Towering Malaysian of yesteryear

August 31, 2010

On James Puthucheary, Towering Malaysian of yesteryear

By Karim Raslan (newsdesk@the

AS Malaysians celebrate Merdeka, I find myself thinking about the late James Puthucheary. A giant of the Merdeka Generation, he was (among other things) an activist, intellectual and lawyer.

James was already a legend when I first met him at the legal firm of Skrine & Co back in 1987. White-haired, Pickwick-ian and wry, few details escaped his observation.

As a former detainee of the British, Singaporean and Malaysian governments, he possessed an undeniable glamour for idealistic young lawyers. Needless to say, when he talked about “Harry”, “Hussein”, “Mahathir” and “Keng Swee”, we all listened attentively.

As a very half-hearted lawyer baffled by contract law, I tended to shirk my work and disappear into James’ office.He would regale me with stories about 50s and 60s politics and the latest updates on the turmoil in UMNO as Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah struggled for control of the party.

One never gets tired of listening to him talk about his days as an Indian National Army officer or as a leader of the University Socialist Club at the University of Malaya in Singapore. That strikes me now, as I reconstruct those conversations, was how truly Malaysian his life was.

It is true that he cut his political teeth in Singapore, where he was a founding member of the People’s Action Party.

Nevertheless, James was born in Johor and after his banishment from Singapore in 1963, resided here permanently. In many ways, his biography reminds us of when the borders between Malaya and Singapore were fluid.

It also harkens back to a time when their men and women could speak their minds without fear or favour, and transcend ethnic, class and ideological barriers.

The collection of James’ writings, No Cowardly Past, which was re-launched this year, captures some of this ethos. It reads almost like a yearbook of the Merdeka Generation, encompassing all sides of the political spectrum.

It was edited by his brother Dominic (a one-time Gerakan MP) and the outspoken academic Jomo K.S. Pictures of James with Lim Chin Siong, Sydney Woodhull and Devan Nair are blended with the reminiscences of A. Samad Ismail. There are mentions of his associations with the likes of Abdullah Ahmad, Phillip Kuok and others.

Tengku Razaleigh spoke at the launch of the book’s second edition. This is a tribute not only to his greatness as a human being, but his uncanny ability to make friends from all walks of life.

It was a trait that many of his cohorts shared, which their successors — Malaysia’s current political and intellectual elite — have lost. How many of our current leaders are truly Malaysian, rather than communal, sectional figures?

One struggles to name even a handful. More disheartening is the fact that none of them can articulate ideas or policies like James did.

In his Who Owns Malaya and Significant Changes in Ownership and Control in the Malaysian Economy, he argued for state intervention to adjust the historical socio-economic imbalances in the country. These principles later helped shape the New Economic Policy (NEP) of Tun Abdul Razak.

Unlike today’s Malay extremists however, James did not see the NEP as a permanent fixture.Indeed, he believed that the “domination” of Malaysia’s economy by the Chinese was a myth, and that it was really the concentration of capital in foreign (i.e. British) hands that needed to be addressed.

Despite the nearly 40-year time gap, many of his contentions are still relevant. He saw that communal-based parties — no matter how closely allied — would eventually fail to deliver on nation-building.

James, furthermore, worried about sectarianism creeping into our educational system, seeing the “… dangers of large sections of Chinese and Malay children spending very large parts of their formative years in communally separate compartments.

“The existence of two communal educational structures should be frightening to all those who believe that the country’s future is dependent on non-communal politics.”

We may disagree with his proposed solution to Malaysia’s problems: namely socialism, or rather social-democracy, but no one who looks at Malaysia today can deny that his writings have an eerie, prophetic ring to them.

What’s saddening is that we have not only disregarded his warnings, but also rejected the liberal, accepting and pluralistic legacy of Malaya and Malaysia’s founding fathers.

Towering Malaysians like James have been replaced by minnows. Nevertheless, I still have hope that this land, which gave birth to James and others like him, may see the rise of young people who can move it forward.

I keep this hope alive in my heart, like so many other Malaysians waiting for a better tomorrow. And while we wait, let us honour the memory of James Puthucheary.

10 thoughts on “Towering Malaysian of yesteryear

  1. I too remember the late James Puthucheary as a friend and my senior, an occasional golfing partner when we took on lawyer Zain Azahari and banker Ong Kim Hoay at the RSGC, a poet and intellectual, and author of the celebrated book on the Malayan economy.

    He was close to both Tun Razak and Tun Hussein Onn. I used to see both Tun Hussein and James during lunch time at the Royal Selangor when the former was his colleague at Skrine & Co. Occasionally, the late Bank Negara Governor Jaffar Hussein, at that time a senior partner with Price Waterhouse, could be seen in their company.

    James was always willing to share his views, ideas and insights about WW2 and post colonial politics in Singapore and Malaya and our struggle for independence in the 1950s with the younger set. On the golf course, he was a fierce competitor with a sense of humour. He was a true Malaysian worthy of emulation.–Din Merican

  2. The poison originated from the racist slaughter in Indonesia. 2 years later, it reached Singapore, and another 2 years later, it reached us. If anything, material development has poisoned most of us. Ask those old enough to know.

  3. Mr Merican

    You are so lucky to know him and putt shot with him.
    I only read and heard stories about him and his brother Dominic’s mental prowess in the courts.
    We don’t have such towering personalities like that anymore.
    Why is it our past leaders are far superior than we are now.
    Is it because of the struggles they have to go through to succeed?
    Or is because we lack the mental capacity?

  4. Sayang Bangsa,

    These days we either refuse to think or prefer to be second stringers. We fear big brother. That is sad and if it continues, we can regress further. Men like Johorean James and his brother Dominic are driven by the quest for truth.

    I am still in touch with Dominic because he is my bond to my Malaysian brother, James. Dominic is an intellectual in his own right. You should buy a copy of No Cowardly Past and read James’ piece on University education.–Din Merican

  5. Don’t forget the Seenivasagam brothers and their contribution towards democracy in Malaysia. They should go down in history alongside Dr Tan Chee Khoon a scholar and gentleman.

  6. James, seeing the “… dangers of large sections of Chinese and Malay children spending very large parts of their formative years in communally separate compartments… should be frightening to all those who believe that the country’s future is dependent on non-communal politics.”

    Jame’s prognosis is very, very frightening indeed.

    If we don’t change now, it will be the poison that will eventually affect all our children to come.

  7. Ai Tze,

    Religion and Race as the bases of one’s identity is useful for politicians as a form of control but that has unintended consequences. They breed intolerance and suspicion of the other.

    What we need is a set of core values that make us think and act Malaysian. The key words are “think” and “act”. For that to happen, a total revamp of our education system is essential; fine tuning is not enough. I remember we had the Razak Report on education many years ago.It is time to have a Royal Commission on Education. It is money well spent.

    Semper fi,

    We must remember men and women who served our country with distinction like the Seenivasagam brothers, Dr Tan Chee Khoon, Tun Dr. Ismail, Pak Khir Johari, Ungku A. Aziz and others including writers, poets, artists and actors. Malaysian history did not begin in 1981, if you know what I mean. And nation building is not a one man show. It is about the contributions of a people through the ages.–Din Merican

  8. We need to have one system of schooling and do away with separate schools for different communties. One schooling system for all Malaysians.

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