in Australia and America. “My Uncle Robert once gave me this advice for any young scientist,” he said. “Identify the field in which you’d like to work. Find our who is the best man in the field and go work for him for some years. And then find out who is the man’s enemy, and go to work for him for some more years!” The meaning seems to be that Robert Lim was talking about the idealistic quest to pure knowledge, impartial and far above personal bias. “Well, I was able to do something like that, more or less chance. I worked for Wilbur­ Smith in England, and then someone in his lab gave me an introduction to Sir Mac Farlane Burnet, who was his, you could say, friendly rival”. 


Lim worked for a spell in the Canberra laboratory of Mac Farlane Burnet, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on cellular immunology. Lim Kok Ann was the head of Microbiology Department at the University of Singapore for nearly thirty years while also working for WHO in Singapore and elsewhere in the world. The ‘Flufighter’ incident, picked up by the newspapers, was one incident in a full professional life. One of the satisfactions of that life, was the technical skills to be used and developed. “I like working with my hands”, Lim Kok Ann said, explaining that his line of research requires a high degree of manual skill: in marking cultures, inoculating animals, and even in handling the apparatus required (American colleagues were once amazed to see him manipulating glass pipettes two by two in his right hand, when everybody else handled them one by one). He also liked Mathematics as a boy. Combined with liking to use his hands, this led to his hobby of Mechanical Engineering in his own home workshop. “I’m fascinated by tools and craftsmanship. In London, I took a night­study course in Mechanical Engineering. Then I could talk to the lab technicians, tell them how to make the apparatus, argue with them when they said it couldn’t be done. I don’t want to tell someone to do something that I can’t do myself”.


His most memorable professional achievement was to devise a new diagnostic procedure, while working at the Houston headquarters of the World Health Organization in 1959. It was a simpler way to identify enteroviruses ­ viruses which cause enteritis. There are 49 known types of enterovirus. Health workers around the world, having isolated the virus that was causing enteritis in their area, would send it to WHO in Houston for identification. Forty­ nine different tests had to be run. Lim Kok Ann devised a method for testing for one combination of several viruses, then another combination, and so on. By permutation of the combinations, a result could be ‘shaken out’ in only six tests. It was the principle of the football pools; another instance of the playful element in the Lim character, being put to good use. “We prepared enough test material to last till the year 2000”, Lim said. WHO’s adoption of the Lim­-Benyesh­-Melnick antiserum pools was a seminal event that enabled hundreds of scientists to work with enteroviruses and to discover new ones. 


In 1994, Lim Kok Ann made a phone call to Houston, to chat with Marge Watson, who was his colleague in those exciting days more than forty years ago. “I said, ‘You know, Marge, we should have got a medal or something for what we did. WHO never really gave us much recognition for it’. And she said (guffaw of throaty laughter) “Haw haw…But we had a lot of fun doing it, Kok Ann!!'” That has been Lim Kok Ann’s motivation from the start, a combination of idealism, and a youthful, playful spirit. The real and only reason for doing anything is because you enjoy it, because you think it’s fun. And if you do it right, you do it with integrity. In the words of those old adventure novels, “Always play the game!” And when the games are over? Late in life, says Lim Kok Ann, he looked at the things he had achieved, the honours he had gained, and thought, “There must be more to life than this”. The academic honours, the titles and respect, did not mean much. Even the world’s greatest chess­players had feet of clay. When seen in close­up: in 1978, at the World Championship Final match between Korchnoi and Karpov, the competition was dominated by arguments over ‘stupid things like the colour of the yoghurt’. 


The meaning that he found in life was Christianity. He was brought up in the Methodist faith, drifted away from it, and then returned to it in middle age. ‘It’s more important to serve God than man”. Back in Singapore and almost fully retired , the high point of his week was the regular prayer meeting with a group of close Methodist friends. He used to teach chess six hours a week at Raffles Girls’ School and to young pupils of Boon Lay Primary School. He plays in the occasional local chess match, with more enjoyment than success. He became the Advisor to China’s National Chess Federation, where he helped mentor Women World Champion Xie Jun. And several times a year, he accepted invitations to officiate at major chess tournaments around the world, as Chief Arbiter for FIDE. 


The Arbiter is the Appeals Judge at a chess tournament, the authority who interprets and enforces the rules. His decision is final and cannot be challenged. He needs to be someone whom all parties trust, whose integrity and freedom from bias are known to all. To be such a respected authority, in the sport to which he had devoted so much of his life, is Lim Kok Ann’s final achievement.

Some personal recollections of 'Prof' Lim

Written by Junior Tay


Prof had just learned from me that a chessplaying friend of mine (whom he was not even acquainted with at all) was involved in an accident and had just landed in hospital, facial bruises, leg fractures and all. So he insisted that we visit the fellow immediately. Armed with both Chess and Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) sets, we whizzed down to the hospital where Prof spent the majority of the time there blitzing with the chap at both forms of chess. It was a funny sight indeed, a bedridden young man and a chatty veteran hunched over a chessboard on a hospital bed, discussing the finer points of the King’s Indian Averbakh and ‘Ping Feng Ma’. 


On another occasion, Prof made one of his abrupt phone calls and asked both my wife Fong Ling (then girlfriend) and I out for lunch. Thinking that it was another one of those hawker fare Teochew Porridge lunches at Lau Pa Sat, I got out in my slipper and shorts garb, only to panic after realising that he had made a lunch arrangement with property tycoon Datuk Tan Chin Nam (one of the key movers of the USA­-China summit matches) at a posh hotel restaurant. Yikes…Major faux pas…I couldn’t back off from the appointment and was wondering what to do about the social blunder but the light banter between Prof and Datuk Tan put us entirely at ease.

Disregard for Material

While walking along Orchard Road with Prof, my girlfriend and I told Prof about our impending wedding and he immediately went to the ATM and withdrew $500. He stashed it into Fong Ling’s hands, insisting that she buy some nice pearls with it to go with the wedding gown. 


Once, he called me over to his place where he wanted to find out who was then the most promising junior player in Singapore and why. I mentioned “Goh Wei Ming, who had finished 7th in the Disney World Youth Championships” and that was the last I heard about the matter. Much later, I met Wei Ming at a friend’s place where a chess tournament was held. He was reading Seriawan’s’ Inside Chess’ and I found out that Prof had paid for all his issues of the excellent magazine. 


Fong Ling was playing in the Manila Olympiad 1992 when she traded Queens in a position where she had a big advantage to wrap up the game in the ending. After the game, Prof went to the chess store to buy her a book on Capablanca to indicate his pleasure at her style of play.


In 1982, on sheer impulse, Prof accepted an invitation to go to Lucerne, Switzerland to serve as the Secretary ­General of FIDE. He didn’t even consult his wife. “I just told her to pack the bags,” he said matter of factly. 


In 1995, Fong Ling and I were then studying at the National Institute of Education, training to be school teachers. When Prof asked why we were not playing in the Singapore­ Malaysia International Match which was to be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we told him about the impending school examinations which will end on the first day of the event and he told us he will settle matters for us. A few days later, he called me up to pick up a couple of air tickets at the American Express office and we were whisked off to Kuala Lumpur where we made the flight and landed in Stanford Hotel, KL, just in time for the 2nd Round. Both Fong Ling and I won.


Pragmatic Decision making 

(Related by GM Dr. Wong Meng Kong in ‘Chess, Medicine and Psychiatry’) 


Before joining medical school, I was a medium ranking chess player with a modest ELO rating of 2285 and an International Master title from the World Chess Federation, and the honour of being the only Singaporean to win a World chess event (Asian Junior Championship 1979). My doubts about pursuing a difficult and often unrewarding career in medicine were tossed aside when my mentor Professor Lim Kok Ann admonished me and said, “Chess is for fun. You need a proper job to eat.”

Chess & Life

When asked what chess had taught him in a New Paper interview on May 17, 1995, Prof said, “People compare chess with life. You prepare your forces, make split second decisions, take risks and learn from defeat. All these are valuable lessons in life”. 


The Chess Official

(Related by Prof in ‘Indian Summer of a Patzer, Singapore Chess Digest, Nov 1995)


When I officiated in some important FIDE event, I was given to remark, “Those who can, play; those who cannot, teach; those who cannot teach, become arbiters”.