August 31, 2010
On James Puthucheary, Towering Malaysian of yesteryear
By Karim Raslan (newsdesk@the star.com.my)
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.