The passing of a mighty man

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It was because men like the late Dr M K Rajakumar kept the opposition flame of high ideals burning even through the darkest hours that the present opposition is able to reap the benefits, says Tan Poh Lai.

On 23 November, when I saw Dr Rajakumar’s obituaries in the papers, a great sadness came over me. The first thought that came to my mind was there are only a few sons of Malaysia who have walked the face of this earth that are as good and gentle as Dr Rajakumar. I immediately cut out the obituaries and showed them to my children, telling them that a dear friend of their Kong Kong (grandfather) had passed away.

Throughout my childhood I knew that Dr Rajakumar was a close friend of the family. Being the youngest of six siblings I was often regarded as a baby and not taken seriously; so I only knew Dr Rajakumar by name and had barely spoken to him.

But in 1996, when my father Dr Tan Chee Khoon passed away, I came to know him much better. He was one of my father’s pall bearers along with Mr Tan Kai Hee and others. It was only fitting that these comrades, whom I nicknamed “mighty men”, who had struggled together for so long for a better Malaysia, should be the ones to carry his coffin to the grave. They belonged to a different era where they fought, first through the Labour Party then later through other vehicles for a more just Malaysia. Although my father became a Member of Parliament and later became known as “Mr. Opposition”, Dr Rajakumar never won any seat despite being a candidate in many elections. He made no mention of hardship although he had been detained under the ISA for years.

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On the morning of my father’s funeral, Dr Rajakumar was one of the first to arrive at my house. He was very emotional. He took a walk alone in the garden. He told me that the reason why he did not visit my father more often during the last three years that my father was totally paralysed and unable to speak or swallow was that it took him days to get over such a visit. It affected him greatly to see such a previously active man suffer in that immobilised state.  

Over the few months after my father’s death, I was in constant contact with Dr Rajakumar as we jointly organised a memorial for my father. I realised that the kindred spirit between them, borne of high and lofty ideals, was so strong they could be described as soul-mates. These mighty men of high ideals spared nothing in their struggle for a better Malaysia.

Nowadays, it is often either the rich or powerful who receive recognition in this world. Dr Rajakumar was neither rich nor did he hold any political office, although his political struggle for human rights and the ethics of justice and integrity in public life spanned many decades.  But unlike my father he lived to see the reality of 8 March 2008, when the opposition made great gains.

A major factor that led to this resounding opposition victory was the absence of three-cornered fights. For decades, men like my father and Dr Rajakumar had valiantly fought for a united opposition with straight fights in the elections but they seldom succeeded. They were unable to see the fruits of their labour but it was because they kept the flame of the high ideals of the opposition burning even through the darkest hours that the present opposition is able to reap the benefits.

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Sometimes I wonder: what if opposition moderates like Dr Rajakumar, my father and other mighty men of high ideals were indeed able to hold office after 1969 and the Gerakan party had remained in the opposition after capturing Penang? I am sure they would have been great reformers even before the catch word “reformasi” was invented!

The current hot news is no doubt Barack Obama. It is said that he is a great orator. With due respect to President-elect Obama, in terms of oratory, Dr Rajakumar would win hands down. He was a master of words and used them effectively, with passion and conviction.

Dr Rajakumar walked the road less travelled like many of his opposition comrades. He shunned recognition. Once he told me that he had been offered a datukship for his services to the scientific community. He said, “What for – no need-lah!” My own father felt the same way, when he was offered the Tan Sri award, he said, “I’m already half a Tan Sri as my name is Tan – no need!” But later he did accept the award to lend credibility to the newspaper column which he wrote weekly. The group of people who are Tuns, Tan Sris, Datuks etc. indeed belong to an elite group.

But there is a far more elite group: those who do not seek a title but are offered one in recognition of the good work that they have done. But they refuse such an offer and prefer to remain as they are!  I count it such an honour to have known Dr Rajakumar. He is of an extinct species; however, to live in the hearts that you leave behind is not to die.

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