P Ramakrishnan gives us a glimpse into the life and times of the late Fan Yew Teng, an extraordinary political activist who refused to be cowed or muzzled.
Aliran is saddened by the passing of Fan Yew Teng, a principled ideologue, social activist, unionist, politician, poet, writer and human rights fighter at the age of 68 on Tuesday, 7 December 2010 in Bangkok. His passing is a great loss to the nation, whose leaders had not treated him fairly neither had they recognized his great contributions in advancing the cause of justice.
He was an active unionist. As a member of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) he held many positions and served in many capacities. In 1964-65 he was NUT School Representative in Kuala Lipis; in 1966-67 he was Assistant Secretary and Editor of the NUT Pahang Branch; in 1967 he was Director of the NUT National Membership Campaign and the Director of Teachers Unification National Committee of the NUT; and in 1967-68 he was Editor of The Educator, the official organ of the NUT.
He shouldered his responsibilities with great dedication and served selflessly and courageously. He was in the forefront of the struggle against the shabby treatment of the teachers in the 60s.
Plunging into the struggle
It was a time of great injustice. The teachers had unfairly and steadily lost their privileges and status over a period of time which their predecessors enjoyed as befitting their noble profession. It was a time when government women teachers unfairly lost their government status on account of marriage losing their pension and medical and housing facilities – as if it was a sin to get married and therefore they had to be punished; it was a time when teachers’ salaries spiralled down in the most unjust manner instead of going upwards,.
The sad state of teachers was pathetic then. While with every revision of salary for the other services meant better and greater remuneration and fringe benefits, for the teachers it was the direct opposite. Instead of the salary going up with each revision of salary, the maximum of their salary unbelievably got less and less.
The maximum salary of teachers under the Cowgill salary scheme was RM751 in 1948. It was slashed to RM636.00 under the Benham scheme in 1953. In 1960 the maximum plummeted to RM560.00 for men and RM487.50 for women under the Unified Teaching Service (UTS). Not only that. For the Day Training College (DTC) trained teachers with similar qualifications and doing similar work as their counterparts, the injustice was even more terrible. They were paid RM445 for men and RM360 for women. Not only their maximum was slashed, they were denied pension, as well as housing and medical facilities. It was deplorable.
This was the lot of the teachers and there was much unhappiness and anger; there was a lot of agitation to regain the benefits that were unjustly taken away when Fan became a teacher in the early 60s.
The battle cry of the day was: “Parity for DTC Teachers”, “Equal Pay for Women”, ”Pension, Medical and Hosing Facilities for all”.
Thus, the ground was fertile for a person like Fan who was moved by the unjust treatment of teachers. He got deeply involved in righting the wrong. He plunged into the teachers’ struggle for a fair deal with passion and conviction.
Fan Yew Teng highlighted all these injustices in a manner that struck a cord in the heart of every teacher and roused them to action resulting in the teachers’ strike in 1967.
He played a leading role when the NUT launched its historic nation-wide strike in 1967 to secure what was lost over the years. As the national editor of the NUT’s official publication, The Educator, he presented the teachers’ cause with great passion highlighting their just grievances with convincing arguments.
Under him, The Educator became vibrant and vigorous. He raised the standard of The Educator to become the foremost authority on issues concerning education, boldly championing the legitimate grievances of the dispirited teachers. Under his editorship, The Educator became a very powerful tool to raise issues and awareness among the teachers and the general public and to publicise the just cause of the aggrieved teachers.
He introduced a new column in The Educator, “Issues in Parliament” which regularly carried reports on what went on in Parliament to keep the teachers abreast of news that were being debated regarding their grievances. Because of the various industrial actions by the union, a lot of issues were raised in Parliament.
He sourced information to highlight the struggles of teachers elsewhere around the world who stood up courageously for their dignity and their welfare. He carried articles from eminent scholars and educationists to widen the horizon of teachers.
Service and sacrifice
When Fan resigned as editor at the end of 1968 he wrote, “It is my fervent hope and desire that I will have ample opportunity in the future to serve the cause of the discriminated lot of teachers in my different capacity.” It was also about the time when Fan also resigned from the Teaching Profession to pursue a political career. For a person of Fan’s energy and passion, the political path was inevitable.
The NUT’s reaction was understandable. It noted, “By his resignation the NUT has lost a staunch member and a dynamic leader. As a Teacher Trade Unionist he has been in the forefront of the struggle for Justice for teachers. In 1967 he was elected Editor of The Educator and since then he has been chiefly responsible for its improvement and progress. With his dedication and guidance The Educator has emerged as one of Malaysia’s leading trade union publications.”
His fearless criticism of the government, especially the Ministry of Education, meant he had to pay a price for it. He got transferred numerous times in an attempt to punish him and brow-beat him into submission. From Kuala Lipis, to Cameron Highlands to Temerloh and to Ganchong, a riverine village, they kept transferring him in order to break his will and spirit but he would not be cowed or muzzled.
Wherever he went, the union became stronger because he recruited more members and kept the fight alive and on-going. He was prepared to face any hardship in the pursuit of justice. They did all that they could but they couldn’t browbeat him. He stayed the course and remained faithful to his cause.
Like Fan, many School Representatives were wickedly punished by the authorities; they were transferred to remote places for their role in the teachers’ strike thus disrupting their lives. But all these leaders of that time were people of conscience who stood up for what was right. Fan paid tribute to them by referring to them as “Torch-Bearers of Courage”.
Indeed, the unionists of that period were fiercely independent. It was a time when service and sacrifice went hand in hand. They ran their organizations solely with subscriptions from the members. There were no grants and no hand-outs from the government. These unionists would not have stretched out their hands to receive any hand-outs from the government simply because they cared for the independence of the union movement and would not have sacrificed this principle for any amount of money. Honour and dignity meant a great deal to them then.
The struggles and sacrifices of the teachers of that period for a better deal are vividly and faithfully captured in the book, The Never Ending Quest, which he co-authored with A Rajaguru, another prominent teacher trade unionist.
When Fan stayed in Kuala Lumpur, he was part of every protest and debate. He was a common sight at these gatherings with his baseball cap adorning his head.He was colour- blind to race and creed. His concerns went beyond the boundaries of ethnic communities and embraced all as members of the human family. He was there to protest, to articulate, to debate in the pursuit of justice.
Fan had participated in numerous forums and debates displaying his passion for social issues and his remarkable wealth of knowledge on issues. His concerns were as wide as the ocean and his knowledge of issues was as deep as the sea. He was a well-read person who loved books and poems.
His self-confidence was phenomenal and he could articulate his views without fear or favour. He would take on anyone and speak convincingly in putting forward his point of view.
His life was busy and crowded while he was in KL; so he decided to move on to Ipoh. He mentioned that he had some writing to do: a novel and a biography on the great D R Seenivasagam. It is not known whether he had completed either one or in what stage of completion they were in when Fan passed away. I was especially looking forward to the biography of D R. It would have made compelling reading, for sure.
The last time that I appeared together with Fan was on 15-8-1998 together with Tunku Aziz of Transparency International and Lim Kit Siang in Ipoh in support of Lim Guan Eng, a victim of selective prosecution. It was an occasion to highlight the injustice meted out to Lim Guan Eng who came to the defence of a 15-year old Malay girl who was apparently raped by a prominent Umno politician. The perpetrator of the heinous crime went scot-free while the defender of justice was sentenced to jail.
Fan’s presence at this forum revealed what a remarkable man he was. At that point in time Fan was no longer a DAP member having resigned way back in 1978 over serious differences of policy matters. Yet he turned up to champion Guan Eng’s cause because justice was at stake and justice must be defended whatever it takes. He wasn’t bothered about his past differences with the DAP.
At this function, Lim Kit Siang publicly invited Fan to join DAP and carry on the struggle of the party. Fan returned to the DAP and the following year he contested the state seat of Tebing Tinggi in Perak but unfortunately he was defeated. It was the end of his political career.
Fan was an avid reader and a voracious writer who wrote to express his views and outrage on issues of injustice. His writings were peppered with beautiful, meaningful quotations. His articles appeared in many international magazines and respected media round the globe. Faithfully he kept copies of all that was published and he shared this with his friends. In all his writings, his constant companion was his trusted manual typewriter. His articles were typewritten by him. He never took to the computer. He and his typewriter never parted company right till the end.
Aliran Monthly had carried many of his articles .Two of his articles even appeared as cover stories in Aliran Monthly. Departing from the practice of carrying cover stories written by Aliran members, for the first time the AM carried a piece written by someone outside Aliran. That honour went to Fan whose article, A concern which kills was carried in AM Vol 11 No 9. It was an article about the terrible accident caused by Bright Sparkles factory in Sungei Buloh which resulted in many deaths and injuries, destruction of houses and devastation of the environment.
His second piece written on my request was about our own pliant and disappointing Election Commission which featured in AM Vol 15 No 2 under the title Assertive Election Commission vital for free and fair election, which we are reproducing here.
In 1991 we carried a poem that he wrote, Sing to us, Mama… which was published in the AM Vol 11 No 4. It attracted some church group in England who wanted to come out with a book of poems on peace. They wrote to Aliran seeking our permission to reproduce Fan’s poem in the volume that they were producing. Of course, we gave our permission and informed Fan who must have received a complimentary copy of this collection of poems on peace.
Fan had written several books such as The Umno Drama: Power Struggle in Malaysia, Oppressors and Apologists, If We Love This Country, The Continuing Terrorism Against Libya and the Song of the Merbuk (a collection of poems). I’m sure many people would be interested in these books if they are still available. Perhaps some effort can be made to re-launch these books as a tribute to Fan.
Righting a grave injustice
Fan wasn’t left alone when he was an active unionist; the authorities went after him by transferring him all over Pahang. When he became a politician, they didn’t leave him alone either. They charged him for sedition over an article that was published in The Rocket – the official organ of the DAP – in December 1970 and was convicted. Upon appeal on the grounds that his trial at the High Court had not been preceded by a preliminary inquiry before a magistrate as required by section 138 of the Criminal Procedure Code, his conviction was squashed and declared a nullity.
The decision of the Federal Court declaring the trial a nullity was confirmed by the Privy Council. Yes, his appeal went right up to the Privy Council and he won his case. However, it wasn’t the end of the case for Fan.
When declaring the earlier trial a nullity, the Federal Court did not order a retrial. But that did not stop the authorities from re-arresting and re-charging him with the same offence under the Sedition Act on 5 July 1973. He was hounded and convicted. The offence carried a maximum sentence of fine not exceeding RM5,000 and imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or both fine and imprisonment.
Raja Azlan Shah J in passing judgment observed, “In my judgment, a fine would suffice having regard to the circumstances of this case. I therefore impose a fine of $2.000 in default 6 months’ imprisonment. He was prosecuted by Salleh Abbas, then the Solicitor-General.
When he was fined RM2000.00 the law says that he is disqualified as a MP. It was assumed that he was no longer a MP after the fine was imposed on him. But there was no formal procedure to remove him from Parliament. No resolution was formally tabled in Parliament to give effect to the court verdict. It would appear that the formality by Parliament was an oversight.
But as an analogy, when a court sentences a man to be hung until he is dead, he does not hang himself. The prison authorities execute the sentence – only then the court verdict comes into effect. And they also make sure that he is fit and healthy to be hanged!
Similarly, when Fan was fined RM2,000 he could not have lost his seat automatically. The law must be given effect and the only way to do it is for Parliament to take a formal decision to remove Fan as a MP. This was not done and therefore he could not have lost his position in Parliament.
This view is supported by the fact that Tian Chua who was fined RM3,000 recently did not cease to be a MP. He is still a MP simply because a formal decision was not taken by Parliament to remove him.
Considering the fact that Fan was a person of deep passion for what is right and wrong, it would be a gesture of goodwill if Parliament could recognize this error in procedure and recommend that the pension that he was deprived of all these many years be granted to Fan’s family. On top of that he should also be compensated.
This would be in keeping with what was done for the former Lord President and five other judges of the Supreme Court who suffered a foul fate for performing their duty according to their conscience and in the interest of justice during the 1988 judicial crisis. Together these six judges were compensated to the tune of RM10.5 million as atonement. A precedent had been set and this should be observed in Fan’s case as well. He deserves this even more than the others.
We were in the dark regarding Fan’s ailment. No one knew of his whereabouts. I had tried to reach him on numerous occasions in the past one year but every time I had rung his home in Ipoh there was no answer. No one knew he was stricken with cancer; no one knew that he had shifted to Bangkok. He disappeared mysteriously without a word and he died so suddenly sending shock waves to all his friends who knew him and cherished him as a great friend.
Now that he is gone, we will miss him tremendously. But we will always remember him as a good, decent human being who shone brightly like a star in the dark sky.
P Ramakrishnan is president of Aliran.