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Champion of the downtrodden

From village hero, V David rose to become a pillar of the Malaysian workers’ movement

by K George
Aliran Monthly Vol 25 (2005): Issue 6

vdavid (10K)
start_quote (1K)All his life he committed himself to the struggle for workers’ rights, social justice, freedom and democracy.
end_quote (1K)
K George

Born on 26 August 1932 in a squatter settlement at the 3rd mile, Klang Road, Kuala Lumpur, V David started his life in abject poverty. His father, S Vethamuthu, had a small farm and a herd of cattle for survival. As he grew older, David had to help his father by going to houses around the area delivering milk daily. Despite this, he managed to complete his Senior Cambridge. As the years rolled by, his mother became a widow, burdened with the task of bringing up her only son.

Under the circumstances, it was only natural that mother and son became inseparably close. Even after his mother’s demise, she remained close to his heart until the last day of his life. It is no exaggeration to say that David used to visit his mother’s grave very often — not only every year on the occasion of her birthday, death anniversary, etc but whenever he stood for election, started a union, contested for leadership position and even before embarking on other important event. To him, she was a saint whose blessing he sought before undertaking any venture.

In 1954, he enrolled with the University of Louisville, Kentucky, USA for a course in Economics, Political Science and Industrial Relations. At the same time, he also attended a course on Labour Unions organised by the AFL-CIO, the American National Trade Union Centre. Even when he was deeply involved in trade union and political activities, he continued his tertiary education. In 1980, he obtained a Masters in Commerce degree from the University of New Delhi. A few years later his thesis on international relations was accepted by Pacific Western University, California, USA, which awarded him a doctorate.

Compassion for the downtrodden

Even when David was in his teens, he was a hero in his village. The villagers often sought his advice and guidance. David’s compassion for the poor and downtrodden was natural, simply because of the condition in which he grew up. His first venture in 1953 was to form a trade union known as the Selangor Mill Workers Union (SMWU), which integrated with the Selangor Factory Workers Union. In 1955, the union’s name was changed to the National Union of Factory and General Workers (NUFGW). It was one of the “General Unions” that was recognised by the British colonial rulers.

On 31 August 1957, Malaya became independent. The NUFGW became so strong and popular under the leadership of the youthful V David that even the workers in the plantation industry preferred to be members of the new union. The Alliance government of independent Malaya detained David and amended the labour law to ensure the automatic deregistration of all existing general unions at that time. Since then, our 'democratic' government has never granted registration of general unions! David was subsequently released.

He became even more popular - loved by the working masses and disliked by the capitalists. Soon, he was approached by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) to be its executive secretary. He travelled by truck and enrolled thousands and thousands of workers in the transport industry. Soon he was elected the General Secretary of the TWU and held on to that position unchallenged even after he had suffered two strokes.

Youngest MP at 26

In the 1959 General Election, David, already a member of the Labour Party, which formed a coalition with other opposition parties known as the Socialist Front, contested and won, becoming a Member of Parliament for Bangsar as well as Selangor State Assembly member. At 26, he was the youngest Member of Parliament – bold, vigorous and committed.

By mid 1960s, the registration of the Labour Party was cancelled. Its leaders like Dr Tan Chee Khoon, Veerappan, Tan Pock Kin, David and others decided to seek the registration of another party. I was then the General Secretary of the Federation of Armed Forces Civilian Staff Union as well as Vice-President of the MTUC and of CUEPACS. Like David, I too believed that trade unions had to involve themselves in politics. It was not an unusual phenomenon but a fact that was visible all over the world.

I was invited by the group to join and help with the formation of Gerakan. It was during this period that I grew closer to David. I am proud to claim that both of us knew what poverty was and that our commitment to struggle for the welfare of workers became a passion. David stood on a Gerakan ticket in the General Elections in 1969 and was elected to Parliament as MP for Datuk Keramat in Penang. However, being a civil servant and father of three young children, I decided to carry on with my job and union activity.

Gerakan became a very popular party and received multiracial support. In the May 1969 General Election, the party captured the state of Penang and formed the government with Dr Lim Chong Eu as Chief Minister. But within two years, it was embroiled in a leadership crisis, resulting in Dr Lim taking full control of Gerakan. Professor Alatas, Dr Tan Chee Khoon, David and other leaders left Gerakan and formed Pekemas, which contested in the 1974 General Election. Out of over 90 candidates, only Dr Tan Chee Khoon retained his seat as the MP for Kepong constituency. Pekemas did not last long. Subsequently, David joined the DAP.

He was elected to parliament on the DAP ticket in 1978 for Damansara and was successfully returned in 1986 and 1990 for Puchong. But in 1995, David did not contest because of health reasons.

Indomitable spirit

While holding the post of TWU General Secretary, he represented the union in the Executive Council and the Working Committee of the MTUC. He was elected as one of its Vice-Presidents in 1971 - a position he held until 1976. Two years later, he was elected the Secretary General of the MTUC. In 1979, he was elected to the governing body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). He held on to this prestigious position and the post of Secretary General of the MTUC until 1992.
Apart from the above positions, he was also a Council Member of the International Transport Federation and President of the World Tamil Federation for some time.

David became the “guest” of the government for the fourth time in October 1987 along with 105 others - innocent victims of Operation Lalang under the obnoxious Internal Security Act. This time he had to spend 222 days in the Kamunting Detention Camp. It could not break his indomitable spirit which remained intact. All his life he committed himself to the struggle for workers’ rights, social justice, freedom and democracy. He had been a persistent critic of the government’s capitalistic policies and its unjust refusal to grant citizenship to the Indian plantation workers who were born in this country in spite of their pioneering economic contribution to this nation.

In his final three years, he became bed-ridden. His wife, Grace Sivapakiam, took special care of her husband until the last day on July 10, 2005. Their only son, Norman David 22, who is studying medicine in Bangalore, India, was present at the time of his father’s demise.

V David will be remembered as a pillar of the Malaysian workers’ movement for many years to come. His memory will be cherished and recalled with fondness as someone who had given his best for the workers and who had sacrificed the best part of his life in the struggle to uplift the poor and the downtrodden.

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