A great man, a great friend

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The late Dr M K Rajakumar deserves to be regarded as the best role model for Malaysians, especially the youths of today, says Syed Husin Ali.

Dr M K Rajakumar, fondly called Rajan by his kin and Raja by most of his friends, passed away on 22 November 2008 at the age of 76. On receiving the news at about 4.00a.m. from Kiren, his younger daughter, while in Ipoh, I felt the terrible loss of a true friend whom I had always regarded as a mentor. The medical profession has lost a dedicated practitioner and intellectual leader. The nation has lost a great patriot and true Malaysian.

Raja was admitted to hospital twice this year. During his last three weeks at the Kuala Lumpur Hospital, I managed to visit him thrice. It was sad to see him all wired up and heavily sedated. His children, especially Sunita, patiently kept him company. His son Arjuna was at hand. His specialist son-in-law, Dr Jeyaindran, assisted by a host of dedicated nurses, fought hard to save him. But his fate was already sealed. Throughout, I managed to suppress my shattered feelings. But after his cremation, I could not hold back my tears anymore. I felt a bit embarrassed because even his children were composed.

Leadership qualities

Raja was always close and dear to me. I enjoyed his wit and sarcasm even when they were at my expense. He was a serious and thoughtful person, a genuine activist and principled leader throughout his life. Born in Melaka on 25 May 1932, he attended the Malacca High School there. He was an excellent student and was then already demonstrating his leadership qualities. He easily made friends with everyone from various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

While studying medicine in the University of Malaya (UM), which was then in Singapore, he became active in the dominant student organisations. He was a University of Malaya Students Union (UMSU) council member and one of the major forces behind the Pan-Malayan Students Federation (PMSF), although he was only a committee member. Friends informed me that he was the driving force behind the PMSF President, Philemon Oorjitham.

But Raja concentrated most of his energy on the UM Socialist Club, which he helped found with Poh Soo Kai, Wang Gangwu, James Puthucheary and some other progressive students. He served as its Secretary and then President. Together with seven others in the club, he was later charged in court for publishing the seventh issue of the club’s organ, Fajar. This issue of Fajar, entitled “Aggression in Asia”, was deemed seditious by the colonial authorities. With the radical Queen’s Counsel, D N Pritt, as defence lawyer, they won the case.  Through this trial, Raja became acquainted with Lee Kuan Yew, who had assisted Pritt.

I entered the university a number of years after that celebrated case. Raja was already in the fourth year of his medical studies. He was active with Samad Ismail in helping Kuan Yew establish the People’s Action Party (PAP). Being always concerned with the plight of workers, he remained close to union leaders like Lim Chin Siong, Sidney Woodhull and Jamit Singh.

The first time I saw him was when he appeared in a debate held at the Faculty of Arts lecture theatre on whether it was necessary to stand when the British anthem was played. He stood a lean and bespectacled person, constantly gesticulating with his right hand. He was not a fiery or rhetorical speaker. But he impressed me with his measured presentation and rational arguments. After that, I met him on a few brief occasions. Even from our casual conversations, I sensed strongly his earnestness and humility, which were indeed his trade mark.

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A few years later, I visited him in Melaka with Abdullah Majid, who had earlier been detained by the British for his anti-colonial activities. I was then doing my Masters and Raja was serving as a government doctor at the general hospital there. We met one night, sitting on a culvert by the seaside, talking for hours until almost midnight. He struck me as an enthusiastic and well-informed person, full of ideas. He was most enthusiastic and passionate when talking about the rural poor, among whom he had worked and done some research.

(Two years ago, when Anwar Ibrahim visited him while he was recuperating at Pantai Medical Centre, Raja suggested to Anwar to concentrate on work among the grassroots as a source of strength. I think he wanted to remind Anwar never to neglect the poor.)

Focal meeting point

After Melaka, he was transferred to the General Hospital in Kuala Lumpur where he lived in the nearby San Peng Flats. Abdullah Majid, Agoes Salim and I moved in to squat there. Raja made sure we lived in comfort and were well-fed. Oftentimes, I wondered whether he had enough sleep at all, especially when he was on call. He would be going in and out several times to the hospital the whole night. He was dedicated to his work and caring to patients. He continued to be so till late in his life.  

His spacious flat became a focal meeting point for all kinds of people on all kinds of occasions. His parents, Mr and Mrs Nair, her sister Sukumari and her husband B C Sekhar always dropped by. There were frequent visits by his old university peers and club colleagues from Singapore like Poh Soo Kai and Lim Hock Siew, with their wives, particularly when they went for holidays to Cameron Highlands or elsewhere.

Often, we were joined by our friends living in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. Among them were Dr Ungku Omar, P Arudsothy, Kassim Ahmad, David Chai and Dr S S Gill. We enjoyed sitting around the dining table, talking about all kinds of things, exchanging views on international affairs and discussing local politics. These were interspersed with hearty laughs at jokes cracked. We felt like a big family, closely tied together by common ideas and ideals. Raja would inevitably emerge, leading the informal discussions, providing incisive comments and interesting views.    

During parliamentary sittings, a number of Socialist Front (SF) MPs such as Lim Kean Siew, V David and Veerapan gathered in the flat for what often turned out to be almost like pre-council meetings. Tan Kai Hee joined us when he was not busy going around the country. We discussed and prepared questions and speeches for parliament. Tan Chee Khoon seldom came. He used to invite his close friends and some Labour Party (LPM) leaders to his house for weekly discussions. Raja and I were often invited to join them.

When the Utusan Melayu strike took place in 1961, its leaders, who included senior members of the editorial staff like Said Zahari, Usman Awang, Tajudin Kahar, Salim Kajai and Samani Amin quite often came for lunch or tea. Raja made sure they were treated to tasty Indian cuisine prepared by Ali, his cook who was well trained by his mother, an accomplished cook herself. At the same time, Raja allowed them to take limited provisions from the shop that supplied him with groceries.

He was ever charitable. I remember one day he received from the government a cheque worth about a thousand ringgit, which was quite a big amount then. Even before he could think of what to do with it, I asked him if he would contribute some to Ahmad Boestamam, who had just been released from ISA detention and needed some money. To my surprise and joy, Raja asked me to give him the whole amount, although his own income was just a pittance. No wonder he had only a few shirts and trousers in the cupboard and the same old pair of shoes to wear.  

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After he left government service, he opened a private practice in Klang. Later he moved his clinic to a low- cost flat in Jalan Loke Yew. Raja was always obsessed with the idea of helping the poor and that was exactly what he did from his Klinik Rakyat there. The majority of his patients came from among the flat occupants, with some being evicted slum dwellers and displaced peasants. He hardly charged them anything. In fact, he did not even charge me and my family after I was asked to leave UM as lecturer in 1990 being elected Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) President.

Full-time politics and ISA arrest

Raja was involved almost full-time in politics as Assistant Secretary General of LPM and SF. Later he became Selangor State Chairman and acting National Chairman of the LPM. Before the 1959 elections, he was most active doing behind-the-scenes negotiations to forge an electoral understanding between the SF, Pas (Parti Islam) and the United Democratic Party (UDP). His main counterparts in these negotiations were Zulkifli Mohamad and Lim Chong Eu. Their realistic approach and political astuteness impressed him.  

At the same time, we were holding meetings to attract two Umno ministers who had sour relations with Tunku Abdul Rahman. Aziz Ishak duly left Umno with his followers, Datuk Kampo Rajo and Dahari Ali. They later formed the National Convention Party (NCP), which I was persuaded, by Raja and Boestamam as well as Aziz, to help in establishing. But Sardon Jubir backed out at the last moment. Soon the NCP merged with the SF.

On 11 June 1965, Raja was arrested under the ISA and incarcerated in Batu Gajah for about two years. The police branded him as pro-communist and the theoretician of the LPM. In detention, he grew close to Dr Burhanuddin Helmy, who was also detained there. According to Raja, he learnt a lot from the good doctor about the genuine Malay nationalist movement and Islam. He always regretted not having the facilities to take notes.

Raja was concerned about the acute ethnic tension that was developing during the campaign for the 1969 general elections. As usual, he dreamed about national unity and the creation of a Malaysian nation. A day before the communal eruption and carnage of 13 May 1969, he dispatched an urgent note to Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein (who was also Home Minister then) , requesting him to do something to avoid a racial conflict. He also quickly sent a clear directive to all LPM members, which was broadcast by Radio Malaya, not to be involved in any racial confrontation and to understand who their real enemies were.

While his political activities were reduced, Raja became increasingly active for a number of years as an elected Alumni representative in the University of Malaya Council. He was well-known and respected as a dedicated and conscientious member. He showed concern not only for the welfare of students and staff but also the general academic standards of the university. He thought seriously about student intake and made proposals to the council and the Education Ministry on how to increase the number of Malay students. He was worried about the ethnic imbalance existing in the institutions of higher learning which, he felt strongly, should be corrected. But his good services ended with the amendment to the University and University Colleges Act in 1975 which  abolished the election of Alumni representatives.

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After the LPM decided to “pull down its shutters” following mass arrests of its key leaders and the banning of some branches, Raja turned his energy and attention to the profession he loved. He became the President of the Malaysian Medical Association (1979-80). During his tenure he published a report The Future of Health Services in Malaysia, which provided a comprehensive picture of the health situation in the country and recommendations for its improvement. He was also President of the Malaysian Scientific Association (1981-83).

Health care for the poor

Later, from 1986 to 1989, he served as President of the World Organisation of Family Doctors (WONCA). He was invited to deliver lectures in many countries, especially on healthcare for the poor. His views and advice were constantly sought by some senior officials in the Health Ministry on different issues relating to rural health care and health insurance. But many of them were not adopted by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. He also served as an advisor to China on rural healthcare. It appeared he was better appreciated there.

Raja wrote many articles, some of which were compiled into a book, Family Medicine, Healthcare & Society, which was launched recently. His writings demonstrate clearly his deep concern for providing cheap but good medical service to the poor. He argued that medicine has become too expensive, especially after the human organs have been divided up and deemed to require specialist treatment at exorbitant fees. For him, the family approach and looking at the welfare of the human person as a whole in the context of a more just social environment would ensure better and cheaper healthcare services.

Many universities locally and overseas offered professorial positions to Raja. But he decided to remain in his clinic to serve the people. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad once nominated Raja for one of the country’s honorific titles. It seemed the Prime Minister’s wife conveyed the message that her husband was disappointed, if not angry, because Raja did not accept it. Raja sought no official position or recognition. Right to the end, he remained a modest and simple man, committed to his ideas and ideals of helping the poor and creating a united Malaysian nation.

A great man has passed away. He was a genuine Malaysian, a true patriot, a selfless leader and a public intellectual par excellence. I have the fullest admiration for him. He deserves to be regarded as the best role model for Malaysians, especially the youths of today.

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