By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent
HE LOST his mother at eight. By 12, the scrawny boy was working as a farmer, planting padi, tapioca and vegetables to supplement his shop-keeper father's meagre income.
And by 14, he would wake at dawn to peddle furiously down the streets of Malacca, his birthplace, delivering fresh bread from bakeries to coffee shops across town. The few cents he earned daily helped pay his school fees.
The job taught economist Lim Chong Yah, now 77, about marketing, distribution and credit, laying the foundations for the subject in which he excelled and still teaches more than 60 years on.
The biggest lesson he learnt during that stint at 'the university of hard knocks' is that a good education is the surest passport to a better life.
To help ensure that no student denies himself a quality education because he cannot afford the fees, Professor Lim, who serves as the Albert Winsemius Chair Professor of Economics at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), approached the university in late 2007 with the idea of a bursary fund.
He made a personal donation of $100,000 to kick-start the Lim Chong Yah Bursary Fund. The university soon adopted Prof Lim's cause as its own, launching a high-wattage Campaign for Accessibility to Higher Education to solicit funds for needy students.
The money will go into several bursaries, including the one named after Prof Lim, and help support about 120 students every year.
To qualify, students must be enrolled in undergraduate courses at the university and come from families with a household per capita income of $1,700 or less per month.
By last week, more than 2,000 donors had contributed $5.2 million towards the campaign. With a dollar-for-dollar top-up by the Government, the campaign kitty now stands at $10.5 million, including $3.6 million for the Lim Chong Yah Bursary Fund.
Its donors include Prof Lim's elder daughter, lawyer Lim Suet Fern, who gave $100,000.
The economist was honoured for his passion for the underprivileged at a dinner organised by the university last week. Speaking at the event, NTU president Su Guaning pointed out that Prof Lim's interest in his students went far beyond their grades.
'He has a deep concern for these young people, and has often gone out of his way to make sure that students in difficult circumstances get the help they need,' said Dr Su.
Prof Lim, who has four children and seven grandchildren, says: 'When you plant some trees, you like to see them flower and bear fruit, don't you? I'm a gardener. When I plant trees, I must make sure they all grow and do not wither.'
He realised the importance of education very early in life. He recalls cowering in fear and watching dozens of retrenched rubber tappers starve to death during the Japanese Occupation in the early 1940s. The Occupation started when he was barely 10.
'I saw them dying before my own eyes. Helpless. So I felt I had to study and move beyond farming.'
After the Occupation, he worked and studied hard, taught himself English and won a Malacca Settlement Scholarship to study at the University of Malaya, then located in Singapore.
Without that break, he reckons he would have been an ideal recruit for the Malayan Communist Party to fight the British in the dense Malaysian jungles.
'I would have been shot dead in no time. So I owe my life to education.'
But such scholarships are not easy to come by in Singapore, since they are reserved only for the cream of the crop, unlike in good Western universities.
'In Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge, every student is a scholar. That's how it should be here too,' says Prof Lim, pointing out that currently, only about 25per cent of each Primary1 student cohort eventually enrols in one of the three government-funded universities here. 'So every student is worthy of merit.'
The idea for the fund is not new. He says that in many great universities of the world, such as Harvard and Yale, students do not have to worry about school fees.
'At Harvard University, for instance, no student, once he gets in, is denied a first class education simply because his family cannot support him,' says Prof Lim. 'That to me is a great idea - and the genesis of our own bursary fund.'
The idea was reinforced when he met the French Ambassador at a university convocation here a few years ago. The latter told him that he came from a humble home and that his higher education at a prestigious university in France had been supported by a university-sponsored bursary scheme.
'That, too, gave me the encouragement that we needed a needs-based scholarship fund,' says Prof Lim who, in the early 1990s, also set up the Students Emergency Fund at NTU, which offered help to students in times of crisis, such as the death of a breadwinner in the family.
'Life is normally a smooth passage. So beautiful. But sometimes we get into trouble,' he says.
He recalls a young Singaporean student who told her professors a few years ago that she had to drop out of university because her taxi-driver father had died in an accident. She had to go to work to support her homemaker mother and two younger siblings.
Prof Lim waived the $10,000 ceiling for individual cases and the fund paid the student whatever she needed - he has forgotten the exact amount - to top up her fees and complete her education.
'Every good and hardworking student deserves to graduate,' he says.
The money for the Emergency Fund came from fees the professor earned from speaking engagements and royalties from his books.
The fund also helped liberate him from a personal predicament. Many of the books he wrote were useful for his students. But it was 'not proper' to recommend his own books to students, since he would receive royalties.
'With the fund, I could say you read this book and the royalty will go to the Students Emergency Fund. So I had no vested interest,' he laughs.
Prof Lim does not remember how much he has personally committed to the fund so far. The fund is still in existence, though it has now been taken over by the university. Over the past decade, around 20 students have been helped by it.
Meanwhile, the Lim Chong Yah Bursary Fund has also begun disbursing aid to needy students.
One of Prof Lim's students, third year economics major Soh Yong Seng, 23, is one of the fund's first recipients.
The son of a hawker and housewife worked part-time as a librarian and private tutor to help pay the 10 per cent of fees that his bank loan does not cover.
The $4,000 he will receive as a bursary will ensure that he does not need to work to pay his fees.
Mr Soh hopes to become a civil servant and 'craft policies that impact people's lives'. The financial help has made him confident that he will one day achieve his dream.
'As a student, I have learnt a lot from Prof Lim - not only about economics, but also about giving,' he says.
He adds that the professor often exhorts students to devote their time to helping others.
Mr Soh says that once he graduates and gets a good job, he wants to begin contributing to the bursary fund.
'I have been helped so much. It's only natural that I want to pay it forward.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.