Born in Kuala Lumpur on November 9, 1924 and raised in Malacca, Dr Koh Eng Kiat came from a Baba (Straits-born Chinese) family which adhered to Buddhist practices and ancestral worship. He was the second son of Koh Boon San, a chief clerk with the British colonial service, and Ong Nya Chik. It was Boon San’s second marriage after his first wife passed away.
Though Eng Kiat was educated in a mission school, Christianity did not impress him. On the contrary, his observation of Christians made him cynical. An “all-rounder”, he played badminton at school and college and captained his school’s hockey team. However, a faulty heart valve limited his involvement in sports.
Soon after his Senior Cambridge examination in 1941, the Japanese invaded Malaya. When the British returned four years later, he received his examination results which enabled him to further his studies at Raffles College, Singapore. There, he was befriended by a Christian who began to make an impression on him.
After graduating in 1949 in Geography, he taught at Raffles Institute in Singapore for several years and later spent a year at the University of Malaya in Singapore to complete his honours. However, the fulfillment he had been seeking through academic achievement left him feeling empty instead.
His resistance towards Christianity crumbled when he was introduced to the Ang family in Taiping. He had gone to Taiping to visit his sister Annie and her husband who were members of Taiping Gospel Hall, a Brethren church. Annie introduced her brother to Elder Ang Chai Tit and his family of 12.
The Ang home was always filled with people – church members, missionaries, relatives, needy friends and outstation guests who often dropped in unannounced to spend the night. “I was struck by the sincerity of this Christian family. I began to change my view. I saw Christianity as something spiritually alive and dynamic,” Koh recalled.
The older man’s quiet humility and devotion to God made a strong impact on him and Ang became a role model. Poh Kim, the sweet and comely daughter of Elder and Mrs Ang, was then a teacher at the Treacher Methodist Girls School, Taiping. A few weeks after they met, Koh wrote and asked her to be his penpal. Poh Kim was initially very cautious as he was not a Christian.
In Singapore, Koh started attending church. He finally acknowledged Christ as his Saviour and Lord and was baptised in 1954. From then on, he courted Poh Kim, who eyed him warily for fear his conversion was not genuine. Her father saw Koh as a good and upright young man. She was eventually convinced that his faith was genuine and they were married in 1956, three years after they first met. Their son Michael was born the following year.
Soon after, Koh and his family headed for England where he had been granted a fellowship to pursue a Masters in Education at London University. In London, Poh Kim gave birth to a baby girl, Chin Ai. Her brother Ang Chui Lai was reading law in London at the same time that the Kohs were there.
Upon his return to Singapore, Koh taught at the Teachers Training College. In 1964, he took up an offer to lecture at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. Their son Chu Guan was born there, followed by another son, Chu Soon, a year later.
As an academician, Koh was elated when he was later granted a Ford Foundation fellowship to pursue his doctorate at London University. He put his heart and soul into it and returned home devastated when he was denied his doctorate. Till then, he had been driven by ambition but the blow caused him to surrender this aspect of his character to the Lord.
But unexpectedly, he was advised to resubmit his dissertation and this time, it was accepted. Koh believed that God had intervened and answered his prayer.
He and his family were part of The Life Chapel, a Brethren church in the suburb of Petaling Jaya. There, he built on the spiritual mileage he had gained through that difficult period. When he was approached by the leaders of Life Chapel to be an elder, his humble and unassuming nature kept him from taking up the post. He believed that such an office should not be entered into lightly. It was only in 1978, his eighth year there, that he finally accepted the position of eldership. At that time he had become an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malaya, where he served until his retirement in 1981.
In 1978, Koh’s brother-in-law, Ang Chui Lai, was forced to leave his own church in Kuala Lumpur due to his involvement with the charismatic movement. Koh invited Ang to join him at Life Chapel.
In 1979, Koh experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit after initially having doubts about it. When the church leaders made known their stance against the charismatic movement and their decision not to accept Ang, Koh told them about his recent miraculous encounter with the living God and tried to explain that this infilling of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues was God’s moving in his life. He shared his conviction that God was restoring what the church had lost.
The leaders did not accept his position and wrote a statement admonishing Koh and Ang to either return to their pre-charismatic understanding or leave the church so that they could practise their neo-Pentecostal beliefs elsewhere.
The last Sunday that the Kohs spent in the church was heart-rending, yet they knew that there was no other way.
Spurred on by their newfound freedom in the Holy Spirit, Koh and Ang and their families, together with several others, met in Ang’s house on Thursday nights. The group grew quickly. After several months, Dr Peter Tong, who had introduced Ang to the charismatic experience, urged Koh and Ang to start a new church. Both of them were filled with trepidation as they had neither the qualifications nor experience.
As they prayed and waited for God to show them if this was His will, the first indication came from the godly and elderly Pastor Yim Tuck Fatt, who supported starting a new church. Dr Joy Seevaratnam’s prophetic words from Isaiah 30:20-21 at a charismatic meeting in December 1978 also allayed their hesitation: “My children, my children, glorify Me. Love them, leave them and you shall live... I have great things in store for you, but give Me the glory.” They also received other exhortations from the Bible.
Believing that God had clearly indicated His direction for them, Koh and Ang deliberated over the running of the church. With Ang entrenched in his legal practice, would Koh be able to give his time? It was not an easy decision as he would be retiring from his professorship at the University of Malaya in a year’s time and had just been invited to apply for a lecturer’s post in Singapore. Two of his four children had already graduated and the job in Singapore would help to see the younger two through their tertiary education.
Koh decided to put aside practical considerations and entrust his family’s future fully to God. God honoured his faith. His third son, Chu Guan, won an Asean Scholarship to study in Singapore while his youngest son, Chu Soon, decided not to accept a place at the National University of Singapore but to do a professional accountancy course locally instead. “The Lord took care of all our needs and somehow provided for our children’s education,” said Koh in hindsight.
Koh and Poh Kim’s faith in God was a legacy to their children. Their eldest son Michael said, “It was not difficult for us to live by faith because we saw it in our parents.”
On April 8, 1979, Full Gospel Assembly was born as a house church with about 40 people in the living room of the Kohs’ home, then in Section 17, Petaling Jaya. The children’s ministry was started almost immediately. The flock grew and God sent teachers from overseas.
But with growth came challenges. The Kohs received an order from the local authorities to stop all meetings and were given a month to look for another meeting place. FGA moved into new premises in a corner shoplot in Section 19 in Petaling Jaya in February 1980.
The attendance at worship services grew from 200 to 400 and it was clear that a new venue was needed. After renovations, FGA moved into the top floor of the then Hotel Majestic (which later became the Balai Seni Lukis) on May 31, 1981. By December 1983, the congregation had increased to 800, and the meeting hall was overflowing.
Another move became necessary, to the present venue in Taman Goodwood in Kuala Lumpur. The premises, procured for RM4 million, previously housed the Goodwood Cinema. FGA’s first meeting in the new sanctuary took place on December 16, 1983.
Within 20 years of its founding, the congregation grew to 8,000, with over 10 satellites and branches in Malaysia. The founding elders and their wives had not planned or envisioned that FGA would develop into what it is today. But there was a deep consciousness that obedience to God’s commands and stepping out in faith on the basis of His promises were key to the church’s birth and phenomenal growth.
Although they were the co-founders and their lives revolved around the church, especially in the early years, the church was not about them. “They lead in very quiet ways. It’s not built on personality, but upon character, showing forth the fruit of the Spirit,” said Rev Colin Hurt, one of the early teachers at FGA.
They acted as a foil for each other. While Koh was described as “a gentle giant”, Ang – his brother-in-law, co-elder and prayer partner for 28 years – was fondly called “the thundering prophet”.
Koh was always soft-spoken and unassuming. Contemplative by nature, he was not known for making decisions hastily. Eddie Tan, who was then a deacon of the church, remembered Koh as a simple and approachable man, and a peacemaker.
As a man who valued and sought peace diligently, Koh naturally looked for the positive and redemptive elements in troubled situations. His ability to see things positively and his apt way with words often acted as a balm to soothe and heal wounds arising from human conflict.
After answering God’s call and serving Him faithfully, helming FGA as chairman and elder for 28 years, Dr Koh Eng Kiat, who was not just a gentle giant but a giant of faith, passed away on June 29, 2007 at the age of 83.
Cha, Alan. Our Founding Fathers. Rejoice magazine Vol. 1/2002. Kuala Lumpur: Full Gospel Assembly, 2002.
Commemorating 25 Years of God's Grace and Faithfulness (1979-2004). Kuala Lumpur: Full Gospel Assembly, 2004.
Celebrating the Life of Dr. Koh Eng Kiat. Kuala Lumpur: Full Gospel Assembly, 2008.