Photographs by Isrizal
Memorial Gathering for Dr. M.K. Rajakumar in Singapore, 14 February 2009.
On a serene, warm Valentine’s Day, over fifty individuals gathered in the Manasseh Mayer Seminar Room in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS to commemorate Dr. M.K. Rajakumar (Rajkumar), who passed away on 22 November 2008, aged 76. A preceding memorial had already been held on 4 January 2009 in the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. This memorial in Singapore was most fittingly held in the former home of the University of Malaya in Singapore (from 1962, the University of Singapore), where Dr Rajkumar burst forth like the awakening dawn as a young student intellectual and activist. Many guests at this gathering had themselves walked or ran along these once-hallowed corridors. Hence the irony that some guests either lost their way or had to be guided to a familiar venue, albeit with an unfamiliar name and an unfamiliar modern interior.
It was a motley collection of participants. A maze of greying and greyed miens was interrupted by a splattering of youthful black hair belonging to a couple of university students, a few young activists (exempt two), and the intrepid filmmaker Martyn See, who recorded the proceedings for documentary purposes. Naturally, Dr Rajkumar’s friends, admirers, university classmates and University Socialist Club compatriots constituted the majority. Some had specially made their way down from Malaysia just as others in Singapore had travelled to Kuala Lumpur for the earlier memorial. That his memory should be honoured in both countries reflects his membership of a generation that conceived of Malaya and Singapore as one territory and once operated as such. His demise is a concomitant stark reminder that his is, as Toh Paik Choo puts it in her account of the event (The New Paper, 13 March 2009), ‘a vanishing generation.’ One of those who had already gone before Dr. Rajkumar, and could only be represented by his family members at this memorial was Dr. Gopal Baratham (1935-2002). Dr. Baratham is better known today in Singapore as a literary stalwart, but he was also Rajkumar’s junior in the Medical Faculty of the University of Malaya and a fellow member of the Socialist Club. Other than those present who had known Rajkumar personally, there were academics, well-wishers and other interested observers.
There were too some conspicuous absentees, including Professor Tommy Koh, who was a principal supporter of this memorial but had to be overseas, and a few former Socialist Club members who had attended the memorial in Kuala Lumpur. Although no invitation was known to have been sent, it would have been mightily interesting if the Minister Mentor, one-time ally and long-time foe of the Socialist Club, had made an appearance to provide a perspective of an individual he helped defend, if only to jump-start his political fortunes. As it turned out, his non-presence did not inhibit his memoirs and his legacies from casting small shadows on parts of the proceedings through allusions, references and a black T-shirt imprinted with a frequently-deployed section of his Legislative Assembly speech in April 1955.
The program began with a video screening of the K.L. memorial, before eulogies were made by friends and contemporaries of Rajkumar and two members of the University Socialist Club Book Project Team, Loh Kah Seng and Lim Cheng Tju. The speeches were punctuated by tributes for Dr. Rajkumar from Dr. Agoes Salim, who chaired the session, and members of the audience; those who could not be present had their tributes read out by Michael Fernandez, the chief organizer of the event. Platitudes after benedictions sought to celebrate an individual whom Dr Salim termed ‘a man of many facets’ – a consummate activist, physician, intellectual, a ‘philosopher guide’ to Dato Dominic Puthucheary, and even a singer of love songs according to Professor Arthur Lim. Reminiscences of the unremitting consistency and constancy of Rajkumar’s idealism, socialism and humanism was the tenor of the day, which few deviated from.
Echoing the choice of title for the commemorative publication produced for the K.L. memorial, Dato Dominic Puthucheary opened his speech by emphasizing that Rajkumar epitomized ‘Fajar’, the word which ‘encapsulates so many dreams’ of Rajkumar and his fellow activists then, young men driven by ‘the urge to do something greater than for themselves.’ These were individuals who possessed an ‘inner flame which always grew’ as they persisted in a constant, painful search for the realization of their ideals against the persecution, the narrow political space, and the ravaging tide of broader processes and political developments they faced. Even if others disagreed with their activities, he argued, the ideals, the moral compulsion and the energy that propelled their activism ought to be remembered, partly because in ‘these interesting times…the Rajakumars are needed, both here and there…more than ever before.’ As an example, Puthucheary recounted how Rajkumar inspired him to help ensure that the political turmoil and savagery in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, which culminated from ethnic tensions, ‘must not happen here.’ Rajkumar, to him, was a noble human being who ought not to ‘die a second death’ by not being remembered.
Others recollected Dr Rajkumar’s interest and involvement in improving and invigorating medical practice in Malaysia and later China, while promoting and personifying social change and humanitarianism. Professor Arthur Lim, who had been a classmate, regaled the audience with light-hearted anecdotes about Rajkumar before he lauded him for being a good physician who never refused to treat anyone, even those who could not afford it. Professor Lim’s subsequent announcement of a personal donation of $10,000 to fund an annual activity to commemorate Dr Rajkumar’s memory, drew excited applause. Perhaps the more appropriate way of remembering an individual who believed in social action over un-materialized discourse would be to orient this proposed annual event towards community benefit or social welfare, in the place of or in addition to a suggested annual memorial lecture.
In remembering Dr Rajkumar, it seemed impossible to forget his roles in the formation of the University of Malaya Socialist Club and the publication of Fajar. During both memorials, and elsewhere, his classmates and colleagues in the University of Malaya recalled how they joined the few other politically-conscious students in the University of Malaya in participating in the struggle for an independent Malayan nation based on socialist, egalitarian and democratic principles. The Fajar Trial of May 1954 received plenty of attention and interest during the session. Before Dr Loh Kah Seng made the last speech of the day, touching on Rajkumar’s contributions in building bridges ‘between university and society, between young intellectuals and the downtrodden masses, and between Singapore and Malaya’, Lim Cheng Tju took the audience through the background and proceedings of the Trial. Then he dwelled on how his short interview with Rajkumar while researching the Trial left him with pondering, with a tinge of wistful pathos, if the generation of Malaysian youths today, scions of the struggles of yesterday, knew of these battles and understood the idealism of those who waged them. The nostalgia for the compelling and infectious idealism that Rajkumar exhibited, extolled, exemplified, and evoked is shared not only by his contemporaries and wayfarers, but also by those who seek to study what Rajkumar and his colleagues did, including both Cheng Tju and this author. In the closing moments, K C Chew provided yet another anecdote about the Trial to end off an afternoon of revelations. He recounted his discovery, while at a dinner with the Chairman of the Lee Foundation, that Lee Kong Chian paid the fees of D.N. Pritt, the Queen’s Counsel who defended the eight prosecuted Socialist Club members of the Socialist Club. This was at the request of Poh Soo Kai, a nephew, following a suggestion by the junior defense counsel – Lee Kuan Yew.
Professor Wang Gungwu, a historical giant in his own right, stood up to pay tribute to a contemporary which he self-admittedly had not been close to. He began by drawing on Dato Puthucheary’s reference to the Yugoslavian crises in the 1990s to launch into a discussion of the vicissitudes and difficulties of the formation of a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation-state, which had been one mission of Rajkumar and his Socialist Club colleagues. He concluded with a sobering note that his generation of student activists, laudable their dedication and commitment may be, ‘were probably too idealistic and too naïve.’ This position formed the basis of his tribute to Rajkumar; he would like to ‘remember Rajkumar by the fact that he lived continually in the hope that the ideal of his which we all have shared when we were young, should one day still be achieved.’ He echoed many of the other speakers in lauding ‘the constancy and loyalty to ideals that Rajkumar stood for.’
Intriguingly, the few young political activists at the meeting elected to politicize the memory of Dr Rajkumar, through comments made during the session, and their report of the memorial. Seelan Palay, among the most active and irrepressible activists of his generation, took issue with Cheng Tju’s assertion during his presentation that Lee Kuan Yew established his prominence with the left-wing movement in Malaya and Singapore through his participation in the Fajar Trial. Palay could not ‘help but scoff at that line…because of what [he] knew and what [he] read’, rather sanctimoniously dismissing Lee’s early left-wing connections and credentials as another distortion within the government’s representation of Singapore history. He offered little evidence to refute the well-documented historicity of Lee’s early favour within the left-wing movement before the end of the 1960s, and preferred to view the past through the heavily tinted windows of present dispositions. Palay and the activists he spoke for ought to be congratulated for ‘being able to recognize the dragon to slay’. One hopes they soon acquire the ability and capacity to fight ‘dragons’, instead of the ‘dragonflies with many tricks up their sleeves’ they claimed their enemy to be.
While the proceedings had largely been a celebration of Rajkumar’s undying idealism and dedication, the Singapore Democrats were apparently more excited by “More LKY revelations at Rajakumar’s memorial”. Its report posted on the Singapore Democratic Party website focused primarily on mining anecdotes and fresh information raised at the meeting to indict Lee for the misrepresentation of his role in the Fajar Trial. The activism and struggles of Rajkumar and his colleagues were rather disjointedly employed as metaphor and evidence for a grand indictment – ‘ Forged from the crucible of the struggle for freedom, the PAP turned around and denied that very freedom to the people when it ascended the throne.’ To cast the political tribulations of Dr Rajkumar, where he was famously detained by the Malaysian government between 1965 and 1967, within un-nuanced binaries of activism/domination or idealism/repression essentializes his positioning. After all, as Dr Salim avowed, Rajkumar was a man who believed that ‘difference of political ideas would be subordinated to his object of working for the poor and the downtrodden.’
Perhaps the Democrats would be pricked by the irony that it should be a The New Paper journalist, Toh Paik Choo, who more veraciously captured the ubiquitous tone of the memorial. The sole media representative present depicted the event as a gathering ‘in celebration, not in mourning’ of an individual who ‘lived life in service of people’. There were two factual inaccuracies in her report nonetheless. Contrary to her report, official business had impeded Dr. Syed Husin Ali, the Vice-President of Partai Keadilan Rakyat, from attending the memorial as was previously planned.
Another inaccuracy, more ironic given her fame as a humorist, saw her mistaking the authorship of an amusing anecdote told at the memorial pertaining to the colonial authorities’ arrest of Rajkumar for the Trial. It was Professor Lim, Rajkumar’s hostelmate in Paterson Hostel, and not Dr Salim who recounted the tale of the short and bald British police officer who gathered an Eurasian and five Chinese hostelities and proceeded to ask which of them was Rajkumar. When the senior members of the audience burst out in laughter after Professor Lim announced how he raised his hand then and said “I am Rajkumar”, their humour was probably triggered not only from by the absurdity of the situation but the resonance of the ridiculous ineptitude of a colonial official with the anti-colonial sentiments they held in the past.
In making this otherwise inconsequential slip, which she might not have had she understood the anecdote’s historical resonance, she evinces a shadow of the same amnesia about this period of Singapore history that she either suspected or assumed the newspaper’s readership shared. This is a assumption implicit in her decision to preface her account by asking “Who is Dr M K Rajakumar and why are they saying all these things about him?” While the event was first and foremost a memorial, more mediation might have been helpful to bridge the gap in historical knowledge and understandings that existed between the younger members of the audience and the speakers. The latter quite naturally spoke with too much familiarity with Rajkumar, the people around him, the events and the changing milieus they were immersed in. It is a familiarity that the young can readily admire, thirst for, and even exoticize, but less easily come to share in a largely different historical context and environment. Still the same, the passion, the sincerity, and the veneration with which the speakers honored the memory of one of their own threaten to seduce and enthrall a young Singaporean like myself, constantly in pursuit of his own imagined past.
In a morning bustling and bursting with remembrances and reminiscences, the one remaining piece which would have completed the commemoration of the life and legacies of Dr. M.K. Rajakumar is unfortunately missing. The real measure and true testament of a man is revealed not only in how he is remembered by the sea of admirers that Dr. Rajakumar clearly does not lack, but how he chooses to remember himself. In the absence of such an answer, it shall be left to those who remain today and arrive tomorrow to ensure that his memory does not die, and to ruminate on what his memory mean.
We should not limit liberal education to mean the pursuit of knowledge without any thought of its ultimate or practical utility. We may have a love for knowledge for its own sake, but at the same time seek to make use of it for the benefit of our Society, The search for truth must be unceasing and at all costs. But the truth that is to make us free cannot be useless; and the search for useful truth need not be evil. – M.K. Rajakumar, “The University in Our Times” (1952)
Edgar Liao is a PhD. candidate in the Department of History, University of British Columbia.