A series of motivating true stories that will inspire us in our journeys to age with love, purpose, hope and dignity.
Written by Tan Poh Lai (daughter)
This is a story of triumph over adversity. My Papa, despite formidable economic and physical odds, carved out a life of dignity. He was a farmer boy, born to a poor immigrant family in Malaysia. He lost one eye at 12 due to a horrific farming accident. From these humble beginnings, he journeyed to being conferred, decades later, the honorific “Tan Sri” title, which is the second most senior federal title in Malaysia.
The years in between were fraught with many ups and downs. Even qualifying as a medical doctor was laced with problems. He was nearly rejected from admission to medical school simply because of his perceived disability of having one blind eye! Indeed, his admission was only made possible by an impassioned plea from his school headmaster to the University of Malaya in Singapore. He never forgot this act of kindness and later established in his alma mater a scholarship in the name of his mother and a prize in the name of his headmaster. From very early days, he knew that the only way to overcome poverty and discrimination was through respect for human rights and education. He developed a passion for both and that became the foundation of his work. Further, his commitment to medicine also made him pioneer the Sentosa Medical Centre, one of Malaysia’s first private hospitals and the medical faculty of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
He saw politics and the church as a means of serving his nation and his community. He joined the Labour Party and became a Member of Parliament at the age of 45, in 1964 in a knife edge election, which he won by 2 votes. He was a vehement critic of the government and quickly became a household name, known throughout most of his active political life as Mr. Opposition. Unfortunately, the politics of that era were such that the entire leadership of the Labour Party was thrown in prison for opposition to the government. Well, nearly all of them except my father. Why was he left out? Perhaps it was because the government did not doubt that his criticism was constructive and he never engaging in personal attacks. His reputation of being a doctor to the poor, often giving free treatment to the needy, also helped in confirming that for my Papa, politics was not about power or money, but about principle and justice.
With the leadership behind bars, the Labour party disbanded, but he stayed on the political course, upholding the right to dissent, and formed another political party, the “Gerakan” Party. Despite its infancy, it made stunning gains in the 1969 Malaysian General Elections. The position of Deputy Chief Minister of the state of Selangor was dangled before him. For various reasons, he rejected it. Then, a Machiavellian betrayal led to the Gerakan Party joining the ruling coalition political party. So he left and picked himself up again and formed “Pekemas”, the Social Justice Party. Unfortunately, the strain of politics and serving others got the better of him and he suffered a stroke in his mid-fifties. This spelt the end of party politics for him, but when this door closed, a window opened.
In this next phase of life, he began to write. First a weekly column in The Star daily newspaper entitled “Without Fear or Favour”, which became, in the pre-internet age, one of the few public spaces for dissenting opinions. Then followed several books. He now had time to travel. Reading, always a passion, became all the more important. Military history, espionage, cricket and Middle East conflicts were his favourite subjects. He always had a book with him, sometimes four books on the go at any one time.
As a man who shunned recognition for himself and known to be anti-establishment, he was most surprised when he was awarded the honorific title of “Tan Sri” in 1981. A few years later, he was also conferred the title of “Datuk Sri” by the Sultan of Selangor.
Tragically, at the prime of his life while running a hospital, being a Member of Parliament and active in the church and numerous organisations, he suddenly became paralysed on the left side of his body. However, being indefatigable, he threw himself into physiotherapy to regain his mobility. His second career as a newspaper columnist and writer began after he had a stroke. He lived a life of a paraplegic for nearly 20 years but in his mid seventies, he was struck by a second stroke, which rendered him paralysed from neck down, with no ability to speak or swallow. After three and half years in this state, he passed away.
How would he like to be remembered?
Like many of his generation he believed that education would make a difference to lift people out of poverty. He eschewed narrow partisanship and racial politics instead held ideals in a multi-ethnic approach. He enjoyed the friendship of many and reciprocated by visiting his friends and colleagues when they were thrown behind bars under oppressive detention laws, and supporting their families. This, more than his achievements in the fields of politics, education and medicine, exemplified his life as a servant of the people.