Political Gadfly: Enigmatic political stalwart Lim Kit Siang has a starring role in Kee Thuan Chye’s latest book!

PLATO in his Apology for the life of Socrates reminds us that all societies need a “gadfly” to sting the “steed” of state into acknowledging its proper duties and obligations. According to the words put into his mouth by Plato, Socrates believed that he’d been sent by the gods to act as a “gadfly” to the Athenian state.

He saw the state as “a great and noble steed” which had to be reminded of its proper duties. Socrates believed he did this by stinging the steed of state “all day long and in all places”. No wonder it wanted to get rid of him by forcing him to commit suicide!

Forget political or ideological labels. Lim Kit Siang, the outspoken and fearless opposition leader for decades, has been a persistent “thorn in the side”, doing just what Socrates was sent to do — “stinging” the steed of state, challenging established policies, and picking apart conventional beliefs.

For as long as I’ve heard about the seasoned politician, Lim has been labelled a “firebrand” with the same dogged perseverance, pragmatism and assertive outspokenness that has seen him ruffle feathers, tread on sensitive toes and get into trouble time and again. MORE NEWS

Yet, he has gone on to remain a prolific voice for the ultimate Malaysian dream — the forging of a united and inclusive nation in which every citizen, regardless of their race or religion, would have the opportunity to achieve success and prosperity — on numerous platforms. He is indeed the proverbial gadfly. Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore him.

 The book documents the life of Lim Kit Siang.
The book documents the life of Lim Kit Siang.

The latest book on the doyen of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Lim Kit Siang: Malaysian First, chronicles Lim’s story behind the political veil, the glare of publicity and public assumptions. 

Author Kee Thuan Chye’s biography humanises the much-maligned politician and tells the story of man with a dream for the country that he calls home. “He deserves a full biography,” insists Kee, before adding: “He’s done so much. He’s been in politics for five and a half decades. Yet nobody has fully documented what he has done — his struggles, his sacrifices, his achievements, his failures.” 

A pause, and he continues dryly: “He’s been thrown in detention twice and all for what?”

BATTLING DISAPPOINTMENT

 Kee Thuan Chye.
Kee Thuan Chye.

You could forgive Kee for being jaded. After all, the actor, dramatist, poet, journalist and noted civil rights activist had sworn that his last book, The People’s Victory — How Malaysians Saved Their Country, written in the glow of the euphoric victory of the 14th General Elections in 2018 would be his last. 

“This is probably the last book I’ll ever write,” he declared to me more than two years ago, adding: “It’s time to step back and have the younger generation take over.” Will he not be the perennial Don Quixote tilting at windmills anymore? I had asked him then, half-jesting. 

“I’ll always have something to say. We can’t rest on our victory because it’s still a long road to good governance and equality. We must keep vigilant and continue to hold the present government to their commitment on bringing about political, social and economic reforms leading to transparent and accountable governance,” he had replied.

After retiring from full-time journalism in 2009, Kee wrote about 10 political books and countless scathing editorials and pieces about the political climate in this nation. “I just had the idea and hope that things should be better and should be done right. It didn’t matter to me who was listening or not. My point was I just needed to create some kind of awareness and share with other people what I think,” he explained to me candidly back then. 

For speaking out without fear or favour, Kee was among the first recipients of The Annexe Heroes Freedom of Expression Awards when it was launched in 2008. In 2010, he was voted “the 34th Most Trusted Malaysian” in a poll conducted by Readers Digest.

A lot has happened since that first flush of celebrations, of course. The euphoric victory was shockingly shortlived.

“I’ve been depressed,” he admits candidly. The 67-year-old writer looks morose. Adding, he confides: “I’m very disillusioned. Life isn’t the same as before. When I wake up in the morning these days, I don’t feel as sprightly.”

I could imagine the seasoned politician feeling the same way, I point out. Kee nods. “He did feel dejected, disillusioned and depressed,” he acknowledges. But Lim took it in his usual stoic stride. “We have to rise above our depression. We must continue to pursue the Malaysian dream!” he’d told Kee in a WhatsApp exchange.

Lim was not out for the count, wrote Kee in the introduction to his book. His spirit was still unyielding. More strongly than ever, Lim now felt that all the races in the country needed to be convinced that Malaysia could only succeed if they rejected being polarised, stopped feeling like they were being threatened by one another and agreed to work together to bring about a better society and a “top world-class nation”.

Where does he get this never-give-up spirit from, mused Kee. Perhaps from his life’s guiding motto: “Whatever comes, do your best to deal with it.”

Despite his overwhelming feelings of disappointment, the writer decided not to put away his pens for good. In late 2019, Kee approached the elderly politician and suggested that a memoir be written. “Let me think about it,” replied Lim. A few months passed and Lim finally gave his go-ahead.

The task of chronicling Lim’s life was daunting. “I did tonnes of research,” recalls Kee, adding: “I always made it a point to ensure that the facts were double-checked to make sure they were accurate.” Once a journalist always a journalist, I tease him and he laughs.

Kee interviewed over 60 of Lim’s closest friends, compatriots, family members and even old political foes. “I had 10 sessions with Kit Siang himself,” he adds, smiling. One time, a friend of Kee’s asked the senior politician how the interviews were getting along and Lim joked: “I feel victimised!”

“That’s Kit Siang for you,” Kee tells me dryly, shaking his head. “He has a great sense of humour and cracks a lot of jokes. Not many has seen that side of him!”

NOSTALGIC DETAILS

 Lim Kit Siang outside the shophouse on Jalan Penggaram where he was born and grew up in. His family lived on the upper floor.
Lim Kit Siang outside the shophouse on Jalan Penggaram where he was born and grew up in. His family lived on the upper floor.

Kee is as fine a writer as they come. It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty autobiography, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the details granular and vivid.

 Lim Poh San (Lim Kit Siang's father) plied his trade castrating pigs and poultry in Batu Pahat.
Lim Poh San (Lim Kit Siang’s father) plied his trade castrating pigs and poultry in Batu Pahat.

This is the first of two volumes, and it starts early in his life, charting his birth, his childhood and growing up years. The highlights of this volume lie in the small details that surprise or upend what we imagine we know of Lim.

 Tiu Kau Nee (Lim Kit Siang's mother) raised a very disciplined family.
Tiu Kau Nee (Lim Kit Siang’s mother) raised a very disciplined family.

The shape of the story told by Kee is chronological: a narrative of a simple life that began in a village not far from Batu Pahat, Johor, through to the tumultuous Japanese occupation, and then lingering over his schooling years where Lim showed extraordinary promise of being a brilliant student. 

He was the quintessential “professor of bookwormism” who “spoke like Shakespeare, wrote like Johnson and thought like Confucius!” “A nerd, then!” I remark and Kee laughs heartily. 

The book is very telling on that subject and the details offer you a humorous glimpse into his style or the lack of it. 

“Kit was of average height, fair and skinny with thick, heavy-rimmed spectacles and a slightly pock-marked face. He sported a unique hairstyle, combed straight backwards without a parting, and had short spiky hair protruding on both sides of his head.”

That is how Lim’s long-time friend Michael Ong described Lim’s look in the second half of the 1950s when he was at High School Batu Pahat. Lim chose to wear that combed-back hairstyle because, as he himself says, it was “easy, not bothersome, and you don’t have to divide your hair”. He still sports it to this day.

“It’s a very simple hairstyle,” remarks another old buddy, Tan Tik Seng. “And he wasn’t the sort to follow fashion.”

“One of the biggest discoveries for me,” says Kee “… is finding out that Kit Siang was an introvert.”

He never fancied being in the limelight from a very young age. “Many of the things that he organised for his classmates he would do by staying in the background. He would suggest the idea, do the work, contribute his effort, but he would let others get the attention,” explains Tan.

“At school, we engaged in a lot of activities, like putting up concerts and sketches, and he (Lim) was very actively involved. But for the work he put in, he would not take the credit. I know this very well because I was also involved.”

 Lim Kit Siang (centre) and his friends Tan Tik Seng (left) and Pek Teck Soon (right) outside High School Batu Pahat in 2020.
Lim Kit Siang (centre) and his friends Tan Tik Seng (left) and Pek Teck Soon (right) outside High School Batu Pahat in 2020.

Lim affirmed this. “I think I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert. Extroverts are those who enjoy meeting people. I don’t really enjoy that. I prefer to be on my own,” he told Kee.

“I’m not much of an outgoing character, the sort who could meet a total stranger and make it appear as if we were the closest of pals. It’s difficult, it would take some time for me to warm up, to get to know the other person. Not that I’m averse to meeting people, it’s just my character.”

Even so, he got into debating at school and was chairman of his class’s debating society as well as vice-chairman of the school’s Debating and Literary Society, but that, he maintains, “…doesn’t make you an extrovert”.

“It does call for a bit of extrovert attitude, but I became a debater and a student activist, leading the class in various activities and getting involved in numerous societies because I wanted to express my ideas. I wanted to get the student voice heard,” he revealed.

In Form 5, Lim started a class magazine called The Light. It came out in that historic year of 1957. The new Merdeka spirit was plainly reflected in an editorial written by Lim himself, that exhorted youths to their part for the newly independent Malaya, to be at once servants and leaders of the country, and to acknowledge that “co-operation between the different races is of paramount importance.”

It is interesting to note that 54 years later, on the eve of his 70th birthday in 2011, Lim would write in his blog that “…looking back, I have largely lived by the spirit of this schoolboy editorial.”

 At the age of 19 in 1960.
At the age of 19 in 1960.

In January 1960, Kit started school at the prestigious English College, Johore Bahru where he expected to be prepared over the next two years to sit for the HSC and after that, apply to university. 

“Had I completed Form 6 at English College, I might have ended up becoming a doctor,” he’d reflect years later. But he didn’t complete his studies there.

Instead, he decided to marry Ng Yok Tee whom he had met when they were both in Secondary 3.

His parents refused to give their blessing and threatened to withdraw their financial support. Lim was adamant and eventually dropped out of English College to be with Ng.

 Ng Yok Tee and the children in 1969. From left, Hui Ying, Hui Ming, Guan Choon and Guan Eng.
Ng Yok Tee and the children in 1969. From left, Hui Ying, Hui Ming, Guan Choon and Guan Eng.

His loving relationship with Ng sparkles in its solidity. He acknowledges the sacrifices she has made for him, and the pressures his political life thrust on her. It’s been said (though not in the book) that Lim, while not being the quintessential romantic, carries only her photograph in his wallet!

Kee takes his time to carve out Lim’s early years slowly and thoughtfully but with the conversational ease that distinguishes his books, moving freely between the personal and the political, the anecdotal and the historical facts.

 Doting father.
Doting father.

Whether he’s talking about political events or intimate stories, his writings are animated by an ability to connect social, cultural and historical dots, and a gift — honed during his years as a journalist and activist — for lending complex ideas immediacy and context.

BIRTH OF A POLITICIAN

 Lim Kit Siang addressing a party meeting in the early days of the DAP.
Lim Kit Siang addressing a party meeting in the early days of the DAP.

The story of Lim would not be complete without talking about the Democratic Action Party (DAP) that was formally registered on March 18, 1966. Lim was among the first batch to join as members.

We read about how Lim was given the burdensome task of going all over the country to set up new branches and to ensure that existing ones functioned properly. The 26-year-old spent night after night meeting up with people who had interest in forming new branches and at the same time, talking to those who were capable and had the potential to be coaxed into doing the same. In countless cases, he had to make cold calls that sometimes led to nothing.

 Lim Kit Siang being sworn in as member of Parliament.
Lim Kit Siang being sworn in as member of Parliament.

“He would meet one person, talk talk talk. Then meet another person and talk some more,” recalls a close friend, adding: “Night time, he would reach home very late. But along the way, he experienced a lot of disappointments.”

Being in the opposition party was an uphill struggle as Lim and his peers would soon discover. The political threats, intimidation, detentions and harassment would follow them throughout their political careers. Yet, Lim remains stoic. “We’re prepared to sacrifice for the cause of the country, for fairness, justice and equality,” he asserts to this day.

 Lim Kit Siang getting a hero's reception at the DAP headquarters after his release from ISA detention in October 1970.
Lim Kit Siang getting a hero’s reception at the DAP headquarters after his release from ISA detention in October 1970.

Kee wants readers to be aware of the sacrifices and the contributions Lim has made throughout his political career as a member of the opposition party. “He was unselfish and never asked for anything in return,” says Kee. 

To some, Lim was a scourge because he was deemed anti-Malay and anti-Islam. To his supporters, he is the heroic fighter for democracy and a Malaysia for all Malaysians. Few have been more misunderstood than him. Villain or hero, the jury is out there for the enigmatic politician. 

“Vilify him or praise him, Kit Siang has been an integral part of the Malaysian story for as long I can remember. For that alone, he deserves his story told,” insists Kee, adding: “This is my personal project and Kit Siang has not asserted himself in any way in regard to the form and content of this biography. We wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

 The political stalwart reading Kee's book.
The political stalwart reading Kee’s book.

The story will continue in the second volume, promises Kee, but truth be told, the unapologetic, outspoken politician who has illuminated many pivotal moments in Malaysian history and witnessed how the nation changed over the years while also remaining sadly unchanged, shows no signs of stopping any time soon.

He may be a political gadfly or as Kee would depict in his book, a dog barking at the mountain, but the son of Poh San and Tiu Kau Nee will continue to do what he does best — keeping the dream of a united Malaysia alive and well despite the odds.

By : Elena Koshy – NST

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