On obscure politicians and activists – a very brief survey & a tribute

There’s a need for the public to know about these “obscure” politicians so that their memory can be remembered, honoured and appreciated."

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Published in Astro Awani & Asia News Today, image by Astro Awani.

Parti Kuasa Rakyat – otherwise simply known as Kuasa Rakyat (People’s Power) and launched on October 10 – is reportedly the latest political outfit to make a foray into the growingly fragmented and crowded political arena. For some, they might find it intriguing that Kuasa Rakyat has decided it’ll be openly and unabashedly pro-BN.

The founder is Kamarazaman Yaakob, former student activist, ex-Internal Security Act (ISA) detainee and contemporary of Anwar Ibrahim, Dr Syed Husin Ali, Hishamuddin Rais, Ibrahim Ali, etc. whose exploits during the Baling demonstrations of 1974 encapsulated the heyday of student activism in the country.

Yet, Kamarazaman Yaakob is not a household name compared to his politically experienced contemporaries who by now are revered veterans and eminent figures in national politics.

With the launch of Kuasa Rakyat, it looks like the Peninsular and, by extension, national politics on the whole is set to brace for a somewhat messy and jam-packed – and perhaps even a “spoilt-for-choice” – contestations of competing ideologies, programmes and policies embodied in slogans and rhetoric. It used to be the case that Sabah was (in)famous for multi-party cornered fights but looks like not anymore.

The presence of an assorted mix of parties is, of course, nothing new.

We have the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition which hitherto (i.e., prior to the outcome of the 14th general election of 2018) comprised of fourteen component parties, including from Sabah and Sarawak (i.e., mainland Malaysia).

The establishment of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) threatened to upstage Umno as the leading contender and defender of Malay rights and interests in what’s seen as an already fractured Malay political landscape.

Just like in other countries, here in Malaysia, we have parties across the whole spectrum of the political divide – left, centre and right and somewhere in between.

Kuasa Rakyat, as a newbie and wannabe prominent democratic socialist party in the country, seems keen on out-rivalling Pakatan Harapan (PKR, DAP, Amanah & Upko) which remains the country’s mainstream reformist and moderate coalition.

For now, Kuasa Rakyat is still on the fringe although, as alluded to, it’s trying to compensate for that situation by aligning itself to the government of the day and BN. This could well be considered strange and rather out of place. But then again, politics certainly makes for strange bedfellows, as the saying goes.

Recall that the late Aziz Ishak, former Minister of Agriculture, was a leading left-winger in what’s a right-wing Umno – who advocated for so-called “socialist” policies long before the advent of the New Economic Policy (NEP).

He was a sibling of Yusof Ishak, the first Yang Di-Pertuan Negara of the State of Singapore and later the first President of the Republic of Singapore (1965-1970). 

Another sibling was Rahim Ishak, former Minister of State for Education and Foreign Affairs, successively. Rahim Ishak was one of the prominent Singapore Malays National Organisation (SMNO) leaders (the other being Haji Yaacob Mohamed – son of Kelantan, among others) who left to join the People’s Action Party (PAP) and contributed to the party winning all the three Malay majority seats of Kampong Kembangan, Geylang Serai, and Southern Islands in the 1963 general election.

All the Ishak brothers are names that for the most part obscure to many, even more so for the present and younger generation. Yet all of them played a critical role in laying the foundations of both Malaysia and Singapore (with particular reference to when the latter was part of the former).

Other examples of obscure politicians could be found in the PAP’s off-shoot in Post-Separation Malaysia, i.e., the DAP.

The DAP’s outreach and involvement in what would be considered obscure issues today was definitively heightened by lesser-known politicians who otherwise are only recognised by “cognoscentis” or avid political observers.

The one newspaper – other than the party organs – that would report and highlight the contributions of obscure politicians would be the now-defunct Watan. These politicians have nonetheless contributed significantly to the struggle on “obscure” issues.

Foremost would be the late Ahmad Nor who remains the highest ranking Malay DAP leader and most popular Malay politician to ever come from the party – although no longer a household name.

Ahmad Nor was a former President of Cuepacs (Congress of Union of Employees in the Public and Civil Services), the “trade union” for our civil service, who later formed the short-lived Nasma (Parti Nasionalis Malaysia) with other ex-civil servants – a multi-racial party based on “Malaysians for Malaysia, for justice, integrity and progress” during the initial phase of the first Mahathir administration.

Later, Ahmad Nor joined the DAP and contested the parliamentary seat of Gopeng. Ahmad Nor became the Deputy Secretary General and also National Vice Chairman as well as the Penang Deputy Chairman with Karpal Singh as the State Chairman.

He was slated to become the Deputy Chief Minister 1 under Projects “Tanjong 2” (1990 GE) & Tanjong 3” (1995 GE) should the DAP win enough seats to form the state government in Penang.

Among Ahmad Nor’s notable achievements – that are obscure today – would be the setting up of the Penang DAP Malay Coordinating Committee (otherwise popularised as simply “DAP Melayu” for short) that was instrumental in highlighting the injustices suffered by the local Malay community, especially on the island.

Ahmad Nor was able to assemble a cadre of Malay candidates to stand in Malay-majority seats throughout the state (including veteran air force personnel Zulkifli Ahmad Noor who passed away in 2013 and ex-Pas member, Abdul Rahman Manap).

It was Ahmad Nor who initially publicised the plight of the residents of Tanah Wakaf Haji Kassim sitting on Kampong Makam in Dato’ Keramat. Banners emblazoned with the words, “Selamatkan Tanah Wakaf” (Save the Waqf Land) were conspicuous to passers-by.  Other issues include the Urban Development Authority (UDA)’s purported change of terms and conditions/sales and purchase agreements for the affordable flats earmarked for the low-income groups.

Throughout the 1990s – just prior to the precipitation of the Reformasi movement in 1998/99 – there were a host of issues ranging from Felda (Federal Land Development Authority)-related controversies to compulsory land acquisition under the Land Acquisition Act (1960).

The late Salleh Ahmad, former local Umno leader and a founder of the national settler’s association later established a DAP branch in Felda Taib Andak (the first in Johor and the fourth nationally). Then outstanding issues include issuance of individual land titles to Felda settlers who had repaid all their loans, monthly deductions, and the call for greater democracy and accountability by the management in the schemes, etc.

The one apolitical activist that should be – but sadly not – known to the wider public is the late venerable Hamid Tuah who passed away in 1997 after a lifetime of tirelessly championing the dispossessed, landless and the rural poor.

The nation should honour the memory of the one who had contributed so much to shaping policies on Felda and the Land Acquisition Act (1960) alongside socio-economic development.

Among some of Hamid Tuah’s struggle is related to the now-long forgotten issues such as the compulsory land acquisition of Pantai Kundor and Pantai Tanah Merah in Melaka to make way for a Petronas refinery as well as the aquafarming projects in Kerpan, Kedah.

There are many more such luminaries whose names aren’t able to be presented here due to space constraints.

They include the late Datuk Chian Heng Kai (MP, mother-tongue advocate and former ISA detainee – four years), PP Narayanan (trade union pioneer and stalwart), Karam Singh Veriah (trade unionist and, in his time until 1976, the youngest MP), P Patto (MP and former ISA detainee – “champion of the downtrodden”), Lim Fong Seng (mother-tongue educationist and former ISA detainee), and so many more.

As such, this very brief survey doesn’t do enough justice to the services rendered and sacrifice made by these unsung heroes.

And it isn’t in any way at all intended to be partisan or in support of any particular party.

But there’s a need for the wider public and posterity to know about the struggles and contributions of these “obscure” politicians in their fight for equally “obscure” issues so that their memory can (continue to) be remembered, honoured and appreciated.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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