The path from Malaysia to Singapore couldn’t be much shorter on a map. Separated only by the Straits of Johor, one can stand on the shores of Peninsular Malaysia and see the Singaporean coastline with the naked eye.
But life isn’t a map. For Dr. Poh Lian Lim Yap, infectious disease expert and InterVarsity alumna, her journey to Singapore—and her crucial role in its COVID-19 response—was far less direct.
Born in Kuala Lumpur, Dr. Lim’s non-Christian parents sent her to a boarding school that happened to have a Scripture Union chapter, where she first became a follower of Jesus as an eight-year-old. During her teenage years, Dr. Lim continued growing in her faith and excelling in her studies while she navigated her parents’ displeasure. “[My father] took my Bible and tore it up and burnt it,” she recalled.
Ten years later, in the fall of 1983, she enrolled at Harvard University. “I came into Harvard as a very strong Christian, having grown up with an idea of persecution and standing up for your faith and the importance of Scripture and prayer,” Dr. Lim said.
Yet as a Malaysian international student, the culture shock of moving to the US nearly overwhelmed her. “The first thing I did was join the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship [chapter],” she said. “That was my sanity for the four years I was at Harvard. [That group] really became like my home.”
After graduating from Harvard, finishing medical school at Columbia University, and then studying infectious diseases at Tulane University, Dr. Lim spent the next 10 years working in the US and starting a family. But in the back of her mind, she wrestled with the commitment that she’d made to serve God overseas when she attended InterVarsity’s Urbana Student Missions Conference in 1984.
In 2003, Dr. Lim accepted a position in Singapore working with infectious disease outbreaks just before the SARS epidemic began. Dr. Lim suddenly found herself at the intersection of her youthful Urbana commitment and her professional expertise. She realized that God was calling her to Singapore full-time.
In the 18 years since, she has worked with the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations, and the Ministry of Health in Singapore, consulting on best practices for infectious disease outbreaks.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, Dr. Lim used her professional expertise and networks, honed over nearly two decades of disease outbreak work, to help Singapore craft an appropriate national response. “I am one of the people who sometimes gets sent off to Geneva to attend a meeting or be nominated to a committee . . . [in my case] the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network Steering Committee,” Dr. Lim said. Because of her experiences on that committee and her work advising the WHO’s response to infectious outbreaks, God has used her skills to help Singapore set a strong example for effectively navigating the COVID pandemic.
“I’m a big believer in parachurch movements like InterVarsity,” she said. “The penetration of the gospel into people’s lives happens much more deeply than just attending church on a Sunday. College is a pivotal time, and InterVarsity has an impact on students [during that time]. They’re finding themselves, and what happens in college often sets a trajectory for the rest of that person’s life.”