The extraordinary journey of Richard Lim

From the brutality of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia to the halls of Monash University, the journey of this pharmacist is one of hope, determination and triumph.By Muriel Reddy.

Richard Lim
Marked as intellectuals, Lim and his older brother avoided execution by insisting they were labourers.
They were sent into the mountains where they worked 17 hours a day building a dam.

Fate has been kind to Richard Lim OAM. This might seem an odd statement for a man who was tortured, starved, shot at and forced into hard labour under the brutal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge murdered his parents, two of his brothers and one of his sisters. He endured the refugee camps  and  the  refugee hostels, and emerged feeling only gratitude for the kindness of strangers.

Richard Lim employs Monash graduates and provides placements for students at his award-winning Springvale pharmacy.

As life narratives go, his is a compelling one. He arrived in Melbourne on October 23 1980, and over the following 36 years established a home, a family and a successful business. His achievements are remarkable because not only did he work seven days a week, learn a new language, adopt a new culture,  go  back  to school and then on to university, but he also donated some of his earnings to the organisations that gave his family a lifeline when they were struggling as refugees.

Lim’s charmed life began 60 years ago in a provincial area just outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. One of 10 children, he wanted to study medicine but was persuaded by his father and uncle to become a pharmacist, like them.

He was two years into his studies in the city when Pol Pot came to power.

Marked as intellectuals, Lim and his older brother, Teng, avoided execution by insisting they were labourers. They were sent into the mountains (Lim’s Cambodian name, Suor, means mountain) where they worked 17 hours a day building a dam. Even when the Vietnamese Army marched into Cambodia four  years  later  in 1979, Lim was fortunate to escape being shot as a Khmer Rouge soldier.

He set off by bicycle on a dangerous search for his family, and in what he now describes as “a one-in-a-million chance”, he found a sister and brother close to the Thai border. He also managed to locate his three remaining siblings and learnt of the deaths of his parents, his brothers and  sister.  He  decided then that somehow his family would not only survive but would thrive.

That determination drove him during the early years in Melbourne. The Lim family, including some cousins, worked full-time in a factory, spent weekends picking fruit to earn more money, and studied English at night. A year after their arrival, they bought a modest two-bedroom home in Vermont for $58,000.  Their Australian  dream  had started.

Lim understood the value of education and in persuading his younger siblings to return to school, he was encouraged to finish the pharmacy studies he had started in Phnom Penh. Since his education certificates had been destroyed, he was unable to enrol in university without first completing Year 12.

He focused on his strengths in science, studying physics, biology, chemistry as well as maths, and took English as a second language to graduate from Box Hill High School in 1983. Despite combining his schoolwork with afternoon shifts at the factory, he earnt results good enough to study pharmacy at  Monash  University.

His life as a student was not without its challenges. The most significant was when he turned up an hour late for his end-of-year exams because of his confusion over daylight saving. He passed despite the hour deficit, an achievement he attributes to the kindness of fate.

After a number of years working in a hospital pharmacy, Lim opened his own pharmacy in Springvale in 1991. By then he had married his wife, Ann, also a pharmacist, and was making monthly payments to the International Red Cross and to Medicins Sans Frontieres because both organisations had been generous  to  his  family when they were in the refugee camp. Many years earlier he had founded the Cambodian Youth Association to help young people settle into life here.

He provided personal tutoring in subjects such as chemistry, biology and French. He also established Cambodian Vision, a not-for-profit that provides eye surgery for people in Cambodia, and donates regularly to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne.

If this spirit of giving has defined the man, it has also been the hallmark of the pharmacy run by he and wife Ann for the past 25 years. They employ 11 pharmacists, many of them Monash graduates, and between them they speak a number of languages, including Vietnamese, Chinese, English, Thai and Cambodian,  to  cater  to their diverse clientele. They know most of their customers by name. Three years ago they won the Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s Pharmacy of the Year award. Lim also provides placements for second and third-year pharmacy students from both Monash and RMIT.

His daughter, Joanne, 21, is studying pharmacy at RMIT, and his son, Albert, 18, who is a Year 12 student, has indicated he would like to study pharmacy at Monash.

Their tireless father has certainly no plans to retire. “I am still so passionate about pharmacy,” he enthuses.

“It’s such a privilege to be a pharmacist.”

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