By Lilianne and Pauline Fan
On 12 May this year, our late father, Fan Yew Teng, would have celebrated his 72nd birthday. As we remembered Papa and celebrated his life, we were also deeply moved to witness the ways in which Papa continues to be honoured, both in Malaysia and beyond.
Just a few months ago, on one February morning, we woke up to the news that Papa had been named as moral hero by the Moral Heroes initiative, an international archive of inspirational men and women who have intentionally and consistently made sacrifices for the betterment of others.
Papa was honoured for living “a life that empowered others through knowledge, inspired them through his action, and led them with boldness and humility when asked”.
This great honour was even more meaningful to our family because it was completely unexpected and unsolicited. Papa, a selfless and deeply humble man, had shunned titles and awards throughout his life.
Once, more than ten years ago, when Papa was asked by some well-positioned friends if he would like to have his name nominated for a Datuk-ship, he not only refused but even shuddered at the thought.
For Papa it was a simply matter of principle. He wanted no part in any system of patronage of any kind whatsoever. He also felt strongly that no recognition was needed simply for being a citizen with a conscience, a patriot with a passion for justice, equality and freedom. These, in Papa’s eyes, were part of his duty as a Malaysian citizen and as a human being.
It was indeed his principles and his passion that defined the shape of Papa’s life. Papa also believed that principles had to be practiced and passions cultivated in daily life. For Papa, living a principled life was the first step to self-respect, and living with passion the only way to self-realisation.
Prior to his involvement in party politics, Papa had been actively engaged in the National Union of Teachers. In the late 1960s, he was appointed as the editor of the NUTP’s (National Union of the Teaching Profession) organ ‘The Educator’, where he launched staunch and sharp criticism against the government, particularly against the then Education Minister.
He also co-organised the 1967 nationwide teacher’s strike, which helped to bring about equal pay for women, as well as pension, housing and health benefits for all teachers. Due to his leadership in the NUTP he was sent off from Kuala Lumpur to schools in rural areas like Kuala Lipis and Temerloh, Pahang.
Papa joined the Democratic Action Party in 1969, upon the invitation of Lim Kit Siang.
In their shared vision of Malaysian society – where all citizens could realize their aspirations equally regardless of race and religion, and where national institutions would govern without fear or favour – Papa found true comradeship and solidarity.
Together with the pioneering DAP leaders, particularly Lim Kit Siang, Chen Man Hin and Karpal Singh, Papa dedicated his life to fighting for a free, just and democratic Malaysia.
In the 1969 general elections, Papa stood for and won the Kampar parliamentary seat. While Lim Kit Siang was in detention under the Internal Security Act (1969-71), Papa served as Acting Secretary-General for the party, and fended off overtures from Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak inviting DAP to join the ruling Alliance coalition.
In the 1974 general elections, Papa daringly took on PPP founding president SP Seenivasagam in Menglembu parliamentary seat and unionist and former MTUC secretary-general, the late V. David in the Petaling Jaya state seat. Papa won both seats, and came to be known as a ‘giant slayer’. Papa was also famed for his firebrand oratory style, which stayed with him even after his engagement with formal politics.
In 1970 Papa was charged under the Sedition Act for publishing, as editor of DAP’s party organ The Rocket, a speech on racial equality by Dr. Ooi Kee Saik, then Penang DAP Chairman. The trial dragged on for years, and Papa was eventually convicted for sedition in 1975.
He was then disqualified from Parliament and denied all MP privileges, including his pension. Papa left the DAP over differences in 1978 to join Social Democratic Party (SDP) and to devote himself to writing and activism.
He rejoined the DAP in 1998, during the transformative period of Reformasi in Malaysia. Throughout his life, he continued to write prolifically on political and social issues and campaign for human rights and the cause of justice.
His books include ‘If We Love This Country’ (1988), ‘Oppressors and Apologists’ (1988), ‘The UMNO Drama: Power Struggles in Malaysia’ (1989), ‘The Rape of Law’ (1990), and ‘Anwar Saga: Malaysia on Trial’ (1999). He also co-authored, with A. Rajaguru, ‘The Neverending Quest: The teachers’ struggle for dignity and excellence’ (1994).
In his years as an MP and through his activism with organisations such as SUARAM (which he co-founded along with other veteran activists) and Cenpeace (which he founded and directed), Papa dedicated himself to bridging diverse communities, as well as defending the rights of the individual in the face of power.
He always used his actions, his voice and his words to shine a light on the lives, struggles and hopes of ordinary people, in Malaysia and around the world.
Above all, Papa upheld the principle of human freedom – freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of association, the freedom to dream. Papa understood freedom in same terms as the great Indian thinker and educator Jiddhu Krishnamurti, who famously wrote that “freedom…is that state of mind which is essential for the discovery of any truth, any reality, therefore it cannot be an ideal; it must exist right from the beginning.”
Indeed, freedom, for Papa, was not something to be achieved at the end of a journey, but a fundamental principle that made all journeys possible. The remarkable journeys of Papa’s life are testament to just how worthwhile that commitment is. -The Rocket