Bejalai – Journeying through life

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Andrew Aeria pays tribute to the late scholar-activist Khoo Khay Jin, a long-time friend and supporter of Aliran.

Walking in a western Penan rice farm in Long Urun, Upper Belaga.

And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly, to love mercy and
to walk humbly with your God.
– Micah 6:8

He was a passionate intellectual who worked easily with books, manuscripts, words, tables, charts and numbers – he read voraciously and thoughtfully. He listened easily to both classical and ethnic traditional music. He not only engaged but always cut right to the core of the argument, whether it was personal, local, regional, national, global or even celestial. He had very valuable and practical insights. He had a fearsome intelligence, was articulate and wrote brilliantly.

He had great personal and intellectual integrity. Unlike many others, he was straight as an arrow. He never bent the rules he set for himself nor did he violate much of any others set by agencies of the state. He had very high standards and lived by them.

He was a very unassuming person, even shy, who never sought any public limelight and indeed shunned it in favour of just being there, watching, listening, learning and contributing. He was a very humble person.

He was a very curious person who was always interested in things he was not aware about and who was always interested in re-examining things he knew about – over and over again. He always had a question and a puzzle about something that needed solving in his mind. Unlike many others, he never put “concluded or QED” to his thoughts and questions since he was always willing and indeed keen to understand the world in new ways.

He was an activist who hated injustice. He would get so angry about injustices that he would just write and write; not mere angry pieces but well-researched and thoughtful pieces (often published in Aliran Monthly) that targeted and challenged such blatant abuses of the dignity of others, their social, cultural and human rights. His scholarly work often became tools for other social activists and intellectuals to take the struggle forward.

He was a very patient teacher and mentor. He spent time with people, listening, learning, sharing his knowledge and insights with them. While his friendship was deeply beneficial to many, it was also quite frustrating because just when you thought you had mastered the issue or the discussion, he would move on and debunk it or raise the quality of the discussion to another level – which left you playing constant catch-up to Mr Khoo. He often surprised his colleagues and peers with detailed analyses of fairly obscure matters, and many felt it was so unequal since Khay Jin often put in much more efforts into communications and discussions than his peers. And even if you were wrong, he was generous and often gave you the benefit of your own doubt, many times over.

He was deeply devoted to Jane and very proud of Chen. And while he would never say it aloud for all to hear, his views about the two most important people in his life whom he loved with all his heart would occasionally emerge – most unexpectedly and endearingly – in the course of a conversation or on a journey somewhere.

Deep compassion for the poor

He had a really big heart. He was a very kind person, even gentle. He was a friend who cared. He had a deep compassion for the poor and the marginalised no matter who they were. Whether it was a stranger whom he encountered or a friend in need, whether it was the underpaid factory and migrant workers of Bayan Lepas, whether it was the Malay villagers of Balik Pulau, the Orang Asli of Tanjong Rambutan, the plantation workers of Sungai Siput, or the Penan of Ulu Belaga whom he often hosted in his own house when they came down to Kuching, he cared deeply for them. He valued them. He respected them, they who had no voice and who received no recognition from the rich, the great and the powerful. He was a social conscience for our society. He spoke up for them, championing their concerns.

And so today, Mr Khoo travels his final journey even though his work on behalf of the Penans remains unfinished. And yet, many of his friends there have resolved to continue the struggle for a better and just world for all.

So, I would like to allow the Penans of Sarawak, the community he was closest to over these last 15 years, and whose plight as a people he immersed himself into, to speak our words of farewell to Khoo.

Many of the Penan would have wanted to see him in person a final time but were unable to.

And so, on a Thank You card for the gift of Khoo Khay Jin, they wrote:
“Jian lakau lake Khoo, kauk tai manauk lakau ju ne ineh. Kauk sajak keningat amik avi siran siran. Piak tivai.”

Have a good journey Mr Khoo. You will go far away from us, we will remember you forever.

“Bakeh jau..!” Great and close friend.

Aliran executive committee member Dr Andrew Aeria, presented this eulogy at the funeral service for Khay Jin at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Penang on Christmas Eve, 2011.

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