A passionate commitment to equity and social justice

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The abolition  of the ISA will be the most meaningful tribute to the late Dr M K Rajakumar and other ISA detainees, past and present, says Dr Ronnie McCoy.

With the passing of Rajakumar, Malaysia has lost a true patriot who loved his country and all its people. The medical profession has lost a dedicated family physician, committed to equity and universal health care. His family has lost a tower of strength and love. His friends are bereft.

Rajan and I were contemporaries at the University of Malaya in the early 1950s. I was into sports and student union affairs. Rajan was into breathing exercises for his asthma and serious student politics. I was elected to the Students’ Council in my first year and Rajan was notionally elected to the anti-colonial revolutionary student group, which included many mutual friends – James Puthu-cheary, Lim Hock Siew, Poh Soo Kai, Sidney Woodhull, Dollah Majid, Low Wah Lean, Wang Gungwu, Philomen Oorjitham, Arudsothy.

Rajan read widely and relentlessly. Although I share a birthday with Karl Marx, Rajan had read The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital long before I read the latter in 1956, purchased at a second-hand bookshop in Calcutta, while my mother was being treated for cancer.

It was not long after the foundation of the University of Malaya in 1949 that a group of students formed the University Socialist Club, which produced a student publication called Fajar. Rajan was its editor. Fajar passionately called for the end of British colonial rule and made the case for full independence for Malaya and Singapore.

It was the Japanese occupation of Malaya and Singapore and the post-war liberation movements in China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam that had radicalised many young Malayans and Singaporeans and ignited the freedom movement that would eventually lead to independence for Malaya and Singapore.

The Fajar group, as they came to be known, were arrested in 1954 by the British colonial government in Singapore and charged with sedition. I remember cutting lectures to follow the proceedings in court, where they were defended by Queen’s Counsel D N Pritt, assisted by a young lawyer called Lee Kuan Yew. The eight students were acquitted.

But subsequently, many of these good men were arrested at different times under the Internal Security Act and detained for varying lengths of time. St John’s Island, Changi and Kamunting are names that will long be remembered, like Robben’s Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.

The idea of a multicultural, multiracial Malayan nation appealed to many of us. In 1948, the Raffles College Debating Society debated the motion that “The Intermarriage between the Different Races of Malaya is essential in order to produce True Malayans”. James Puthucheary, J T Christie and Hedwig Aroozoo spoke fervently for the motion, but lost it to the East-West Society by 77 to 94 votes. Both James and Hedwig were evidently carried away by their own arguments, as Mavis and Anuar, their respective spouses, will testify. Although Rajan and I were not at the debate, we were later carried away too!

Never give up trying

Malaya’s independence came soon after we graduated. Together with Tan Chee Khoon, we joined the Labour Party, which later coalesced with Parti Rakyat to form the Socialist Front. While I attended Labour Party meetings and lent my car during elections to transport voters to polling stations, Rajan was the Labour Party’s ideologue and Assistant Secretary-General. He eventually paid the price and was detained in Kamunting from 1965 to 1967. The ISA was freely used to detain without trial members of the Labour Party and the party gradually disintegrated.  

Life is an unbroken succession of experiences from which one learns and discerns the path to the future. The threat that one can be deprived of liberty indefinitely without being charged and tried in a court of law must leave scars. After the indignities of Kamunting, Rajan decided to devote his intellectual vigour to medicine and focused on primary health care, as a way of living up to his passionate commitment to equity and social justice. As presidents of the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA), Rajan and I chaired two MMA committees on health reforms and universal health care, based on primary care and national health financing. Both reports continue to languish in government files, while health care costs rise and exclude the poor from quality health care.

We also worked together in the worldwide physicians’ movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons, spearheaded by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). When I initiated the formation of the Malaysian affiliate in 1986, I had Rajan’s full support, although he had concluded that it would not attract the support of Malaysian doctors, having attended an IPPNW world congress two years earlier. In a way he was right, but later agreed that the Malaysian affiliate had influenced and strengthened the Malaysian government’s commitment to nuclear abolition.

It would appear that neither of us will see a health system with affordable, equitable, universal health care in Malaysia nor see a world free of nuclear weapons. But some changes take a very long time to bring about. The challenge is to never give up trying because all human problems have human solutions, given the political will.

The government, which has been in power for 51 years, continues to use the ISA to weaken and destroy the opposition. I recommend for your reading the six consecutive articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 6 to 11, which are devoted to the vital question of the rule of just law. According to it, all are entitled to equal protection of the law and no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. Everyone is presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law and is entitled to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial court of law.  

The ISA is a complete violation of human rights and must be abolished. Its abolition will be the most meaningful tribute to Rajakumar and other ISA detainees, past and present.  

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