No one is indispensable we often hear, but for PSM, Bala was indispensable, says Rani Rasiah in a tribute to the courageous lawyer.
Balasundram was stabbed to death on 16 November 2010. He is really, truly no more, but the mind refuses to register this unacceptable reality. That’s because he was so alive, bubbling with life, loud, boisterous. So many of us had seen him, or had a meal with him or got a call or a witty sms from him just in the 24 hours before his sudden and tragic death.
Just a day earlier, he had turned up at the Ipoh High Court as co-counsel with Vengkat, his soul buddy, to appeal the conviction of four activists, including Segar of Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), who had gathered with hundreds of others to demand the relocation of a rubber factory that was polluting Kuala Kuang New Village in Chemor.
Bala was involved in many legal battles fought between poor, oppressed communities on the one hand and developers or the government on the other. One day in March 1996, close to 200 villagers from Kg Chekkadi marched to the Buntong police station to make a few police reports against forced eviction. They ended up being arrested and detained; the presence of the FRU blew up the issue. Bala, who had not yet started legal practice in Ipoh then, turned up on his own accord to make a police report on the unlawful arrests. He didn’t know us then, but what he heard must have made him indignant enough to act. That was the Bala we got to know — he would “tremble indignation at every injustice” (Che Guevara’s words) and step in to play a role.
Since then, Alaigal first and then the PSM have virtually claimed Bala for our own, endlessly taking him away from his paying cases to do our pro-bono cases. He worked round the clock, giving his best, researching and scrutinising all aspects while preparing our cases.
Bala had no illusions about the Malaysian judiciary, and often complained about it. There were many “impossible” cases he fought for us. These were usually eviction cases brought about by or taken against the government, or plantation companies or developers.
- In 1999, he represented the Kg DBI villagers of Spooner Road at the Ipoh High Court and won an injunction against the mayor of Ipoh, compelling him to abide by the guidelines on the dismantling of asbestos material when demolishing the ex-workers’ houses.
- The Perak State Economic Development Corporation’s eviction case against Strathisla Estate workers fighting for alternative housing promised them by the plantation company Golden Hope.
- The Kg Sri Klebang residents’ suit against the government for illegally demolishing the homes they had built on land allocated to them.
- The case of the third-generation farmers of Tanah Hitam who were fighting a court decision in favour of a housing developer who was about to move in and evict the farmers from their highly productive farmland.
- The case of a small businessman facing eviction by rail conglomerate, MMC Gamuda.
- The Kg Pinang villagers’ case against developers trying to evict them.
- Numerous labour and industrial cases in which he openly made known his indignation at the many loopholes in the labour laws and the bias of officers from the related departments.
- He was also our counsel for the election petition filed by then Sg Siput parliamentary candidate, Jeyakumar Devaraj, challenging the 1999 general elections result for the Sg Siput constituency.
Bala was the de facto legal consultant for PSM and he and Vengkat formed a formidable team whom we could rely on for sound legal advice, able representation and free services. He was ever generous with his time, always ready to discuss and throw light on the many legal issues that cropped up in our work.
In all our cases, Bala’s standard advice was for us to keep up and carry on the fight on the ground while he took care of the court battles. He believed in people’s power and had little faith in the judiciary meteing out justice. His complementing of the ground battle with his competent legal representation helped win many victories for communities marginalised by development.
He was humble about his talents and scholarship and would appear in gatherings of the poor communities he was representing, just fitting in without fanfare.
No one is indispensable we often hear, but for the PSM and the marhaen, Bala was indispensable. And if not for the escalating lawlessness in this country, Bala would still be with us today. He had no known enemies, certainly no one he had harmed enough to pay with his life. If only more attention and resources were spent by the government on identifying and addressing the underlying causes of crime in the country, life and limb would have the value and sanctity it once had.
Bala’s family has lost a doting father, a beloved husband, a very dear son and an esteemed brother. Those who knew him have lost his valuable and selfless friendship. The PSM has lost a comrade in its struggle for a more just society. The working class and marhaen have lost a spirited fighter.
We deeply mourn our loss.
Rani Rasiah is deputy secretary general of the Socialist Party of Malaysia.