Published on 6 September 2022

A doctor can do more: The story of Lim Boon Keng

Professor Joseph Sung
Dean, Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine

At the LKCMedicine White Coat Ceremony last month, students enrolled in the Class of 2027 were called up to the stage of the auditorium. One after another, they were conferred the white coats according to their Houses by their House Tutors and Assistant Deans. Five Houses in our School are named after giants in Medicine: Alexander Fleming, a famous microbiologist and inventor of Penicillin awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; Marie Curie, the first person bestowed the Nobel Prize twice for her pioneer research on radioactivity; William Osler, a Canadian pathologist, physician and educator at John Hopkins University who was also named “father of modern medicine”; Wu Lien-Teh, the hero who fought the Pneumonic Plague in the early 20th century and who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and then we have Lim Boon Keng… a name that I am not familiar with. 

LKCMedicine Dean's Blog - September 2022: picture of LKCMedicine students at White Coat Ceremony

So, I did some research on Dr Lim Boon Keng, who is also known as Lin Wenqing (林文庆). He was trained as a medical doctor, was an intellectual and writer, supported Dr Sun Yat-sen’s revolution in China, served as a member of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council and pushed for social reforms including the regulation of opium usage and education for women, and was a champion of Confucianism. Born from a humble family, Lim was awarded the Queen’s Scholarship in 1887 to study Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. After he finished his medical education with a first-class honours degree, Lim returned to Singapore in 1893 to set up his medical practice in Telok Ayer Street and opened a small dispensary. That is not exactly an illustrious career. He had no groundbreaking research, no disease named after him and no Nobel medallion. 
However, his contribution to the society was immense. Lim was an outspoken physician about the harmful effects of opium-smoking and started the anti-opium movement in early 1900s. He then became a lawmaker and was appointed as a member of the Strait Settlements Legislative Council at the age of 26. He raised funding and rallied support from the Straits Chinese community for the Allies’ war effort. The reform movement in China initiated by Kang You-wei in the late 19th Century awakened him and he became a great supporter of the Sun Yat-sen revolution to overthrow China’s Qing dynasty. Lim campaigned for cutting the queues (or towchang, long hair worn in a back braid required of men as a symbol of submission to the Manchurian authority during Qing dynasty). He was subsequently appointed as a medical advisor of the Peking government and became Inspector-General of the hospitals in Peking as well as President of the Peking government’s Board of Health. 

Holding the firm belief that education was key to improving the quality of a person, Lim was concerned about the lack of education for females in Singapore. In 1899, together with Song Ong Siang, Lim founded the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. He emphasised on dual languages to be taught to Singaporean Chinese: both English and Mandarin. He started the Straits Chinese Magazine to promulgate his ideologies and reformist ideals. He subsequently established several newspapers in Singapore. There are many other stories and his works not mentioned here. 

Lim’s story reminds me of a famous Chinese saying “上醫醫國, 中醫醫人, 下醫醫病: The top doctor treats the disease of a country, a good doctors treats the disease of a man, a mediocre doctor treats the disease as a condition”. As a member of the medical profession, we have a lot to study, a lot of examinations to pass and a lot of long-hour days to work. But that should not be an excuse of us to ignore what is happening in society and our country. We should not just care about the wellbeing of individual sick people, but also the wellbeing of every person, or even the entire population. This does not mean that we should all be going into politics or public service. But the wellbeing of individuals are closely linked to the wellbeing of a community and society. We should care for the poor and under-privileged of society. We should emphasise on equity of healthcare for people of different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. We should educate and empower every individual to take care of themselves and protect their health. That will make us a superb physician. 

Lim did not win a Nobel Prize. He did not invent a new drug or new surgery. I wonder if he published any high-impact scientific paper. But what I do know now is that his contributions to society and country are comparable to the work of other medical and scientific giants. Certainly, a doctor can do more than heal individuals with sickness.