Reminiscing my father’s storied life history on his 80th birthday is no easy task and is perhaps best left to historians adopting a trenchant and rigorous perspective. However, this huge family event cannot be celebrated without some reference to his work, family life and personal philosophy.
My earliest memory of him is one of fear and respect for his outstanding achievements, inability to live up to his expectations and the burden of living under a banyan tree as his eldest child. My siblings and I were told by my grandmother of his prodigious academic ability in school, one of the top students in the state of Johor.
We witnessed first-hand not just his cutting intellect, but his self-taught ability to master Pitman’s shorthand, speed typewriting and mastery of languages including Jawi. Who can forget the machine gun staccato of the typewriter ringing through the late of the night pouring out reams of press statements and speeches? And of course, obtaining his law degree with flying colours whilst under detention under the infamous Internal Security Act.
My grandmother naturally doted on her precocious youngest child. She was a remarkable lady in her own right, an illiterate woman who taught herself to read. He was her favourite child because he was a rebel at heart like her, refusing to be beaten down by circumstances.
He did not allow grinding poverty to prevent him from bettering himself. Marrying young, he ventured out first as a teacher then as a journalist to the Straits Times in Singapore. He was the youngest Secretary-General of the Singapore National Union of Journalists at 22. Whilst providing for his family, he yearned to contribute towards making Malaysia better for the ordinary people.
Despite being well-established in Singapore, he chose to return to Malaysia after the 1965 Separation to fulfill that aspiration. His passion and conviction were infectious. His charisma and courage made him a natural leader. His legendary oratory and common touch drew people to him.
The Great Economic Debates in University Malaya and Parliamentary is well recorded. A few stand out. His first Parliamentary speech after the resumption of Parliament and release from ISA detention in 1971, the deaths of babies in Melaka General Hospital due to defective equipment and battling against Emergency Proclamations in Kelantan and attempted ones in Sabah as well as speaking up for ISA detainees from DAP MPs Chian Heng Kai and Chan Kok Kit to Anwar Ibrahim and Syed Husin Ali. His successful Save Bukit China Campaign in Melaka is one of the highlights of his career.
His expose of corruption from the RM2.5 billion BMF scandal to the SPICA-M purchase of naval crafts, the financial scandals relating to the North-South Highway, the MCA Deposit Taking Cooperatives, the secret over-production of oil involving oil contracts off in the East Coast, and the Bank Negara forex scandals is well-known.
What is not known is his appetite for hard work digesting the voluminous reports running into thousands of pages.
He was unremitting in his pursuit for accountability and transparency earning his accolade as the best Opposition Leader in history. Lim Kit Siang’s leadership allowed DAP to survive the turbulent 70s, 80s and 90s as the main opposition force keeping democracy alive. The highest recognition of his future and important role as an Opposition Leader came from the late Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, who advised the King to grant a Royal Pardon for Kit Siang over an electoral offence that would have disqualified him from Parliamentary office.
My father paid the price for being Mr Opposition. From being detained twice under the ISA on frivolous and baseless charges to being charged for breaching the Official Secrets Act over the Spica-M naval crafts scandal, sued for defamation and arrested countless times by the police, he sacrificed his personal liberty and comforts. He refused to be bought and rejected overtures from the government of the day. Lat immortalised that spirit in a cartoon that showed a son reading the daily news to his father without gaining any reaction, until the son announced that Lim Kit Siang has joined BN. The shocked expression of the father delighted the son who said, “Joke only lah!”.
His principled stand gave hope to many Malaysians, especially young Malaysians suffering from the oppressive government policies, that there are still Malaysian leaders out there fighting courageously for right against wrong. Many young leaders today joined DAP because of Lim Kit Siang. Many current leaders of DAP remained in the party during those hopeless years in the opposition because of Lim Kit Siang.
Whilst it was no bed and roses, he found time for his family and friends. I remember him driving all the way down from Penang to Batu Pahat, and taking us to a movie which he slept all the way through. He spent time to teach us to collect stamps, have pen pals overseas, told us stories and encouraged us to explore the frontiers of our minds through his huge collection of books. He loved to come back for the home-cooked meals by my Mom, have a drink with his friends and comrades in the coffee-shops.
Dr Chen Man Hin and Karpal Singh were his closest comrades. That bond with family and friends carried him through all the trials and tribulations, particularly his most painful experience of seeing me go to prison in 1998 for 18 months for defending an under-aged Malay girl who was raped but yet detained. If there were any regrets, it was not the electoral defeats but the pain and despair of helplessly seeing your son suffer in prison. I was told after my release that he was almost in tears after every prison visit, but he never showed his despair to me.
Whilst his role in the opposition is unquestioned, what is little noticed is his critical contribution to transforming DAP from a perennial opposition into a party in power and ultimate success in helping to forge a united opposition to defeat BN in the 2018 general election. Kit Siang was willing to take huge political risks for the big picture, including contesting in dangerous seats.
And when success came in the form of winning power, he made the decision to step aside and not hold positions of power. He showed where he heart and soul is by remaining an ordinary Parliamentarian. It was always about the people never about him. He did not consider this abnegation as a sacrifice but a necessary process to allow the younger generation of leaders to come to the fore and lead the change. It is this spirit that he is revered by the younger generation of leaders.
In many ways, Kit Siang helped to facilitate the growth of DAP from being the best opposition in Malaysian history to be the best government, especially our successes in Penang. Instead of being obstacles to growth and smothered reforms, he encouraged growth to expand to new ground and initiated reforms. There is still much to be done, but DAP has elected representatives from MPs and ADUNs from all major communities, including Sabah and Sarawak.
Despite being 80, my father will not remain silent especially against those obsessed with racial warfare and religious confrontation. Focus must be on making the lives of ordinary Malaysians better. In the era of COVID-19 we must rescue, redeem and remake the economy. Principles resolutely defended advances progress. Values stoutly protected promote justice. Not psychological paralysis or philosophical despair but action, furious and joyous action filled with optimism and hope.
In that light, he belongs to the old school of no pain, no gain. As the Greek poet Aeschylus wrote, “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
As a family, we are proud of him as a model husband, father and grandfather. He took care of my daughter for the first two years of her life. We look up to him not only as a moral compass but a beacon of hope that we deserve better, Malaysians deserve better. Let us all continue his journey to make Malaysia better together.
Happy Birthday, DAD. Good health and blessed happiness!