M.K. Rajakumar: A Life Well Lived

Tan Jing Quee

M.K. Rajakumar is a genuine Malaysian hero, a socialist and a patriot. He belongs to that generation who had initiated the struggle for national independence from colonial rule. Quite appropriately perhaps, he was born and grew up in Malacca, the birthplace of modern Malaysia. He completed his secondary education in Malacca High School before proceeding to Singapore in 1950 to enter the medical faculty of the newly established University of Malaya.

It was a time of national awakening. The fevour for independence from colonial rule had inspired a whole generation of young men and women throughout Asia and the Third World. Leading the charge for national liberation, after the termination of the Second World War, were countries like India, Burma and Indonesia.

The generation of students who had entered the sacrosanct halls of the University of Malaya together with Rajakumar belonged to the privileged strata of Malayan society. In the normal course of events they could look forward to a life of reasonable comfort and affluence upon their graduation from the University. However, the winds of change and the rising tide of consciousness that was sweeping through Asia and the Third World caused a section of this upper crust of the population to abandon the preordained path to wealth and fame which their class position and education would have led them to ordinarily. Instead, they allied themselves with the mass of the population in the struggle for freedom and independence.

In February 1953, Rajakumar joined a group of like-minded students in the university, including Wang Gungwu, James Puthucheary, Sidney. Woodhull, Poh Soo Kai and Lim Hock Siew, to form the University Socialist Club (USC). They began to publish a monthly organ named Fajar to advance the cause of the anti-colonial struggle and national independence. Rajakumar was the one of the principal movers and leaders of the USC and Farja.

Slightly more than a year after the formation of USC , the eight-man editorial board of Fajar was charged for sedition on the basis of the editorial entitled ‘Aggression in Asia’ which appeared in the May 1954 issue of the journal. The membership of USC rallied to defend the members of the editorial board. They set up the Fajar defence fund and won widespread support from the students and academic staff of the University. The internationally renowned Queen’s Counsel, D. N. Pritt was elected to defend them. The case soon became a cause celebre. When the case was convened for trial, D.N. Pritt successfully argued that the prosecution had failed to establish a prima facie case for sedition and the judge acquitted all the members of the editorial board without calling for their defence.

This victory catapulted USC and its organ Fajar to national prominence and the latter developed into a major left-wing journal in the country until it was banned by the colonial authorities during the infamous mass arrest code named Operation Coldstore, on 2 February 1963.

Following their acquittal in the Fajar trial in August 1954, the leaders of the USC, including Rajakumar, began to work closely with Lee Kuan Yew who had acted as junior counsel in the trial. Their close collaboration with Lee Kuan Yew led them to support the founding of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in November 1954, as a left-wing mass party dedicated to the achievement of the independence of Malaya, including Singapore. This friendship, however, would soon split and splinter as a result of major differences over the issue of how to proceed with the anti-colonial struggle.

During this period, several leaders of USC who had graduated from the university, including James Puthucheary, Sidney Woodhull and Jamit Singh had joined the trade union movement to advance the anti-colonial struggle. In the mid-1950s, the colonial government initiated a series of repressive actions against the leaders of the left wing political and trade union movements which were engaged in the anti-colonial struggle. James and Woodhull were detained by the colonial government in October 1956 and were to remain in prison until the middle of 1959, released only after the victory of the PAP in the general elections of that year.

Following his own graduation in 1956, Rajakumar returned to Kuala Lumpur to begin his practice as a medical doctor. He soon joined the Labour Party of Malaya and in time rose to become the Chairman of the Selangor Division and Assistant Secretary-General of the party. He became a leading figure of the Malayan left and was a close confidante of other left-wing political leaders like Pak Sako, Ahmad Boestamam, Lim Kean Siew and Tan Kai Hee. As with so many other opposition leaders of the period, Rajakumar was detained and held without trial under the Internal Security Act,his internment lasting from 1965 to 1967. In the years following his release, Rajakumar witnessed the political scene in the country undergoing a sea change. The left-wing political parties, including the Socialist Front which had been formed by the amalgamation of the Labour Party and Parti Rakyat had been decimated by repression and practically ceased to function. The political climate also changed dramatically following the eruption of the ugly racial riots which took place on the 13 May 1969.

Rajakumar returned to his medical practice at Jalan Loke Yew, Kuala Lumpur, where he continued to serve the medical needs of the poor and the humble. He became the family doctor to his increasing legion of regular clients, friends and comrades, very often on a pro bono basis. He continued, however, to be concerned with the political development of the country and gave his views and advice freely to many friends and colleagues who sought him out. During this period, he developed close and firm friendships with leading intellectuals in the country including Samad Ismail, Said Zahari, Syed Husain Ali and Usman Awang.

In time, he also became actively involved in the promotion of primary health care. He was actively engaged in the ongoing debate and discussions over the issue of a comprehensive national and affordable health insurance scheme for the country. His work and contributions in this area have been widely acknowledged and won him increasing respect even from those who disagree with him politically.

Rajakumar’s passing after a period of illness came as a shock to many friends and comrades throughout the country. He has left behind a yawning gap in the political and intellectual life of the country. His lucid and analytical mind was a source of much inspiration and sound judgement, contributing to a rational and critical examination of a whole variety of issues ranging from ethnic relations to issues of poverty, human rights and social justice which continue to confront the country. Right to the very end, Rajakumar retained his fundamental belief in the socialist ideals he had embraced when he was a young man at university. He continued to believe in the sanctity and justice of a truly free and equal society for all and not just for the few who are privileged by birth or wealth.

Tan Jing Quee is a lawyer. He was a former President of the University of Malaya Socialist Club. Jing Quee co-edited with Jomo K. S. Comet in the Sky, a volume of essays commemorating Lim Chin Siong. A former political detainee, Jing Quee has recently co-edited with Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew Our Thoughts Are Free, a collection of poetry composed by former political detainees in Singapore. (Jul 2009)

One thought on “M.K. Rajakumar: A Life Well Lived”

  1. Certain facts need to be included to give the University Socialist Club a balanced historical perspective:

    1. The Formation of the University Socialist Club: It was James Puthucheary who finally got the then Vice Chancellor of the University of Malaya to allow some students to form a political club..even though some radical students including Poh Soo Kai and MK Rajakumar were discussing the formation but without success ( Dr. Yeo Kim Wah’s interview with James Puthucheary, 12/3/1991). The first Cetral Working Committee according to the Straits Times report: President, Wang Gung-Wu, Sec.- Gen, Philomen Oorjitham and the Publication Secretary: Sidney Woodhull. The other founder members included, apart from James Puthucheary, Poh Soo Kai, MK Rajakumar, Lim Hock Siew, Abdhullah Majid, Jamit Singh, Linda Chen, Tan Seng Huat, Kua Boo Sun..

    2. In march 1953, when the Pan Malayan Students Federation was formed , initiated by the University of Malaya Students Union, Philomen Oorjitham became President till 1955. At that time both Poh Soo Kai and MK Rajakumar were also students Union councillors.

    3. When Wang Gung-wu finished his term as President in Aug 1953, Poh Soo Kai became President of the USC and Rajakumar , Sec.-Gen and the editor of Fajar which was the re-organised..

    4. Some of the founding members of the USC also became the founding members of the PAP in Nov. 1954……James Puthucheart, Poh Soo Kai, MK Rajakumar, Lim Hock Siew, Sidney Woodhull, Jamit Singh, Philomen Oorjitham, and Abdhullah Majid. And some of then even helped to draft the PAP Manifesto..

    5. After his graduation in 1956, Rajakumar returned to Melaka to serve his bond at the General Hospital and later at the KL General Hospital, and only later he set up his private practice on Kapar Road, Klang., where he befriended a left-wing activist, Tan Siew Eng, the future wife of Tan Kai Hee, who became a close friend and activist in the Labour Party..

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