Monday, 27 July 2009

From NST : I Remember When... It was Malaysia Boleh

With the university that bears his moniker now well established in far flung Botswana and Lesotho, Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing's name is associated with creativity and excellence for students and citizens in the two African states. The creative director, entrepreneur and educationist tells KOH LAY CHIN about the time when as he was just a student he who had to hide his artistic inclinations from his mother, his climb to becoming one of Malaysia’s well known creative thinkers, and the time he helped the legendary Nelson Mandela
MOTHER was never happy that I was good at art.

In fact she wanted me to work in a bank, and was frustrated that I kept my hair long because that's not what future bank employees did.

And so I kept all my artistic endeavours secret from her for quite a while. I was winning trophies and even stood in for my art teacher in secondary school several times.

After school, I worked as an illustrator and writer for a newspaper called the Eastern Sun, and drew my first cartoon strip called Guli-Guli.
I left school at 18 years old. My parents had difficulty paying for me then and because I also had four sisters, I didn't want to burden them and chose not to continue with Form 6.

I left without mum knowing, but I did well in freelance writing, illustrating, giving art tuition and selling paintings.

I had a lot of encouragement from my teachers and my editors at the paper.

But because I used to get frustrated when editors cut my stories and said I could not describe things creatively, I felt it was not the right thing for me.

So I got into advertising, where one is expected to create. At this time, the early 70s, the industry was completely run by foreigners, although they were to start departing around 1975. I joined McCann Erickson.

I would get into disagreements with the British because I felt they didn't know how to communicate effectively with the locals.

They wanted direct translations from Malay into English, or vice versa, for example, and that just plainly didn't work.

So I decided to start my own advertising agency in 1975, and it became one of the largest agencies in the country.

While before that we were relegated to mostly doing support services such as designing work, after that we were doing big campaigns for companies like Esso.

The year before that, however, I was entrusted to do a special project. I was to work with the then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak for Pesta Pembangunan, the first major exhibition to promote the New Economic Policy (NEP).

This was in June 1974, and I didn't sleep for nights planning and designing the exhibition which was held in Stadium Negara.

At the time, the workers and carpenters did not have much experience, so I was sleeping at the stadium with them for 10 nights to set it up. I was in my 20s, but I knew this was an important project.

I designed a "vibrating" flag, it looked like it was going up and around the area.

It was a bold step and they told me "No you can't do that", but I explained that it was to show we were a vibrant, growing country.

When you walked in, you would see that it was huge.

Later on, I was to also coin the phrase Yakin Boleh under the Rakan Muda project which we handled, and(Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad changed it to Malaysia Boleh.

A generation has grown up knowing these two words. I know some people make fun of it now, but you can't change the fact that it did change the mindset of the people at the time.

You will always have sarcastic people who say "why bother" with making the largest flag, the largest cake and all that. I would say in defence of that, well, why bother to do anything at all?

Why bother building a world class airport or an F1 track? You will always have cynics, but it did give us confidence, and it went along with our plans for 2020.

We would bid for the Commonwealth Games and the World Congress for Information Technology after that, and we decided also to Look East.

Years after that I was also privileged to have known Nelson Mandela, and worked with him during his untiring efforts to build a bridge of reconciliation in a nation torn by racial divisions.

Mandela had asked assistance from Dr Mahathir when it came to South Africa's first democratic elections in 1993. Dr Mahathir, in turn, asked me if I wanted the job.

And so I went to help the man himself, and his group of campaigners to work on the African National Congress's (ANC) campaign as a consultant.

I had the opportunity to work with future ANC leaders Thabo Mbeki, who was the campaign planner at the time, as well as Jacob Zuma.

I remember having difficulty selling my ideas to them at first as they wanted a rather militant campaign, with fists in the air and all.

I argued against it, saying since they had freedom now, it had to be about winning hearts and votes. I wanted to create an iconic picture of integration and reconciliation, with 10 children of diverse races.

I wanted four white children in the picture, but they refused. You see I remember Zimbabwe didn't do too well when the whites, who controlled 75 per cent of the economy, took up and left.

I finally spoke to Mandela himself and remember telling him that it had to be reconciliation and not confrontation.

I told him if I could not be useful to his campaign I would go home. Mandela agreed, and in the end there was a compromise -- we used two white children. That was the Malaysian in me, I guess, knowing how to compromise.

The campaign was such a success, and the poster was so popular that every time we put them up they'd go missing.

People were taking them away and putting them in their homes. It was this exposure to Mandela's leadership that inspired a change in my priorities.

I would also be inspired here, during my post-election break in Botswana and Lesotho, to set up universities there and help build human capital in Africa.

I have had quite a good run, and I was lucky to have people who had supported me. I think the country needs to go back to the sense of contribution and pioneering spirit we had in the past.

I would also say we were very eager and committed to doing good work, with a strong sense of humility then.

Some people say it is because of this humility and eagerness that the work we did in those years had better quality than what we are doing today.

Perhaps, I think, there is a grain of truth in that. Those days we were more disciplined and opportunities were few.

When I look at the students from some of the other countries like Botswana, they take things very seriously. They have come here to learn, and they don't cop out, they don't give excuses.

The New Straits Times Online: bI Remember When... /bIt was Malaysia Boleh


Cat-in-Sydney said...

I know the other side of the coin. Better left unsaid.

Cheqna said...

now I'm curious, but curiosity kills the cat, eh?

oops...u've never lost any of ur 9 lives have u? :-)))


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