Poh Soo Kai
Speech at the memorial gathering for Dr. M.K. Rajakumar held at Dewan Canselor, University of Malaya on the 4th January 2009.
I came to know Rajakumar in 1951 when we were in our first year of our medical studies. He was quiet and studious, witty and humorous, sincere and kind. A very compassionate person, much loved by family and friends. He read very fast and his interests extend well beyond the medical curriculum. He had a very good command of English, wrote well and was soon working for the Students’ Union newspaper, the Undergrad, then edited by Lembruggen. He would enlighten me that no news can still be printed as news.
Later, as we came to know each other better, I would visit his home in Bandar Hilir, Malacca. His parents always welcomed me warmly, and I renewed my friendship with Sukumari, and came to know Sekhar, Gopi and Shanta. I have not met his elder brother who was in India.
Not all my visits were social. In 1952-3 I was then a member of the Students’ Council, and in charge of External Affairs. We were in the early stages of the formation of the Pan Malaya Students Federation (PMSF), and Rajakumar and I would use Malacca as a base to visit the Technical College in K.L. and Serdang Agricultural College to talk with the student leaders there, urging them to join the PMSF.
In the second year of our studies, he invited me to join a discussion group at his hostel, and this led to the formation of the University Socialist Club, (USC). In the USC’s second term, we decided to invigorate it. He was elected as Secretary General. We formed an editorial board and had the club’s publication, FAJAR, printed on a monthly basis. This cost money, and he was most generous. The discussions on the contents and its uncompromising anti-colonial stand brought us very much closer.
We held very similar views. In the Fajar Sedition Trial that followed, I admired his courage and firm commitment in the face of imprisonment. I must confess, the leading editorial “Aggression in Asia” was more his than mine. Though the prosecution produced the draft copy in my hand writing, and pointed to me as the writer, the subject matter, the thrust, were mutually agreed upon, and much of the phraseology was his.
After the trial, we intensified our reading and discussion of socialist theories, and the intricacies of colonialism and imperialism. Similarity of views strengthened our comradeship. We were committed to a socialist path.
This socialist commitment was what nurtured our comradeship through the years, through periods of forced separation, of prolonged imprisonment, when contact was terminated. However, whenever we had a chance, we would meet to discuss our ideology, and surprisingly, evolving separately, we were thinking along the same lines, having the same aim in life. We reaffirmed our socialist commitment.
A year and a half ago, when he made a miraculous recovery, after a very serious illness, I rushed up to K.L. Against doctor’s advice that he receive no visitors, Sunita let me see him in his bedroom. He was extremely weak. A shadow of his former self. He was stone deaf and could hardly eat due to nausea. I sat beside him. Told him he must force himself to eat, must struggle to live, for there was work to be done. His eyes brightened up, he lightly gripped my arm, gave a faint smile. I dared not linger.
Later, when he felt stronger and made a trip to Singapore, he stayed at my place. In between periods of rest, we talked of the formation of the USC and the Fajar. We stimulated each other’s fading memory and jotted down a few points. He was going to write and we discussed its publication. Shanta rang up and insisted he spend the next day with her children. I am glad he did. Much stronger, he left for a holiday to Hongkong to spend some time with his son, Arjuna, and daughter-in-law and especially with his granddaughter. When he came back, he invited me to stay at his house. I came. It was such a memorable stay. Sunita was a perfect host. The food was excellent, better than the restuarants. He was eating well.
We discussed, with less breaks for rest. We talked from the esoteric and arcane to the mundane, from the frivolous and profane to the profound. We talked of creative evolution, of the grand design, and reached the conclusion that the female of our species is superior to the male. Why? Simply because Eve was an improved second generation model, in which the design quirks of the first generation model had been ironed out. We laughed at our silliness, our profanity.
We touched on his Sun Yat Sen Oration at HK University where he spoke on phenotypes and the biological evolution of non-rational intrinsic faculty of the brain, resulting in beliefs and faith. And we discussed the present day economic crisis. We discussed Sweezy’s concept of stagnation as the norm in the mature capitalist system, of capital overhang, of the financialization of capital. We talked of the froth now the mainstream of economic activity and of the miraculous way wealth can be made by transferring money from one pocket to the other. We touched on the ecological crisis and the built-in inability of the market system to reduce pollution. We agreed that society must break through its conventional thinking. And any alternative social system must do away with one in which profit motive is the imperative.
It has to be replaced by one in which people’s welfare and an interest is the guiding light, profit playing a secondary role. We strengthened our socialist commitment. And of course, we dwelt on development in the third world, and the view that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and its attendant emphasis on export orientation of the economy, touted as the only way to development. We talked of the fixation of economists on the growth rate as an index of development. We questioned its value, for a rise in real wages and farmers’ earnings should be a better and more reliable index.
We discussed dollar hegemony; he would rather prefer the term dollar imperialism. Can such policies which result in the development of a few isolated areas at the expense of the vast countryside result in sustainable development?
I was going to China and UMNO was going to hold its AGM. We decided to continue our discussion after my return in early November. When I returned, his e-mail had stopped. I e-mailed him hoping to continue our discussion. There was no reply. I rang up his house. The maid said he had gone to hospital. After a few phone calls, I expected the worst. I knew his resistance to infection was very low, his lungs partly destroyed, and the risk of catching resistant strains in hospital high. When the news that he had passed away reached me in Singapore, despite my expectations, I was not just saddened but shocked. I must apologise to the family for not attending the wake. I was in denial. I felt better feeling that after a period of separation we would see each other again, and renew and reaffirm our socialist commitment.
Today I have come to terms with myself. He remains a revolutionary. And I hope we will live our lives as he did, in the service of our people.
Dr Poh Soo Kai is a medical doctor. He was a founder member of the University of Malaya Socialist Club, and one of the students charged with sedition in the Fajar trial in 1954. A former assistant secretary-general of the Barisan Socialis, he was detained on two separate occasions for a period totaling seventeen years.