The three passions of Fan Yew Teng

5 July, 2012

This speech was given at the book launch of ‘The Sweet Rebel: Remembering Fan Yew Teng’ on 2nd July 2012 at KL Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall.

by Ambiga Sreenevasan

By all accounts when God made Fan Yew Teng (or Uncle Fan), he broke the mould.

I did not have the honour of meeting Uncle Fan.  He was, like Lim Kit Siang, a warrior of justice whom I read about and admired from afar.  Often times they were lone warriors against a cruel and oppressive system.  As I grew up, I heard and read about these men and women admiring them but not always fully understanding their struggle.

Now I understand.

I understand what Uncle Fan meant when he said that this is a world with endless possibilities of freedom, to which most people remain blind.  I understand what he meant when he said that the world would be a better place if people would help to set each other free.  I understand.

I understand that it is up to those of us who have, to help those who have not and those of us who can, to help those of us who cannot.

Seeking these endless possibilities of freedom for his fellow man was Uncle Fan’s life mission.  His wife Noeleen Heyzer describes his life in the words of Bertrand Russell thus:-

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge and the unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind”.

In this book a fitting tribute to a great man, he is described by his friends in these terms : a legend, a patriot and humanist, the adventurer, the sweet rebel, a champion for freedom, a prince of the people, the educator, the principled politician, the patriot, the poet-philosopher and much more.  (I am reading the titles of each essay).  It shows you how different people defined him.  It is really a testament both to his strengths and to the number of lives that he touched.

Fan Yew Teng was described as someone who would give his last dollar to the poor and needy.  He was a fiery orator who used his eloquence in the service of those who were oppressed and downtrodden.  A man of principle, he walked his own path.  He became active in the National Union of Teachers and was an organiser of the 1967 nation-wide teachers strike demanding fairer wages and gender equality.  Naturally as befalls one who fights the system, Fan Yew Teng Uncle Fan  faced the full force of the State which attempted to quell his spirit.  As a result of these activities, he was transferred to remote towns and villages to teach but this only strengthened his determination.  In 1969 he was elected Member of Parliament for Kampar and he stepped in as Acting Secretary General of the DAP when Lim Kit Siang was detained under the Internal Security Act.

He was charged under the Sedition Act for publishing a speech in the Rocket by then DAP Penang Chairman, Dr Ooi Kee Saik and was convicted in 1975 at a rehearing of the trial and was subsequently disqualified from Parliament.

One need only look at the chronology at the front of the book to discover Fan Yew Teng’s remarkably journey for justice and freedom for all.  His struggles were not confined to injustices in Malaysia but extended to Myanmar, East Timor and Bosnia to name a few countries.

Fan Yew Teng lived a simple life with his typewriter, bicycle and pipe yet there was nothing simple about his fighting spirit and his passion for doing what was right.  He was a devoted family man, an intellectual and a man who displayed tremendous courage and fortitude at the most trying of times.  I have always believed that in their fight against injustice and oppression, people, like Fan Yew Teng and Lim Kit Siang led the way for the activists and advocates of the rule of law today.  They fought at a time when it was more dangerous to stand up to the government.  They faced a controlled press, lack of information, use of oppressive laws and worst of all, less than extensive support from the people.

Above everything else was Fan Yew Teng’s love for our Malaysia. He saw no difference between races and was involved with the Malaysian Action Front a multiracial and multi religious group.  You may not know this but between 1988 to 1995, he was a regular visitor to the ABIM offices, working with them on several social programmes.  He was also a columnist for Harakah.  He was a prolific writer and thinker and was a strong believer in a Malaysia for Malaysians.

I am sure that Fan Yew Teng would have observed with growing unhappiness the deeply divided nation that Malaysia appeared to be not so long ago.   A Malaysia where all bounds of human decency appeared to have been breached particularly in the persecution of individuals who stood up to the government and in the restriction of fundamental freedoms.  However, having participated in and seen the gains made by the Opposition in 2008, he would have had a glimpse of the Malaysia to be.  A Malaysia that was travelling the path to a healthy multi-party democracy. Yet even after 2008, Fan Yew Teng would have still seen the racial divisiveness readily perpetrated by politicians.

Fan Yew Teng passed away on the 7th of December 2010 and I have this one regret. That he did not see the Bersih 2.0 rally of July 9th 2011 and April 28th 2012. 709 was a success, 428 was a roaring success.  I regret that he did not see the tearing down of racial, in fact all barriers and that he did not see Malaysians from all walks of life standing shoulder to shoulder for free and fair elections.  He would have been so happy to see Malaysians helping each other through the tear gas and chemical water, standing together and singing the Negara Ku as one.  I know that if he had been alive, he would have been right there with us.

And he would have felt that he was seeing a little bit of that world where Malaysians were helping each other achieve that freedom he dreamed of.  That wonderful possibility that comes from a friendship amongst Malaysians that we have all longed to see.  Uncle Fan, we missed you on those days.  But I know that without your untiring courage and efforts,  we could not have arrived here.  We do not know what the future holds but we do know that Malaysia will never be the same again.  We have grown and we will continue to grow.  Your efforts and struggles have not been in vain for all the positive developments we have seen in Malaysia today is the result of the efforts of people such as you.  We now dare to dream and we dare to hope.

Noeleen, Lilianne and Pauline, thank you for sharing your beloved husband and father with us.  We have been enriched by his life. And thank you for giving me this honour of saying a few words about Fan Yew Teng. -The Rocket

* ‘The Sweet Rebel: Remembering Fan Yew Teng’ is published by Genta Media and available for RM50. The book can be purchased online here.

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