By Raymond Chong
A founding pioneer and party leader, former DAP Perak State Chairman, and elected lawmaker shares his first hand account of the milestone moments in history including May 13 and Operasi Lalang. Lau Dak Kee reflects about the early days of DAP’s founding, as an important historical reference about its growth and maturity until today.
“I’ll live as a DAP man, and die with a DAP soul” is his famous phrase. It sounds like a glib saying, but for a man who was with the party since its inception and stayed loyal through its difficult days, Lau Dak Kee has proven that he is a party man through and through.
The former DAP Perak State Chairman Lau is a two term MP and three term State Assemblyman who spent most of his political career in Perak, although he was not originally from the silver state.
He was born in 1943 in Puchong, Selangor and studied in SRJK (C) Han Ming, SRJK (C) Sungai Wei, and SMK Confucian.
In 1962, the then 19-year-old Lau was exposed to left wing ideology through a series of rallies, forums, lecutres and books. It was a turbulent period as the newly independent Malaya was preparing to form Malaysia together with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore. The wave of nationalist ideology and anti-colonial revolution was sweeping across the land.
Lau’s first brush with social democratic ideology was from reading printed materials by Singapore’s PAP. In 1964, he was invited by the Sungai Wei Ketua Kampung to join the party, he accepted the invitation and also agreed to hold the post of branch secretary.
From the start, his political activities were opposed by his family, particularly his father, an MCA branch treasurer. The mother of Lau’s then-girlfriend was an MCA Wanita Chairperson, who warned her daughter against associating with Lau, predicting that he would be jailed for his political involvement.
Lau describes how his future father-in-law came to his house and shouted. He told me,
“I have eaten more salt than you have eaten rice. You must listen to your elders, joining DAP will bring you nowhere,” Lau recalls.
His refusal to back down led to quarrels with his future father-in-law, but the two love birds would not be spooked by parental disapproval. They chose to marry in the face of opposition and have remained married until today.
After joining the party, Lau had the chance to serve together with leaders such as Zain Azahari, Dr Too Chee Cheong and Lim Koon Jie. They travelled all over the country to form new branches, including in Singapore.
In 1965, Lau quit his job in a chemical factory to become the Organising Secretary for DAP Selangor Headquarters. On the night of 7 August, all Selangor DAP leaders were called for a impromptu meeting with Singapore Culture Minister Ong Pang Boon.
Zain Azahari, Dr Too Chee Cheong, Chan Kok Kit, Lim Koon Jie, and other leaders were present. This was when Ong made the grave announcement that Singapore would be leaving the federation of Malaysia the very next day.
The young Lau did not know where his future lay, nor what the cloud of political uncertainty would spell for the party and the two divided nations. He chose to remain in the Selangor Headquarters with his position.
Formation of DAP
People’s Action Party key leader and worker’s movement figure Devan Nair was the sole PAP representative in Parliament. After Singapore became an independent republic, Devan decided to register the Malaysian chapter of the PAP to continue its struggle.
However, since PAP was now a foreign entity, the Malaysian registrar of societies refused to allow its registration. The leaders opted to register as “Democratic Action Party” and on 18 March 1966, the party was formerly registered.
The party chose the rocket as its logo to differentiate itself from the PAP’s lightning symbol. The team that chose the rocket logo included Goh Hock Guan and Kerk Kim Hock.
“In the 1960s, the US and Russia were in a battle for aerospace domination known as the ‘space race’. The rocket was the latest development in technology and it symbolised progress. We chose the symbol and contested under the DAP’s rocket logo for the first time in the 1969 election.”
On Goh Hock Guan and May 13
Lau later became the political secretary to Goh Hock Guan. Goh was trained as an urban planner and owned his own firm.
“I got to know him while I was working in the headquarters. My first impression of him was that he was a ‘cili padi’, an intelligent and professional man. We got to know each other better and he appointed me as his political secretary. My role was to assist in his political work and planting new DAP branches.”
On 10 May 1969, the results of the general election were announced. DAP won 13 parliamentary seats and 31 state seats, becoming the biggest opposition party. Goh Hock Guan was elected MP for Bangsar.
“On the morning of 13 May, I followed Goh Hock Guan to visit Bukit Bintang Pasar. It was a normal day and we were not affected. It was only later that we learnt of the racial riots that had taken place.”
“Malaysia declared a state of Emergency after the May 13 incident. I continued to work for the party and received instructions from Goh Hock Guan in his bungalow in Bukit Gasing.
“Based on my observation, Goh knew a lot of insider news. He even knew when he was on the government’s wanted list (of arrests). I suspected that his neighbour, a high-ranking police officer, was tipping him off.”
“A few weeks after his name was on the wanted list, Goh left Malaysia. Although I was his political secretary, but I did not know about this. After leaving Malaysia, Goh visited various governments of European nations and nations with close diplomatic ties with Malaysia, to put pressure on the Alliance government to release Lim Kit Siang.”
Together with his neighbours, Lau organised a neighbourhood watch in his Sungai Way housing area. They patrolled the area, carrying buckets to sound warning signals in case of any emergency.
At that time Sungai Way was mainly chinese, with a few Malay families. Thankfully, no untoward incidents took place during the neighbourhood patrols. A week later, Lau was detained by plainclothes policemen during one of the patrols, but was released after a week of interrogation.
“When the government crackdown started, many of our comrades chose to go to Singapore to escape, some even chose to settle down and migrate.”
In 1972 Hulu Selangor MP and MCA former Deputy President Khaw Kai Boh passed away. Lau got his first foray into politics when he was fielded in the Hulu Selangor by-election, pitted against MCA’s Michael Chen Wing Sum.
At that time, cars were rare. Their campaign was conducted mostly by foot or on motorcycle. The constituency was about 60km from north to south, Lau covered about 100km during his door-to-door campaign. He lost 50 pounds after the by-election.
“We both ran a clean campaign. There were no personal attacks, it was all about the principles and policies that the two parties stood for. In the end, I won with a majority of over five thousand. I remained political secretary, while Chen joined the cabinet.
Lau ran again in 1974 in the Bentong Parliament seat against MCA’s Chan Siang Sun, who had won the same seat unopposed in 1969. In a three cornered fight against Parti Rakyat’s Saleh Abdul Rashid, Lau’s lack of resources and manpower stood in the way of a win.
After the election Lau became DAP Pahang advisor and oversaw party activities to strengthen the grassroots and state machinery. In 1978 Lau stood in Bentong once again but coult not defeat Chan Siang Sun. Thereafter, Lau decided to take a break from active politics and to focus on his business activities.
Staging a comeback
By 1982, Lau had climbed the corporate ladder and was now the Managing Director of a company. Just before the elections, he received a call from Lim Kit Siang, who told him, “Dak Kee, your vacation is over.”
As a non-Perak native, Lau was not bound to the local factions. His language skills were prized as he spoke fluent cantonese, hakka, hokkien, and other dialects.
That eventful phone call summoned Lau to run for office again, this time in Menglembu, Perak. Determined not to held back by resources, he sold his company shares to raise funds for the campaign.
Menglembu was promising seat which DAP had won in the 1978 election. But the political scenario was not favorable in 1982. The people were fed up with the state DAP’s squabbling and internal disputes. At the same time Chinese education group Dong Jiao Zong was pushing for a three-pronged unity solution involving chinese-based political parties within BN and the opposition, as well as chinese organisations.
Gerakan chose to join BN in an attempt to reform BN, and be a voice for mother tongue education within the government. Given the political climate, the battle shifted from being “DAP vs BN” to “DAP vs Dong Jiao Zong”.
When the results were announced on 22 April, DAP lost badly and so did Lau. All the other DAP MP candidates for Perak were also defeated.
Despite the defeat, Lau did not give up on the party. He continued to work for DAP Perak and re-organised the branches. Six month’s later, a by-election arose in Kepayang, it was an important opportunity to boost party morale particularly leading up the the party elections.
Lau was called upon to stand in Kepayang against the then MCA youth chief. He recalls that at the time, DAP was not very well received by the public, the squabbling factions had made the public upset.
“When I was campaigning in the market, some pork sellers saw me from afar and purposely dirtied their hands with innards and pig blood before I shook their hands. What’s the big deal? I shook their hands anyway,” Lau related.
The Kepayang by-election marked DAP’s first national declaration, the Kepayang Declaration which rejected the idea of a Malaysia of ‘one language and one culture’. The Declaration helped forge unity and push the party to rise from the ashes of defeat. With the Declaration, DAP managed to claim the moral high ground and regain the people’s trust.
On 16 October, Lau was announced the winner in the Kapar by-election, beating his opponent by a majority of 9,764. It was his first victory in over 20 years. -The Rocket