Lilianne Fan pays tribute to her late father, Fan Yew Teng, the unionist, political activist, dissident writer with his trusty type-writer, and global citizen.
I was at my father’s side when he passed away peacefully on 7 December 2010, at Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. He had been diagnosed with advanced cancer at the same hospital almost exactly a year ago. Finding words after the loss of a parent is one of the hardest things to have to do. And yet, our family has been receiving a healing river of words from near and far, from my father’s many friends and men and women whose lives he had touched through his life. These words have brought us comfort through our grief, and for this we are deeply grateful.
My father was a blessing, an inspiration and an absolute joy. He was deeply loving and devoted to our family. While he had a tendency to sometimes be protective as a father, he was also persistently provocative, incessantly reminding my sister and me to live boldly, to never be afraid of pushing boundaries in the name of our principles and dreams.
Since we were very young, Papa was our principal source of cultural exposure and civilisational education. He introduced us to the music of Edith Piaf and Om Kalsom, the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and Hannah Arendt. His mind was epic and encyclopedic, philosophical and poetic; his historical memory as impressive as his passion for justice was inextinguishable. The shelves, tables and floors of his bedroom and study were always overflowing with books, the walls adorned with portraits of his many heroes— Bertrand Russell, Frantz Fanon, Leo Tolstoy, Nelson Mandela.
Papa’s deep humanism shaped us from an early age, as did the context into which our lives unfolded. Because he and my mother raised us in a very intellectually-, politically- and socially-engaged household, we were exposed early on both to humanity’s creativity and promise, as well as the realities of oppression and injustice.
Papa was through and through a public intellectual. Concepts like justice, freedom and democracy were not abstract utopian ideals; rather, they were foundations for the concrete advancement of living human societies. Like the philosophers of Ancient Greece, Papa believed that the hallmark of the citizen was versatility in knowledge and a constant striving for the advancement of one’s political community. He disdained material wealth and believed that, in the words of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, “it is the mind which makes men rich”. He was deeply concerned with the dilemmas of his time, first and foremost in Malaysia, but also internationally. He was fiercely independent and preferred to stand outside of society’s institutions to raise ethical questions and critique from a position of total impartiality.
As we were growing up, we would spend hours with Papa taking long walks around Kuala Lumpur, visiting his favourite second-hand bookshops and coffee-shops, listening to stories of his old schoolmates at Brinsford Lodge, teaching in Kuala Lipis and Tanah Merah, the spirited years with the DAP, and his epic land and sea journey from Port Klang to Madras and New Delhi, through Afghanistan, Iran, and Yugoslavia to join our mother in Cambridge in 1975. Papa would often read us drafts of his socio-political articles, fresh off the carriage of his beloved manual typewriter, and this was a significant source of our education on local and international politics. He would also involve us in many of his anti-war campaigns, from his mobilisation against the Gulf War, to peace and solidarity activities for Bosnia, East Timor, and Sri Lanka. Papa’s tireless solidarity with struggles for justice and democracy around the world deeply influenced my own work on peace, human rights and international humanitarian law, as it was he who taught me that each of us has a responsibility to speak up against injustice in every manifestation. When I began working with refugees from Aceh in 1999, Papa was strongly supportive, always ready to participate in a campaign, or offer strategic advice and lessons in political history, just as he was when my work later took me to Burma and Haiti.
Even as he mastered the power of the spoken and written word, Papa also grew increasingly to respect the power of the sacred word and prayer. In this sense, he also became a spiritual mentor, whose daily practice taught us in a very direct way the meaning of faith. Until his last days he would make sure that he said a prayer of safe passage for us each time we travelled, even while he was bed-ridden over the past few months.
Throughout his illness, Papa would continue to be more concerned by the suffering of others than his own. One day, just a few days after undergoing an operation, he told me, “My dearest, I have seen a world with endless possibilities of freedom, to which most people remain blind. The world would be a better place if people would help to set each other free. Please go and help them.”
On another occasion, he said to my mother, “There are so many people still in cages, why don’t you help to free them?” When my mother replied, “but I have already set them free…”, his reply was, “but you have not yet prepared the boats for them to escape!” Even at the heights of his sickness, he never complained about his own condition, but expressed regret that his illness limited his ability to defend those still suffering from oppression.
I know that I will always miss every detail of the moments we shared. But what I will certainly miss most are the moments of quiet simplicity, when words were not necessary:
- The mornings when I awoke to find him seated at the garden table, glowing in the gentle sunlight, whistling to the birds who were his constant companions;
- Resting my head upon his chest, feeling his hand stroke my hair gently, knowing that we would protect each other forever;
- Silently watching him each day with the deepest esteem as he would light a tea-candle at the altar in our home, lowering his head in prayer for our family and for the world.
With each day since Papa’s passing, I am coming to realise that surviving the death of a loved one is not about being left behind by the one who has died. Rather, it constitutes the binding of the living and dead to each other, and to the past, present and future, through a continuous act of love. “Survival”, in the words of the late philosopher Jacques Derrida, “is at once the essence, the origin, and the possibility… (it is) the life beyond life, the life that is more than life… the most intense life possible.”
I miss Papa more than words could ever express. But I know that he is free, that he is at peace, and that he is in the heart of God. We know that he is, and always will be, present with us — protecting, guiding and loving us at every moment. To have had him as a father has been my greatest honour; to be his daughter, my greatest joy. It is with profound reverence that we, his children, inherit his vision and dreams, and assume the responsibility of keeping his legacy alive.
I know it would have been his hope that every one of us to continue working towards a Malaysian Malaysia, a nation founded on justice, democracy, and accountability to each and every one of its citizens, compassionate to those who seek refuge upon our shores, a model of pluralism in an increasingly divided world. He would have wanted each of us to keep fighting against the blatant inequality and discrimination that has been institutionalised in our legal, political, social and economic institutions, to resist and uproot the decay in our political culture; to keep on walking the long road to justice and true democracy; to become a nation “where”, in the words of Tagore, “the mind is without fear and the head is held high”. Let us keep his dream alive; let the struggle continue.
This tribute was adapted from the eulogy by the author at Fan’s memorial service which was held at the Holy Redeemer Church in Bangkok, 16 December 2010.