April 10, 2018
The Enigma of Parliamentarian Tan Seng Giaw
by Terence Netto @www.malaysiakini.com
COMMENT | So Dr Tan Seng Giaw has been dropped by the DAP as its parliamentary candidate for Kepong after eight terms on the trot as the incumbent.
He is 76 this year, an age that would have been considered old in the pre-Mahathir era but not now. They say the test of a great writer is that after him no one can write without being aware of him.
These days much the same can be said of one’s age: after what Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is 93, has done and continues to do in his 10th decade in life, no one can say that someone in his 70s is old.
What more when one is dark-haired and full coiffed, lean and lithe as Seng Giaw is. Who would want to put him out to pasture, as DAP has done?
Inevitably, the question arises: Did Seng Giaw, a medical practitioner like his patron, Dr Tan Chee Khoon, live up to his billing as the protege of a man on whom the appellation ‘Mr Opposition’ was deservedly conferred for epitomising a brand of opposition politics considered principled and noble.
Seng Giaw was introduced into the opposition’s ranks by Chee Khoon in 1978 for his parliamentary seat of Batu after a stroke in 1976 had disabled Chee Khoon.
Chee Khoon had been the Batu MP from 1964 to 1978, variously under the Labour Party, Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (later renamed Parti Gerakan) and, finally, Pekemas, the vehicle Chee Khoon set up after Gerakan was split by Dr Lim Chong Yu’s decision in the early 1970s to enlist its Penang chapter with an expanded Alliance that became the ruling Barisan Nasional.
Seng Giaw contested Batu under the Pekemas banner in the 1978 general election but lost to Dr Tan Tiong Hong of the Gerakan.
This was the era when there was a surge of medical doctors in the political arena, hitherto dominated by lawyers, ex-civil servants and people who began their working life as teachers.
After Pekemas waned following Chee Khoon’s stroke, Seng Giaw did the sensible thing, which was to join DAP and then contested the Kepong ward, redrawn to subsume Batu for the 1982 general election, and won it with an ease that belied the BN juggernaut marshalled by the new-broom leadership of Mahathir and Musa Hitam.
With his fluency in Bahasa Malaysia, honed from his primary school days in his home state of Kelantan; with his background in Chinese secondary school education in Penang sans its chauvinistic hues; and with his willingness to debate the ruling BN in Parliament and public forums where he adduced arguments delivered in a style that was arresting for its blend of Malay literary norms and western rhetorical conventions, Seng Giaw was eminently watchable.
He stayed clear of the factional battles that periodically convulsed the DAP which may have been sensible because of his outsider status in the party but wasn’t quite wise in the longer term, given the murmur of dissent he voiced over Lim Guan Eng’s permissiveness in the face of developers’ zeal in making over Penang.
That permissiveness stemmed from the lack of intellectualism in the DAP that earlier-era DAP stalwarts Goh Hock Guan and Fan Yew Teng would have fostered if they had not become casualties in the factional battles in which Lim Kit Siang had triumphed. Seng Giaw could have picked up and made some ground with the fallen banner.
Disappointingly, there was not the sustained attempt at assembling arguments for or against issues that his early days as a DAP MP had presaged.
More disconcerting were traces of a dilettantism that had crept into Seng Giaw’s demeanour which were wholly out of keeping with his initial persona as a politician of some intellectual quality.
These hints became stark when in 2016 he offered the bizarre opinion, as vice chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, that Prime Minister Najib Razak could not be held accountable for the 1MDB scandal.
This attenuation from reality was the more marked by his missing the 2016 Budget vote because he said he was watching the terror attacks in Paris on TV.
Seng Giaw seemed to have lost his nous and what’s more, appeared untroubled by public speculation on this count.The chop he has received from his party for GE14 comes as no surprise.
Would he fade into the obscurity his conduct of recent years has presaged or would he shed light on his journey in the DAP by penning his experiences that may tell of why he has not lived up to his billing as Chee Khoon’s protege?
In short, would he prefer to be the tongue-tied clinician or the loquacious dermatologist that he is as a medical professional?
TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for more than four decades. A sobering discovery has been that those who protest the loudest tend to replicate the faults they revile in others.