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 singlehandedly, 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
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.
IM Kevin Goh’s remininsces about Prof…I first got to know Prof Lim when I won the Nationals Schools Individual U-12 and was then selected for the Disney World U-12 Championships. With a modest background, my family could hardly hope to pay for my air ticket to Paris but Prof Lim made it his responsibility to make sure that I (and I believe my friend and U-14 Champion Tan Chee Chong), got there safely. He also took his good friend, IM Nikola Karaklajic along as our coach, who taught me several quirky openings during the tournament such as the c3 Sicilian (sorry Yee Weng!) and the infamous Portsmouth Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.b4!).
Not only that, he also sponsored my aunt’s air ticket to be there as a chaperone to allay my parents’ worries.
In the months before the tournament, I would make frequent visits to his house to play some training games, most of which I won only on time and in worse positions. He had a huge chess library, and often gestured to me to take whatever I like. I remember that the first book I took is John Nunn’s best games, where a fragment of one of his games with a certain Singaporean IM was published. Prof Lim would also pay for my Inside Chess subscriptions from 1996 until the magazine went out of print in 2000. I would gobble up each issue eagerly each time it arrived at my home and that cultivated not just my interest in playing, but also in learning the game through reading and simply enjoying the game.
Prof has an extraordinary influence on me as a chess player, and one of my regrets is that I have never told him in person before, how grateful I am for his help. Without question, he is one of the main reasons I am the player I am today.
My first and only tournament game with Prof Lim was during the Cairnhill Open tournament in 1998. He couldn’t remember who I was, which is a testament to just how many countless people he has coached, nurtured and helped selflessly throughout the last few decades. I will always remember his passion for chess and generosity towards others. There is only one Prof Lim.
Some personal recollections of ‘Prof’ Lim…
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 SecretaryGeneral 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 and 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”.