Committed to the cause

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The late Dr Rajakumar believed that a society based on justice and solidarity is possible, says Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj in a tribute to the former Labour Party leader. 

I first met Sdr Dr Rajakumar in 1979 as a member of a group of medical students who met up with him for a discussion. He was then the President of the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA). What struck me then was his energy and enthusiasm. He challenged us to visit rural areas to understand the problems faced by the ordinary people living in kampungs. “How can you be good doctors if you do not understand the background and the problems of the rural people?” he asked us. “A good doctor must be an advocate for the poor!”

At that time I did not know of his previous history of struggle and sacrifice – given the almost complete blackout of the struggle of the radical nationalists and socialists in our local media and history books. It was only much later that I learnt that he had been the editor of “Fajar”, a radical student newsletter produced by the Socialist Club of University Malaya (based in Singapore then). Fajar argued strongly for the eviction of the British colonialists and full Independence for Malaya and Singapore. That was in 1953. The following year, Rajakumar and his group were charged with sedition, arrested and put on trial. The “Fajar Eight” was acquitted and the trial brought them into the public eye. Also gaining publicity and political mileage was Lee Kuan Yew, who assisted Queen’s Counsel, D.N. Pritt, on the defence team. Lee Kuan Yew had originally volunteered to represent the “Fajar Eight”, but when D.N. Pritt offered his services pro bono, Lee fell into the role of assistant. As a result of the contact made in the course of the trial, Rajakumar and some of the Socialist Club members became involved in discussions with Lee Kuan Yew on the formation of the People’s Action Party (PAP).

When Rajakumar returned to Malaya as a doctor he became involved in the Socialist Front (a coalition of the Party Rakyat Malaya and the Labour Party) which was then a potent force in Malayan politics with Ahmad Boestamam as the Opposition Leader in Parliament and good representation in Local Councils (at that time elected) in many towns and new villages in the west coast of Malaya. He joined the Labour Party and in the mid-1960s was the defacto leader of the party as its Assistant Secretary General because the rest of leadership had been detained under the ISA. It was a very difficult period. “We stopped nominating chairpersons for our branches in KL because the Special Branch would pick them up within a week,” he once remarked to me. It wasn’t long before Rajakumar was himself picked up by the SB and detained under the ISA from 1966 to 1969.

Difficult period

When he emerged from ISA detention, the political situation had changed drastically. Massive, sustained and often brutal repression which saw several thousand leaders and supporters of the Socialist Front detained under the ISA in the 1960s led to disillusionment with the electoral process. Some comrades took the decision to join the underground, others opted to lie low. The Labour Party disintegrated and disappeared from the political arena. Parti Rakyat soldiered on only to see a large numbers of its activists and leaders detained under the ISA following the Baling demonstrations in 1974.

In this very difficult period for the Malaysian Left, Rajakumar immersed himself in MMA activities. He spearheaded the MMA review of the Malaysian health care system, which was carried out in the late 1970s. This comprehensive report emphasises the concepts of social solidarity and health for all irrespective of social class and geographical location. This approach has remained the formal position of the MMA until today. He set up the Malaysian chapter of “Physicians Against Nuclear War” as a section within the MMA, together with Dr Ronnie McCoy, a close associate, who later became the president of the international federation, the parent body. Rajakumar also worked to improve the standard of General Practice in Malaysia and was instrumental in the setting up of the Academy of General Practitioners which now runs courses for GPs all over the country.

Inspiring example

I last met Sdr Rajakumar three months ago. After several false starts, we finally met for lunch. Though he was then still recuperating from a bad bout of pneumonia, he was as enthusiastic as ever. “After 40 years we finally have a voice in Parliament…. You have an important role in showing that our ideas are still relevant…. Do not neglect grassroots work. You must keep meeting the ordinary people so that you can speak for them… Build the party. A good cadre is worth his weight in gold.”

I told him of my intention to publish a book comprising papers and essays that I had written for various seminars and PSM congresses over the past 6 years, and asked him if he could write the foreword. He said he would be happy to do so, and I later sent a copy of the intended book to him. I do not think he had the time to pen that foreword.

The task of ending colonialism and of reconstructing countries on the basis of justice, democracy and solidarity has yet to be completed. We have achieved formal political independence but remain economically subservient to the Imperial Centre, slavishly dependent on FDI to the extent we are prepared to impoverish our own workers! We have grown our economy but the divide between the very rich and the bottom 60 per cent of the population is getting wider, and this is manifesting itself in a rash of social ills from “Mat Rempitism” to child abuse. Despite 51 years of independence, we have made very little progress towards building inter-racial understanding and solidarity.

As we embark on the complex tasks that lie ahead, we can take heart and derive inspiration from the example and sacrifices of Rajakumar and the thousands of other Malaysians who remained true to their principles in very trying times, who believed that a society based on justice and solidarity is possible, and who did not ever “bend their knee before the insolence of power and wealth”!

Farewell Sdr Rajakumar. We will continue with the work of fleshing out the vision of a better society that we share!

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