A native of China's Fujian province, Lim Goh Tong, the fifth of seven children, was forced to leave school at the age of 16 after his father's death. Then, in 1937, Lim immigrated to Malaysia, taking with him a suitcase and the equivalent of just $175. Lim's initial journey to Malaysia ended soon after, however, when the Japanese occupation of the country—and a beating—sent him back to China. Yet, when Japan later occupied the Fujian province, Lim returned to Malaysia.
Steeled by these experiences, Lim set out to build a business empire in his new homeland. Marriage, to Lee Kim Hua, whose grandfather founded the Bangkok Bank, helped Lim establish strong connections with the region's expatriate Chinese community, and by the early 1950s, Lim had already built up a thriving business as an engineering contractor, as well as a plantation owner. Among Lim's most successful projects was the Kemumu Irrigation Scheme in Ketalan.
Lim's destiny was to change in the mid-1960s, however. In 1964, while working as a subcontractor for the Cameron hydroelectric plant, Lim visited the Cameron Highlands resort, which had long attracted British colonists seeking to escape the tropical heat of the Malaysian lowlands. Located far from Kuala Lumpur, the journey to Cameron was arduous and long. Yet the resort provided Lim with an inspiration: that of building a retirement retreat for himself and other Malaysians nearer to Kuala Lumpur.
Lim began scouting for a location for his project, settling on the mountain range between Genting Sempah and Gunung Ulu Kali, just 58 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur. Yet, arriving at the top of the mountain, some 1,800 meters above sea level, Lim quickly expanded his proposed project from a simple retirement retreat to a full-scale resort catering to the Malaysian tourist trade, and especially to the large Chinese community in the country.
Lim then learned that the young Malaysian government, led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, had been formulating its own plans to develop the Gunung Ulu Kali location, but lacked the financial and political stability to do so. Lim approached Rahman with his own idea, and received the go-ahead to proceed, on the condition that Lim himself build a road leading from Kuala Lumpur to the mountain top. Lim, backed both politically and financially by Haji Mohd Noah, as well as members of the increasingly wealthy Chinese community, established a new company, Genting Highlands Sdn Behad, in 1965.
Lim himself invested much of his savings, which he augmented by the sale of his 810-acre rubber plantation, in Segamat. With capital of MYR 2.5 million, Lim began petitioning the governments of Pahang and Selangor for the more than 6,000-hectare site spanning the two Malaysian provinces. Genting's acquisition of the freehold for the entire site was only completed in 1970.
In the meantime, Lim personally led the work on the construction of the 20-kilometer road leading to the site, originally slated to be completed over a six-year period. Lim also offered to install a telecommunications tower on the site that the government had planned to build lower down on the mountain. The government agreed, and promised a subsidy of MYR 900,000 if Lim built the road in three years instead of six.
Genting met that deadline, and by 1969 was ready to begin construction on the resort itself, starting with the Highlands Hotel. The company received a surprise boost from Prime Minister Rahman, who, during the cornerstone ceremony for the hotel, suggested that the government would be willing to grant Lim a license to open a casino at the resort. Lim soon after filed the petition for the license—the only casino license to be granted in the majority Muslim country. Lim also expanded the original 38-room hotel design to 200 rooms.
The Highlands Hotel opened in 1971 and proved an immediate success, attracting the Chinese community in Malaysia, but also—as the only casino in the region—from neighboring countries. Lim quickly expanded his concept for the resort, and received a five-year tax break from the government in order to invest in the resort's expansion. The development of the resort from a casino-focused hotel operation to a full-scale resort featuring tourist attractions and other family-oriented amenities also opened the site to Malaysia's Muslim population, who were barred from the resort's casino. In addition to the tax-break from the Malaysian government, Genting raised fresh investment capital through a listing on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange in 1971.