GEORGE TOWN: If there were a Hall of Fame for community service, Dato’ Seri Khoo Keat Siew ought to be in it.
In a time when most people were pursuing their personal interests, he went out of his way to help the disadvantaged.
A home for the disabled, a refuge for unwed mothers, daycare for working parents and a phone-in service for the lonely and troubled, he has started them all.
He has placed his mark on the community with the Po Leung Kok home for wayward girls, Cheshire Home, Befrienders Penang, the Penang Buddhist Association and the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, a Penang Chinese clan group with ancestral roots in Xiamen, China.
He initiated a few non-governmental organisations and helped to revive some legacy groups.
In recognition of his tireless work for the community, he was made Tokoh Kebajikan Kebangsaan in the late 1960s.
He takes great pride in his Peranakan heritage, so it is no surprise that when he signs autographs, he always precedes it with the words: “Love, your good Baba”.
Apart from his community work, he is a practising lawyer — the second most senior member of the Malaysian Bar to date. He served on its disciplinary board for many years in the 1990s.
Hailing from a wealthy family who migrated from China in the early 19th century, Khoo’s motivation to help people was fuelled by his ancestors’ attitude of service above self and their philanthropic endeavours.
“Helping the less fortunate is what my family took pride in and I too have immense satisfaction in doing so,” he told FMT in a recent interview at the Penang Club.
Now at the age of 90, he does not seem to have slowed down at all. He confesses that he has no specific diet to keep himself healthy and “eats everything”.
“My principle in life is to live simply and try to keep up with changes as they come,” he said. When he was 74, he was diagnosed with lymphoma but went into remission two years later.
Khoo could have been a politician if he had not refused former Penang chief minister Dr Lim Chong Eu’s request to join Gerakan as the party was about to take over the state in 1969.
“I knew politics was not for me because, in life, one of my main purposes was to help people, just like my father and grandfather before me,” he said.
He was born on March 18, 1930, to Khoo Sian Ewe and Lee Gaik Thye, one of seven sons and seven daughters.
Sian Ewe was a well-known real estate magnate in the 1800s, who lived in a mansion called Sunbeam Hall at 24 Light Street, across from the Supreme Court.
Baba Khoo’s grandfather was equally illustrious. Penang-born Khoo Cheow Teong became a major food merchant in Asahan, a regency south of Medan, Indonesia. There, he became a Chinese Kapitan.
Recalling his younger days, he said waking up daily to the view of the courts and walking to Hutchings School every day, using a shortcut through the High Court, might have influenced him to become a lawyer.
“The legal profession is not glamorous. It comes with a heavy responsibility, a duty to ensure justice is done. Lawyers are guardians of one’s liberty and integrity. They should be a clear example of what they are doing for society.
“The law isn’t meant for a particular person, but for all in a society grounded by law. We do not want certain laws to apply to certain people,” he said.
He studied law at the University of Bristol in the UK before being called to the Bar in 1957. He married Daisy Yeow, now 80, a Nyonya, 10 years later. They have three sons — Poh Jin, Poh Chye, and Poh Aun.
He set up the Befrienders in Penang in 1978, at a time when the state was growing into the Silicon Valley of the East.
And in the same year, he started the Cheshire Home to help rehabilitate the disabled, together with the consort of the then Penang governor, Toh Puan Saadiah Sardon.
He is fiercely loyal to his Peranakan roots, having led the Straits Chinese Association. He made sure “dondang sayang” and the Baba and Nyonya culture were kept alive in Penang.
“Today, many claim to be Peranakan based solely on what their grandmothers wore, but that is not the Baba identity. Attracting young blood to our association remains a problem. It is sad that Baba families fail to see the significance of explaining the legacy of our unique culture and traditions.
“Even the Hokkien spoken by Penang Peranakans, a creolised version with borrowed Malay and English words, is disappearing. I think the best place to learn this is to instil awareness of our roots in our own families,” he said.