When D R Seenivasagam passed away in 1969, some 150,000 people lined the streets of Ipoh to bid him a touching final farewell. Who was this man? Andrew Lin explains.
15 March 2010 was the 41st anniversary of the passing of D R Seeni-vasagam, or DR as he was affectionately known, a great and illustrious son of Ipoh. Sadly, the day passed by without any mention of the event in the obituary pages of our local newspapers.
To old-timers of Ipoh, Darma Raja Seenivasagam needs no introduction at all. He was the President of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), one of the earliest political parties formed in pre-independent Malaya. Under his leadership, the PPP captured control of the Ipoh Town Council — the forerunner to the Ipoh Municipal Council and later the Ipoh City Council — in 1958 and provided efficient local government for the people of Ipoh.
DR’s charisma and extraordinary ability to articulate the aspirations of the masses endeared him to all who came in contact with him – from the towkay to the coolie. It is a well known fact that his most loyal supporters were the downtrodden of society namely the hawkers, petty traders, trishaw peddlers, labourers and others of the working class like the now-forgotten dulang washers. These people remained faithful to DR to the end.
Unfortunately, those born after 1969 have grown up with little or no knowledge of the man who, as the opposition Member of Parliament for Ipoh, was a constant thorn in the side of the then ruling Alliance government. DR was also an outstanding criminal lawyer in the country. On several occasions, his brilliance and skill in the legal profession spared many on the wrong side of the law from the gallows.
As a mark of remembrance for this towering personality, I, a humble retired senior citizen from Kuala Lumpur and a one-time resident here, invite you, good readers, to join me in a trip down memory lane and together reminisce our impressions and thoughts of DR – the man who fought for justice. Please share your insights with me so that the memory of this beloved leader who had done so much for Ipoh and its citizens will be perpetuated for our future generations.
This commentary is my own personal recollections and may contain inaccuracies of fact due to the passage of time, for which I sincerely apologise. Feel free to correct any discrepancies, where necessary. Some of the road names mentioned have since been changed and may be unfamiliar to some of us.
Remembering D R Seenivasagam
I did not know DR personally, neither have I spoken to him. But like most people of my generation, I have tremendous respect and admiration for the man. That has not wavered over the years. Despite his wealth and fame, DR chose to take on the role as champion of the poor and a fighter against all forms of injustice in the country.
In the glory days of the PPP, DR’s name was a household word. His name was frequently mentioned in the newspapers, the market place, the coffee shops or almost any place where people gathered for a casual chat. Practically every adult and even school children in Ipoh knew who DR was, and many had sought his assistance and services at one time or another.
My earliest recollection of DR was watching him with his group of friends and party colleagues from the upstairs of our shop-house along Panglima Street in Ipoh’s Old Town way back in 1961. They were walking to the famous Leech Street coffee shops. DR’s law firm of S Seenivasagam & Sons, which also acted as the headquarters of the PPP, was located at 7 Hale Street, a stone’s throw away from where I lived.
I remember DR was always in a jovial mood and had a hearty laugh to go with his raised voice. People on the street greeted him spontaneously. DR reciprocated with his usual charm and extended his hands to them in friendship. Such rapport with the people on the street by a so-called ‘big shot’ was fairly uncommon those days and was something to behold. DR was truly a man of the masses.
Unlike most politicians of that time, DR was genuinely approachable and accessible to any one who needed his help. He was known to give free legal services to those who could not afford to pay. Many poor people sought his assistance to find employment as labourers in the various local councils in and around Ipoh. So did the people who enlisted his help to obtain hawkers’ licences.
Road side hawkers implored his intervention to resolve problems caused by the high-handed action of over-zealous enforcement officers. Illiterate trishaw pedallers and errant taxi drivers who flouted traffic laws and those involved in other minor offences were often let off with a stiff warning by the police out of respect for DR, who would invariably intercede on their behalf. A telephone call to the relevant authorities or a press statement by DR was all it needed to settle the issue at hand. Such was the level of esteem and respect that DR commanded.
Thus the hawkers and other petty traders were able to conduct their businesses with the comforting thought that DR was always there for them so long as they adhered to the municipal by-laws, which were implemented in a most humane fashion.
DR inspired a generation of youths by his unusual talents both as a lawyer and as a politician. I know of at least three youths of my time who were staunch admirers of DR and who in later years became successful members of parliament themselves. One of them won DR’s old seat of Ipoh in the 1986 General Elections.
DR’s fiery oratory and his willingness to help the underdog were traits that caught the attention of people of all ages. During my time in school, excerpts of DR’s parliamentary speeches and other press releases were often quoted by participants during elocution contests and debates held at class or inter-school levels.
As a politician, DR did his very best for the people of Ipoh, irrespective of their colour or creed, despite his hectic schedule. He had many assistants and volunteers to attend to the people who thronged his office every day of the week, many of whom had come from far away places to seek his help.
In the days when public rallies were allowed to take place, the children’s playground along Brewster Road (where the Umno Building is presently located) was the favourite venue for most of the PPP rallies. According to my contemporaries, this was DR’s battle-ground, where he met his friends and fought his enemies. Huge crowds gathered to listen to PPP leaders as they explained their stand on the current issues of the day.
DR was always the star-speaker at such rallies and would invariably be the last to address the crowd. DR spoke in English and a smattering of colloquial Malay to the multi-racial crowd. He had a very versatile interpreter named Mak Fei Hoong to help him along for the benefit of his Chinese-speaking audience. Mak, as most old-timers would testify, was not conversant in oral English but understood the language and could give the verbatim Cantonese translation flawlessly, often with a touch of humour too! No wonder then that PPP rallies attracted such mammoth crowds.
Outspoken and courageous
One of DR’s most notable achievements in his short parliamentary career spanning less than 12 years, was his courageous expose of corruption involving a cabinet minister by the name of Abdul Rahman Talib, then Education Minister. When challenged by the minister to repeat the allegation outside Parliament, DR wasted no time in complying.
At the historical Chinese Assembly Hall along Birch Road (now Jalan Maharaja Lela) in Kuala Lumpur, DR did the needful before a packed audience and was taken to court for libel and slander. This celebrated case ended in DR’s favour in December 1964. The minister appealed the decision the following year but was again unsuccessful. Needless to say, DR’s stature as a fearless parliamentarian grew further from then.
DR’s eloquence in debating the contentious issues of the day like education, language and human rights won him grudging respect and admiration from his political opponents in Parliament , including the then Prime Minister, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman.
DR was a London-trained lawyer and specialised in criminal law. He first came into public prominence as the lawyer who defended a young Chinese girl named Lee Meng for alleged militant communist activities during the Emergency. Although DR did not win this case, his reputation as an able and courageous lawyer grew by leaps and bounds.
DR was involved in a number of high-profile criminal cases, and his superb performance as the defence counsel was given wide publicity in the media. Despite his fiery disposition, DR conducted himself in the best traditions of the Bar. He was never over-domineering and was known to extend his utmost courtesy to his less experienced colleagues in court.
He fought all his cases, big or small to the best of his ability, using his tremendous power of persuasion and argument to the full, much to the chagrin of the opposing public prosecutor. Indeed, DR’s brilliant performance was a source of inspiration for many young budding lawyers of the day.
DR’s private life was equally interesting. A chain smoker, DR was always seen with a cigarette in his mouth, both in public or in his office. His addiction to tobacco from an early age resulted in his smoking more than 80 sticks a day.
DR came from a wealthy Ceylonese (now Sri Lankan) family. His late father was an eminent lawyer himself prior to the Japanese occupation of Malaya. The Seenivasagam family owned several landed properties in Ipoh but over the years, most of these were disposed of to finance the PPP’s expansion and activities in the Kinta Valley and in other parts of the country.
DR’s affluence as a successful lawyer was manifested in the fleet of expensive cars that he had. He was the proud owner of an American convertible, the Lincoln Continental, and a Jaguar. In later years, a bright red Cadillac bearing the easily-recognisable registration plate, AJ 6666 was his regular companion on the road.
His fondness for life, dancing, good food and the companionship of Chinese lady friends was an open secret. He was often seen in night-clubs in the company of close friends and associates. Drinking was also one of his other indulgences.
DR remained a bachelor all his life. He lived with his elder brother, Dato S.P. Seenivasagam, at the latter’s official residence of the President of the Ipoh Municipal Council along Tiger Lane, together with Datin Seenivasagam and his two unmarried sisters.
DR died of a massive heart attack at the age of 48, barely two months before the country’s general election. Till today, many still believe that the funeral procession of DR was the grandest and most touching ever seen by the people of Ipoh.
Rest in peace, dear DR.