Vendatta and Abuse of Power: Syed Kechik and the Politics of Sabah


January 11, 2014

A Bit of History: Syed Kechik and the Politics of Sabah

by Din Merican

I recommend this book which is a historical account of the politics of Sabah. It is also about the trials and tribulations of, and injustices suffered by, Tan Sri Syed Kechik bin Syed Mohamed Albukhary.

Syed Kechik

The late Tan Sri, as I knew him in 1950 or thereabouts when he  had just returned from the United States after graduating from University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), was my hometown (Alor Setar) hero.

He and Dato Senu Abdul Rahman were sailors in the merchant navy which brought them to Los Angeles. They were encouraged to study in the United States by another Kedahan, Mohammed Zain Tajuddin (Monte Zain) who joined the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and saw action in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Monte Zain2Monte Zain served in USMC

Upon arrival in California, Senu and Syed Kechik became students and upon their return home with their respective degrees, they were intimately involved in pre-independence  UMNO politics and went on to play prominent roles in government. Both were self made individuals who were role models for my generation of Kedahans.

Dato Senu A RahmanDato Senu (left) was a Minister and diplomat (As as an exchange student, I met him in Bonn in 1963 when he served as our Ambassador to West Germany), while Tan Sri Syed Kechik was advisor to then Chief Minister of Sabah, Tun Datu Mustapha Harun.

I grew up with his younger brother Syed Salem. I admire him for his dedication to set right the record of his late brother. The book is an interesting and gripping account of a dedicated Malaysian who became a very successful businessman in his own right. It is a story of true grit.

I congratulate Dato Syed Salem and Dr. Shaari Isa for this excellent account of the trials and tribulations of Tan Sri Syed Kechik.

Vendetta and Abuse of Power by Dr. Shaari Isa

Vendetta and Abuse of Power by Dr. Shaari Isa is a chronicle on injustices suffered by a towering figure in Malaysia’s early nation building history, Allahyarham Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Syed Kechik bin Syed Mohamed Albukhary. It is also an analysis of the results of litigations spread over a 34-year quest for justice firstly by him, and later by his younger brother, Syed Salem Albukhary.

Syed Kechik was asked to go to Sabah by the Federal government to bolster the federation’s territorial integrity of Malaysia as we know it today. He was the centre’s point person sent to reign in break-away belligerences among the two large Borneo partner-states of Sabah and Sarawak during the earlier years of the Malaysian federation following the separation of Singapore in 1965. In Sabah – an east Malaysian state he called his adopted home – he introduced wide-ranging socio-economic reforms to reengineer social needs and energise the state’s economy.

Today, every Malaysian in Sabah, young and old, can still enjoy the countless benefits from his enduring legacy. Despite such significant contributions, Syed Kechik became the target of a vengeful political ploy. His opponents branded him as an outsider ravaging Sabah’s timber resources. He was accused of manipulating the then Sabah’s de facto ruler, Tun Datu Haji Mustapha bin Datu Harun for personal enrichment.

KL00_170114_BUKUThe new political party’s battle-cry to have him expelled from Sabah during 1975-1976 was surreptitiously led by the then Head of State, Tun Fuad Stephens, and openly spearheaded by Datuk Harris Salleh in this Party’s Manifesto. A barrage of slanders and efforts on character assassinations were levelled against Syed Kechik. He was vilified as Sabah’s No. 1 public enemy.

The new Berjaya Party-led state government quickly removed him from his job as the first and only Honorary Director of Sabah Foundation which he was instrumental in establishing to provide primarily better education facilities for students in Sabah and to promote Malaysian consciousness amongst the people. He was relieved of all official positions. They attempted to strip him of his immigration status as a permanent resident of the State of Sabah as well as his state Datukship award.

Through his unyielding spirit and diligence, Syed Salem finally succeeded in restoring his elder brother’s honour and dignity as portrayed in this book, and additionally accomplished the seemingly impossible task of redeeming the justice they had been battling for more than thirty-four long years.

 http://www.mphonline.com

ALSO READ:

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2014/09/24/harris-wants-apology-for-vendetta-and-abuse-of-power/

 

A Re-Look at General George C. Marshall


December 1, 2014

SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW

Debi and Irwin Unger with Stanley Hirshson On George C. Marshall

By Mark Atwood

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/30/books/review/george-marshall-by-debi-and-irwin-unger-with-stanley-hirshson.html?ref=books

eisenhower_marshallWhere have all the great generals gone? The United States has been at war since 2001 — its longest period of uninterrupted conflict — and for considerable stretches of the last half-century. Yet during all those years the nation has produced no military commanders of undeniable greatness.

For models of generalship, historians and biographers reach further back, returning again and again to the likes of George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, John J. (Black Jack) Pershing and Dwight Eisenhower, most of whom have been the subjects of admiring and popular volumes in recent years.

But no American military leader has been so revered as George Catlett Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff during World War II and then Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. Contemporaries heaped praise on Marshall for organizing the enormous expansion of United States forces necessary to challenge the Axis powers, managing relations with America’s cantankerous allies and playing a key role in devising the military strategies that ultimately won the war.

Truman called Marshall “the greatest military man that this country ever produced — or any other country for that matter.” Time Magazine, which twice named Marshall its man of the year, called him simply “the indispensable man” in 1944. Later commentators have mostly echoed these judgments, holding up Marshall as a model of all that’s lacking in American commanders ever since.

Debi and Irwin Unger take an exception to this heroic depiction in their elegant and iconoclastic biography, which pokes innumerable holes in Marshall’s reputation for leadership and raises intriguing questions about how such reputations get made. Marshall emerges not as the incarnation of greatness but as an ordinary, indecisive, “less than awe-inspiring” man who achieved an unexceptional mix of success and failure.

Why the discrepancy between the reputation and what “George Marshall: A Biography” claims is the reality? The answer, the Ungers assert, lies in “Americans’ yearning for a Platonic ideal of a triumphant military leader above politics, deceit and selfish ambition.” In fact, they add, a man of “unremarkable powers” was protected from the criticism he deserved by his “sterling character” and an aloof, stern bearing that kept potential critics from looking too closely. “Only a very few keen observers saw beyond the conventional wisdom,” the book concludes.

Such refreshing contrarianism comes as little surprise given the book’s team of accomplished authors. The Ungers’ co-­author, the Queens College historian Stanley Hirshson, who began researching the book before his death in 2003, is best known for a remarkably favorable biography of the oft-maligned Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman and a mostly critical study of the much-celebrated World War II General George S. Patton. Irwin Unger, a Pulitzer Prize-­winning historian, and his wife, Debi, whose collaborations include several studies of reform and dissent movements of the 1960s, carried on Hirshson’s research and wrote the book.

To be sure, the Ungers credit Marshall with momentous accomplishments. He deserves praise, they note, for ceaselessly pushing against the nation’s pervasive isolationist mood in the months before the Pearl Harbor attack and demanding steps to prepare the nation for war.

They also laud Marshall’s determination, in the face of opposition from much of the American public, to prioritize the war in Europe over the fight against Japan and, over British objections, to make a major attack across the English Channel the focal point of Allied strategy rather than operations in the Mediterranean. Both choices were, the Ungers assert, pivotal to the ultimate Allied victory. Most of all, the book extols Marshall’s wisdom in insisting on unified Anglo-American commands and deftly managing relations between the two prideful militaries.

In other ways, though, Marshall comes across as nothing special. In the Ungers’ telling, Marshall’s ascent through the ranks — a slow and frustrating experience that led him to question his commitment to the Army — owed as much to good timing as to any particular genius. The expansion of the military during World War I pulled him from obscurity, and the rise of fascism in the 1930s meant that his years as chief of staff would be endowed with epochal importance.

More strikingly, the book questions Marshall on matters that have usually counted in his favor. Like his champions, the Ungers note that he presided over the stunning growth of the Army from 275,000 to more than eight million men. But they insist that the latter number was still dangerously low considering the challenges the Army faced in waging a two-front war. More damning still, they argue, Marshall failed to assure adequate training for American servicemen to fight effectively against highly skilled enemies. The consequences were unnecessary American casualties and numerous battlefield setbacks before sheer industrial prowess could compensate for the deficiencies of American troops.

Nor do the Ungers affirm Marshall’s reputation as a good judge of subordinates. In fact, they reserve some of their strongest criticism for the men Marshall chose as his field commanders, including Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific, Joseph Stilwell in China and Mark Clark in Europe. Marshall’s protégés, the book suggests, “probably varied as much in leadership quality as any random selection among the list of available officers at the time of their assignments.”

The Ungers focus less attention on Marshall’s postwar career, including his stints in Harry Truman’s cabinet during the crisis-filled years from 1947 to 1951. But here, too, their appraisal is mixed at best, even in connection with the achievement most closely associated with Marshall’s years as secretary of state, the $17 billion economic aid program to rebuild war-­devastated Western Europe. The Marshall Plan was, in fact, the work of numerous officials, according to the Ungers, and Marshall’s main contribution was simply to lend his name to the effort. Recognizing that Marshall’s stature would help win congressional approval of the program, the Truman administration was happy to let him take credit.

marshall book

Mostly, the Ungers’ vision of Marshall is persuasive. Praise for the general has soared so high over the years that the reality is bound to lie closer to the ground. The book also offers a useful reminder that glorification of the World War II era may tell us more about the disappointments of our own times than about an increasingly remote past when — no ­surprise — American leaders stumbled and were sometimes saved from their errors by the scale of the American war machine and the endurance of their ­allies.

Still, it seems reasonable to believe that the challenges of raising an army and fighting monumental conflicts on two fronts were so great that Marshall, whatever his flaws, deserves the praise he has received. Could someone else have done better given the constraints that would have confronted any Army chief of staff — not just isolationist sentiment and poor military preparedness but also wobbly civilian leadership, fierce inter-service rivalries and a superabundance of headstrong subordinate officers?

To reckon seriously with this question would require a much broader examination of the United States at war than the Ungers provide. And it is, of course, ultimately unanswerable. But greater attention to the wider context of Marshall’s leadership might show that mediocrity pervaded the American war effort across the board, not just the performance of one man.

Love Flows, President to President


November 19, 2014

Love Flows, President to President

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/12/books/41-george-w-bushs-portrait-of-george-h-w-bush.html?ref=books&_r=0

’41,’ George W. Bush’s Portrait of George H. W. Bush

Review by Michiko Kakutani@www.nytimes.com

Bush-Senior-and-JuniorThe relationship between George W. Bush and his father, George H. W. Bush, might just be the most dissected filial relationship in modern history — compared, variously, to Shakespearean history, Greek tragedy and opéra bouffe. In his new book, the 43rd president draws an affectionate portrait of the 41st president that’s short on factual revelations and long on emotion.

In “41,” Mr. Bush sheds little new light on his fateful decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or on other pivotal moments of his presidency, nor does he tell us much about his father’s tenure in the White House that we didn’t already know. Instead, he’s written what he calls a “love story” about his dad. At its best, the book has the qualities of the younger Mr. Bush’s recent and much-talked-about paintings: It’s folksy, sharply observed and surprisingly affecting, especially for someone not exactly known for introspection. At its worst, the book reads like a banquet-dinner-type testimonial about his father, with transparent efforts to spin or sidestep important questions about his own time in office.

Since George W. Bush stepped onto the national stage, journalists, other politicians and even family members have been comparing and contrasting father and son. Whereas Bush senior was famous for his self-effacing New England manners and quiet diplomacy, Bush junior became known as a proud, outspoken gut player, with Texas swagger. Whereas Bush senior’s policies were grounded in foreign policy realism and old-school Republican moderation, Bush junior’s tilted toward neoconservatism and a drive to export democracy and remake the world. Bush senior was not crazy about “the vision thing,” whereas Bush junior was big on big ideas.

“On everything from taxes to Iraq,” the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in 2002, “the son has tried to use his father’s failures in the eyes of conservatives as a reverse playbook.” When Bush 41 went to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991 (after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait), he made a decision not to go on to Baghdad and topple Iraq’s dictator, later explaining that if we had gone in and created “more instability in Iraq, I think it would have been very bad for the neighborhood.”

The younger Mr. Bush writes, somewhat defensively here, that in ordering the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he “was not trying ‘to finish what my father had begun,’ as some have suggested. My motivation was to protect the United States of America, as I had sworn an oath to do.”

He also elaborates on a surprising statement he once made to Bob Woodward — that he couldn’t remember consulting his father about his decision to go to war. In “41,” he says: “I never asked Dad what I should do. We both knew that this was a decision that only the president can make. We did talk about the issue, however. Over Christmas 2002, at Camp David, I gave Dad an update on our strategy.”

His father, he says, replied: “You know how tough war is, son, and you’ve got to try everything you can to avoid war. But if the man won’t comply, you don’t have any other choice.”

The oddly dysfunctional inability of father and son to discuss policyGeorge Bush Sr. and politics — out of fear, it seems, of meddling or stepping on each other’s toes — is a recurrent theme in this book. The younger Mr. Bush says his father did not directly caution him against running for Congress in the late ’70s, but instead sent him to talk with a friend who told him he couldn’t win. (He didn’t.)

For many concerned about the war drums beating within the younger Bush’s White House in 2002, something similar occurred when the elder Bush’s former national security adviser and close friend, Brent Scowcroft, wrote an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal warning that another attack on Saddam could “seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.”

George W. Bush also writes that his father had little to say, in 1993, about his decision to run for governor of Texas, and that he didn’t ask his father whether he should run for president in the 2000 election, adding, “I knew he would support whatever choice I made.”

Biographers and journalists have often observed that the young George W. Bush (whose hard-drinking, irresponsible youth had made him a black sheep in the family next to Jeb, the golden boy) frequently felt overshadowed by his father. And they have speculated that, as President, he was driven to outdo his dad by taking Saddam Hussein down for good, and by winning a second term — arguments the Bush family has dismissed as psychobabble.

In “41,” the younger Mr. Bush talks at length about his dad’s early success. (“Few could claim the trifecta of war hero, Phi Beta Kappa and captain of the baseball team” at Yale, he writes.) And there is certainly fodder for readers searching for clues to an Oedipal rivalry. Mr. Bush says that his father’s college dreams of a baseball career were foiled because “he didn’t have a big enough bat to make the major leagues,” and also frets about his well-mannered father looking “weak” in a debate against Ronald Reagan, recalling a press account that said he showed “the backbone of a jellyfish.”

He writes, however, that his dad gave him “unconditional love,” and that he and his siblings felt “there was no point in competing with our father — no point in rebelling against him — because he would love us no matter what.” He celebrates his father’s well-known generosity, his talent for friendship and his willingness to take risks (from enlisting at the age of 18, not long after Pearl Harbor, to moving to Texas after college, to diving into politics after a stint in the oil business).

Like many, 43 hails 41 for his diplomatic handling of the end of the Cold War, reaching out to the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and wisely refusing to gloat over the fall of the Berlin Wall. In some ways, the younger Mr. Bush says, his father was “like Winston Churchill, who had been tossed out of office in 1945 just months after prevailing in World War II.”

The most persuasive sections of this book deal not with the political, but with the personal. Mr. Bush’s writing doesn’t have the earnest charm of his father’s letters (“All the Best, George Bush“) or the literary gifts displayed by his wife, Laura, in her memoir, “Spoken From the Heart.” But unlike his earlier books (his perfunctory 1999 campaign memoir, “A Charge to Keep,” and his dogged 2010 autobiography, “Decision Points”), this volume comes close to capturing Mr. Bush’s distinctive voice — by turns jokey and sentimental, irreverent and sincere.

There is very little here about his other siblings (his brother Jeb, the potential presidential candidate, is mentioned only in brief asides), but the passages devoted to his younger sister Robin’s death from leukemia in 1953 are heartfelt and moving.

“In one of her final moments with my father,” Mr. Bush writes, “Robin looked up at him with her beautiful blue eyes and said, ‘I love you more than tongue can tell.’ Dad would repeat those words for the rest of his life.”

As for Mr. Bush’s descriptions of the West Texas world that greeted him and his parents in the 1950s, they are evocative in a way that attests to his painterly eye. “We lived briefly at a hotel and then moved into a new 847-square-foot house on the outskirts of town,” he recalls. “The neighborhood was called Easter Egg Row, because the developers had chosen vibrant paint colors to help residents tell the houses apart. Our Easter egg at 405 East Maple was bright blue.”

Although George senior’s failure to win a second term in the White House led to a sense of despondency, his son writes, he would find “something positive about his defeat in 1992 — it had given rise to the political careers of two people” (that is, the author and Jeb) “whom he had raised and loves.” Had his dad been re-elected that year, the younger Mr. Bush says, “I would not have run for governor” of Texas in 1994 — nor, presumably, run for president and ascended to the White House in the too-close-to-call election of 2000 that went to the Supreme Court. History works in strange ways.

NY Times Sunday Book Review:Cradle of Civil Disobedience


May 10, 2014

Sunday Book Review

Cradle of Civil Disobedience

Gandhi Before India,’ by Ramachandra Guha

At the end of the 19th century, Mohandas Gandhi was a young lawyer living in Durban, South Africa. He left his house in Beach Grove every morning for an office on Mercury Lane, where he spent much of the day helping his fellow Indian immigrants navigate the onerous colonial bureaucracy. He kept meticulous records, including a logbook of correspondence — from an English missionary and local planters, and a series of letters exchanged with the Protector of Indian Immigrants about the treatment of indentured laborers. In January of 1897, and again a few months later, he heard from another lawyer who was, like him, a Gujarati who had studied in England and then struggled to establish a practice in Bombay. The contents of these letters are unknown.

R GuhaIn a remarkable new biography, “Gandhi Before India,” Ramachandra Guha (left) gingerly speculates about what they might have been. Expressions of support for Gandhi’s nascent activism? Or perhaps “explorations of interest in a possible career in South Africa”? Guha wisely stops there.

What is not in doubt is the name in Gandhi’s logbook — “M. A. Jinnah,” Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who would become the founder of Pakistan. “All we now know is that, a full 50 years before partition and the independence of India and Pakistan, the respective ‘Fathers’ of those nations were in correspondence.”

Guha’s description of this encounter is evidence of his strengths as a historian. He mines primary sources — in this case, records of Gandhi’s law practice from the archives in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, and the logbook dug out of a filing cupboard in the Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad, India — to establish that Gandhi and Jinnah were in contact a decade earlier than previously documented. And he writes vividly enough to compete with that bête noire of all Gandhi biographies, Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi.” (In the movie, they meet at a garden party in India, where a skeptical Jinnah adjusts his monocle while the turbaned Mahatma smiles beatifically.) Guha reminds us of everything these two legendary opposites had in common — language, education and the desperate striving of the ambitious immigrant. “Gandhi Before India” is full of such revelations, each one a delight for the reader.

Early on, Guha spells out how his technique differs from those of previous biographers: He uses the records of contemporaries to complement and sometimes challenge Gandhi’s own account. Gandhi was prolific — the first 12 volumes of his collected works run to 5,000 pages — but, Guha explains, “This reliance on Gandhi’s words can often narrow the historical landscape against which his life and work were enacted.”

This approach helps illuminate Gandhi’s time in South Africa. (As the title indicates, “Gandhi Before India” ends with his final departure, in 1914. A planned second volume will pick up the thread in India.) What Gandhi achieved legally for Indians in South Africa was modest, but by filling out the narrative with Gandhi’s colleagues and rivals, Guha makes a persuasive case that this period is just as significant politically as the years in India. Through the mutual wariness of Gandhi and John Dube, his neighbor and a pioneer of the South African freedom struggle, Guha sketches the marginal, often conflicted role of Indians in African nationalist movements.

The frustrations of South Africa’s Gujarati Muslim merchants, Gandhi’s main political patrons, prefigure the mistrust that would later split apart the movement in India. Guha also uses the nervous functionaries of the Raj to show why Gandhi’s agitation in South Africa was so threatening to the larger colonial project — it forced authorities to acknowledge that under its veneer of liberal paternalism, the British Empire was built on racism. “Every patriotic South African looks forward to the establishment of a large and vigorous European population here,” the governor of Transvaal, Lord Selborne, wrote. “The immigration of an Asiatic population on a large scale he regards as a menace to the realization of this ideal.”

Most of the revelations in this book are political, not personal. Readers looking for salacious details about Gandhi’s sexual life will be disappointed. Guha does not venture far into that territory, except to recount the tale of Maud Polak, sister of Gandhi’s old friend Henry Polak, whose apparent infatuation with Gandhi led her to chase him from England to South Africa. “She cannot tear herself away from me,” Gandhi wrote in one letter to Henry. Guha is more interested in giving the well-known contours of Gandhi’s life a new gloss. He shows, for example, how Gandhi’s sexual abstinence and vegetarianism were informed by a long engagement with Christian nonconformism.

These ideas are thoroughly explored elsewhere, but Guha’s moving portrait of Gandhi as an immigrant is new. “Mohandas Gandhi had been a journeyman between continents,” he writes. “Born and raised in Kathiawar, he had braved convention and community to study in England. . . . Having tried, and failed, to establish himself in Rajkot and Bombay, on his third try Gandhi became a successful lawyer in Durban.”

Gandhi by Guha

Gandhi was part of a wave of Indian immigrants who left the subcontinent in the late 19th century to find work in other parts of the Empire, from Fiji to Mauritius to Trinidad. His struggles were their struggles: estrangement from his wife, Kasturba, and their sons; financial worries (at one point he considers abandoning law to study medicine); and a lifelong sense of indebtedness toward his brothers, who pawned the family jewelry to pay for his education.

Guha populates Gandhi’s world with a Bloomsbury’s worth of fascinating characters. In India, we meet the dissolute Sheikh Mehtab, a childhood friend who is shunned after arranging a disastrous visit for the young Gandhi to a brothel but later becomes a bard of the Indian struggle. In Durban, Leung Quinn enters the scene as a steadfast leader of the South African Chinese, traveling to India to preach the gospel of Asian solidarity. And hovering in the background is Sonja Schlesin, Gandhi’s secretary, who cut her hair and began wearing a shirt and tie as part of her bid to become the first woman in South Africa to qualify for the bar. Rejected, she visited jailed passive resisters, rushing “about on her bicycle from prison to prison, carrying food and messages.”

These small details give the book a cinematic richness. After his family moved to Johannesburg, Guha writes, Gandhi “rose early, helped his wife grind flour for the day’s meals, then walked the five miles to his office in Rissik Street, carrying a packed lunch of wholemeal bread with peanut butter and a selection of seasonal fruits.” When Kasturba is released from a difficult jail term, Henry Polak describes the scene via telegram: “Reduced skeleton tottering appearance old woman heart breaking sight.”

Guha falters, though, in explaining why it all matters. He tends to summarize rather than analyze. “There were, circa 1906, six separate strands in the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi,” he writes near the end of one chapter. And in a work of this depth, it seems glib to mention that “a prominent Chinese blogger has a portrait of Gandhi on his profile” as evidence of Gandhi’s relevance to China’s pro-­democracy movement.

Why does Gandhi matter now? Perhaps the fullness of his life is evidence enough. Guha introduces us to a stressed-out parent, a self-­righteous advocate for raw food and a risk-­taking newspaper editor (he coined the word “satyagraha” with a reader contest — an early experiment in user-­generated content). Above all, he was a skillful politician who allowed his adversaries to sharpen his thinking. Fittingly, Guha leaves the last word on Gandhi in South Africa to his nemesis, Gen. Jan Christian Smuts: “The saint has left our shores — I sincerely hope forever.” Jinnah, presumably, reappears in the sequel.

Penang to give Karpal official send-off


The Penang government will provide veteran lawmaker Karpal Singh an official send off.
The Penang government will provide veteran lawmaker Karpal Singh an official send off.

April 17, 2014

A Tribute to The Tiger of Jelutong:

Legacy of the ‘Tiger of Jelutong’ will endure

by Aimee Gulliver @www.malaysiakini.com

  • Cowards die many times before their deaths;
    The valiant never taste of death but once.
    Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
    It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
    Seeing that death, a necessary end,
    Will come when it will come.

    • Julius Caesar Act II, scene 2, line 33.

Karpal Singh’s story may have come to an abrupt end this morning, but the author of his biography says the legacy of the ‘Tiger of Jelutong’ will endure in Malaysia, where he was a warrior in the fight for equality and justice.

image

New Zealand journalist Tim Donoghue first met Karpal in Penang in 1987 and spent nearly 30 years researching the biography he wrote on the fearless lawyer and advocate, titled “Karpal Singh – Tiger of Jelutong”, which was published in 2013.

“I’ve done a few things in journalism, but I’m particularly proud of that because this man was the ultimate scrapper, but he had a sense of humour,” Donoghue said.

“The things he had to deal with, the life and death issues that he had to deal with, he smiled his way through them all, and he helped a lot of people out along the way. There was always that great twinkle in his eyes, and you just knew that no matter what anyone was ever going to throw at that guy, he was never going to kow-tow to any man.”

Karpal and his aide Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, 39, were killed in a road accident about 1.10 this morning near Kampar in Perak. The former DAP chairperson’s sudden departure has shocked the nation, and elicated a flood of eulogies from both sides of the political divide.

His death comes as the 74-year-old was gearing up to appeal his recent conviction for sedition that was cross-appealed by the government, which is seeking have the wheelchair-bound politician jailed.

Karpal

“I don’t think the legal system has brought any great credit upon itself by convicting this man of sedition.“I think that is something that those in the ruling political and legal establishment of Malaysia do need to think about.”, Donoghue said.

The government’s persecution of the man who stood up and fought for human rights in Malaysia had made a martyr out of him, Donoghue said.

“Now that Karpal has gone to his death under threat of imprisonment for this sedition charge, I think he will be a great rallying point come the next election – there will be a huge groundswell of support among the opposition parties in the country.”

A long line of challenges

Karpal’s conviction for sedition was just the latest in a long line of challenges for the “Sikh warrior in legal attire”. “Back when he was 65, after the car accident, most people said he was gone. Even his best friends, with the best intentions in the world, were saying it would have been a far more merciful end if he had died at that time.”

“But the Tiger of Jelutong had a message for those who doubted him.

“He suffered a huge amount of pain as a result of that accident, but he vowed, with the help of his family, to get back out there into the realm of both politics and the law in Malaysia and to keep challenging those in power.”

“Karpal continued his work, and some of his most notable achievements came in the years following his debilitating accident”, Donoghue said.

“After his car accident, his life was totally shattered. But I do think he did his best work, both in the law and in politics, in the seven or eight years that he had after his accident. He did some amazing things in his life. “He would say to me, ‘retirement is not a word in my dictionary’. And the reason I think he hung on was as a result of the pain he suffered because of that accident.”

Donoghue said the manner of Karpal’s death could be considered a merciful release in some ways, but his family would not agree.

Backed by family, every step of the way

“Every step of the way they backed him, they fought with him, and they lifted and laid him. They fought to keep him going.” It was with the support of his family, and his devoted assistant Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, 39, who was also killed in this morning’s accident, that Karpal was able to continue his work after the 2005 accident.

“Michael gave his life for this man. He worked around the clock, 24 hours a day, just to support Karpal, and the whole family is very, very, grateful for the job he has done.

“Everything Karpal has done in the last few years has been with the support of (his wife) Gurmit Kaur and Michael. They’ve kept him going, really.”

When he came to Malaysia to launch Karpal’s biography in 2013, Donoghue said he could tell Karpal was extremely proud of what he had achieved in his life.

“Basically, his legacy is one of uncompromising challenge to human rights on a number of fronts throughout his 40-plus years in legal practice.

“I suppose what endeared him to me was he challenged, he challenged, he challenged – and he did it in such a way that everybody enjoyed the trip.”

Although he was an eminently patient man, Donoghue said, Karpal would occasionally get frustrated with him, and ask when the book would be completed.

“I would tell him we would finish when he gave me an ending. We had the final ending this morning, and I think Karpal Singh will go down as one of the great warriors of the Malaysian legal and political fraternities.”

“He was a man who, as long as he had breath going into his lungs, was always going to fight. And in the wake of this man’s life, the fight will go on in Malaysia.”


AIMEE GULLIVER is a New Zealand journalist interning with Malaysiakini for six weeks, courtesy of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Kennedy, the Elusive President


November 24, 2013

Kennedy, the Elusive President

by Jill Abramson* (10-22-13)

*Jill Abramson is the executive editor of The Times.

…John F. Kennedy remains all but impossible to pin down. One reason is that his martyrdom — for a generation of Americans still the most traumatic public event of their lives, 9/11 notwithstanding — has obscured much about the man and his accomplishments.

JFKThe 35th President of USA

Was Kennedy a great president, as many continue to think? Or was he a reckless and charming lightweight or, worse still, the first of our celebrities-in-chief? To what extent do his numerous personal failings, barely reported during his lifetime but amply documented since, overshadow or undermine his policy achievements? And what of those achievements — in civil rights and poverty, to name two issues his administration embraced. Weren’t the breakthroughs actually the doing of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson?

Even the basic facts of Kennedy’s death are still subject to heated argument. The historical consensus seems to have settled on Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin, but conspiracy speculation abounds — involving Johnson, the C.I.A., the mob, Fidel Castro or a baroque combination of all of them. Many of the theories have been circulating for decades and have now found new life on the Internet, in Web sites febrile with unfiltered and at times unhinged musings.

Of course the Kennedy fixation is hardly limited to the digital world. An estimated 40,000 books about him have been published since his death, and this anniversary year has loosed another vast outpouring. Yet to explore the enormous literature is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing. Readers can choose from many books but surprisingly few good ones, and not one really outstanding one.

It is a curious state of affairs, and some of the nation’s leading historians wonder about it. “There is such fascination in the country about the anniversary, but there is no great book about Kennedy,” Robert Caro lamented when I spoke to him not long ago. The situation is all the stranger, he added, since Kennedy’s life and death form “one of the great American stories.” Caro should know. His epic life of Johnson (four volumes and counting) brilliantly captures parts of the Kennedy saga, especially the assassination in Dallas, revisited in the latest installment, “The Passage of Power.”

Robert Dallek, the author of “An Unfinished Life,” probably the best single-volume Kennedy biography, suggests that the cultish atmosphere surrounding, and perhaps smothering, the actual man may be the reason for the deficit of good writing about him. “The mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” Dallek told me.

“Historians see him more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.” Dallek also pointed to a second inhibiting factor, the commercial pressure authors feel to come up with sensational new material. His own book, as it happens, included a good deal of fresh information on Kennedy’s severe health problems and their cover-up by those closest to him. And yet Dallek is careful not to let these revelations overwhelm the larger story.

Dallek is also good on the fairy-tale aspects of the Kennedy family history, and he closely examines the workings of the Kennedy White House. So enthralled was he by this last topic that he has written a follow-up, “Camelot’s Court,” which profiles members of Kennedy’s famous brain trust and is being released for the 50th anniversary. This time, however, it is Dallek who doesn’t offer much fresh material.

This in turn raises another question: How much is left to say about Kennedy’s presidency? The signature legislative accomplishments he and his advisers envisioned were not enacted until after his death. Then there is the Vietnam conundrum. Some maintain that Kennedy would not have escalated the war as Johnson did. But the belief that he would have limited the American presence in Vietnam is rooted as much in the romance of “what might have been” as in the documented record.

Indeed, a dolorous mood of “what might have been” hangs over a good deal of writing about Kennedy. Arriving in time for November. 22 is the loathsomely titled “If Kennedy Lived. The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History,” by the television commentator Jeff Greenfield, who imagines a completed first Kennedy term and then a second. This isn’t new territory for Greenfield, who worked for Kennedy’s brother Robert and is the author of a previous book of presidential “what ifs” called “Then Everything Changed.” (Dallek’s “Camelot’s Court” and Greenfield’s “If Kennedy Lived” are reviewed here.)

Thurston Clarke, the author of two previous and quite serviceable books on the Kennedys, also dwells on fanciful “what might have beens” in “JFK’s Last Hundred Days,” suggesting that the death of the presidential couple’s last child, Patrick, brought the grieving parents closer together and may have signaled the end of Kennedy’s compulsive womanizing.

What’s more, Clarke makes a giant (and dubious) leap about Kennedy as leader, arguing that in the final 100 days he was becoming a great president. One example, according to Clarke, was his persuading the conservative Republicans Charles Halleck, the House minority leader, and Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader, to support a civil rights bill. Once re-elected, Kennedy would have pushed the bill through Congress.

Kennedy as Arthurian hero is also a feature of what has been called “pundit lit” by the historian and journalist David Greenberg. The purpose of this genre (books by writers who themselves are famous) is, in Greenberg’s words, “to extend their authors’ brands — to make money, to be sure, and to express some set of ideas, however vague, but mainly to keep their celebrity creators in the media spotlight.”

The champion in this growing field is Bill O’Reilly, who has milked the Kennedy assassination with unique efficiency. O’Reilly’s latest contribution, “Kennedy’s Last Days,” is an illustrated recycling, for children, of his mega-best seller “Killing Kennedy.” This new version, it must be said, distinctly improves on the original, whose choppy sentences, many written in the present tense, lose nothing when recast for younger readers. “He is on a collision course with evil,” O’Reilly declares.

No less elevated is his discussion of Kennedy’s decision to visit Dallas despite warnings of roiling violence, including the physical assault on his United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, who had given a speech in the city in October 1963. “J.F.K. has decided to visit Big D,” O’Reilly writes. “There is no backing down.” Happily, the wooden prose is offset by the many illustrations. My favorite is a spread on the first family’s pets, including puppies and a pony.

Bad books by celebrity authors shouldn’t surprise us, even when the subject is an American president. The true mystery in Kennedy’s case is why, 50 years after his death, highly accomplished writers seem unable to fix him on the page.

For some, the trouble has been idolatry. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote three magisterial volumes on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, attempted a similar history in “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.” Published in 1965, it has the virtues of immediacy, since Schlesinger, Kennedy’s Harvard contemporary, had been on the White House staff, brought in as court historian. He witnessed many of the events he describes. But in his admiration for Kennedy, he became a chief architect of the Camelot myth and so failed, in the end, to give a persuasive account of the actual presidency.

In 1993, the political journalist Richard Reeves did better. “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” is a minutely detailed chronicle of the Kennedy White House. As a primer on Kennedy’s decision-making, like his handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, the book is fascinating.

What’s missing is a picture of Kennedy’s personal life, though Reeves includes a passing mention of Marilyn Monroe being sewn into the $5,000 flesh-colored, skintight dress she wore to celebrate the president’s birthday at Madison Square Garden in 1962. (This is the place to note that Reeves edited “The Kennedy Years,” The New York Times’s own addition to the ever-­expanding Kennedy cosmos, and I wrote the foreword.)

Balancing out, or warring with, the Kennedy claque are the Kennedy haters, like Seymour M. Hersh and Garry Wills. In “The Dark Side of Camelot,” Hersh wildly posits connections between the Kennedys and the mob, while Wills, though he offers any number of brilliant insights into Kennedy and his circle of courtiers, fixates on the Kennedy brothers’ (and father’s) sexual escapades in “The Kennedy Imprisonment.”

The sum total of this oddly polarized literature is a kind of void. Other presidents, good and bad, have been served well by biographers and historians. We have first-rate books on Jefferson, on Lincoln, on Wilson, on both Roosevelts. Even unloved presidents have received major books: Johnson (Caro) and Richard Nixon (Wills, among others). Kennedy, the odd man out, still seeks his true biographer.

Why is this the case? One reason is that even during his lifetime, Kennedy defeated or outwitted the most powerfully analytic and intuitive minds.

In 1960, Esquire magazine commissioned Norman Mailer’s first major piece of political journalism, asking him to report on the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that nominated Kennedy. Mailer’s long virtuoso article, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” came as close as any book or essay ever has to capturing Kennedy’s essence, though that essence, Mailer candidly acknowledged, was enigmatic.

Here was a 43-year-old man whose irony and grace were keyed to the national temper in 1960. Kennedy’s presence, youthful and light, was at once soothing and disruptive, with a touch of brusqueness. He carried himself “with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from his corner when the bell ended the round.” Finally, however, “there was an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind.”

Mailer himself doesn’t know “whether to value this elusiveness, or to beware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.”

And yet Kennedy’s unreality, in Mailer’s view, may have answered the particular craving of a particular historical moment. “It was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradiction and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation.” Those words seemed to prophesy the Kennedy mystique that was to come, reinforced by the whisker-thin victory over Nixon in the general election, by the romantic excitements of Camelot and then by the horror of Dallas.

Fifty years later we are still sifting through the facts of the assassination. The Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that Kennedy had been killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. Edward Jay Epstein and Mark Lane were among the first writers to challenge that finding, and their skepticism loosed a tide of investigations. The 50th anniversary has washed in some new ones. Among the more ambitious is “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination,” a work of more than 500 pages. Its author, Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter, uncovered a new lead, in the person of a heretofore overlooked woman who may have had suspicious ties to the assassin. But when Shenon finds the woman, now in her 70s, in Mexico, she denies having had a relationship with Oswald, and Shenon’s encounters with her prove more mysterious than illuminating.

Kennedy’s murder was bound to attract novelists, and some have approached the subject inventively, if with strange results. Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” a best seller published in 2011, takes the form of a time-travel romp involving a high school English teacher who finds romance in Texas while keeping tabs on Oswald. At more than 800 pages, the novel demands a commitment that exceeds its entertainment value.

I rather like Mailer’s “Oswald’s Tale,” published in 1995. It is, like his earlier masterpiece “The Executioner’s Song,” a work of “faction,” which is Mailer’s term for his hybrid of documented fact and novelistic elaboration. Mailer and his colleague, Lawrence Schiller, spent six months in Russia examining Oswald’s K.G.B. files, and the huge quasi novel that came out of it contains a good deal of engrossing material about Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, as well as the odd assortment of people the couple mixed with in Texas. Mailer’s narrative skills are prodigious, but in the end he has little to tell us that wasn’t already uncovered by Priscilla Johnson McMillan in “Marina and Lee,” her nonfiction portrait of the troubled couple from 1977. (Mailer properly credits McMillan’s book.)

Most critics seem to think the outstanding example of Kennedy assassination fiction is “Libra,” Don DeLillo’s postmodern novel, published in 1988. The narrative is indeed taut and bracing. But the challenge DeLillo set for himself, to provide readers with “a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years,” exceeds even his lavish gifts.

It is telling that DeLillo reverts to the shadowy realm of “half-facts.” Their persistence raises the question of just how many secrets remain, not only about Kennedy’s death but also about his life. And if there are secrets, who is guarding them, and why?

One clue has been furnished by the historian Nigel Hamilton, whose book “JFK: Reckless Youth,” published in 1992, was the first in a planned multivolume biography that promised to be a valuable addition to the current literature. (He has since dropped the project.) While the book was gossipy, especially on the subject of the young Kennedy’s sexual adventures, Hamilton also provided a vivid and lively account of Kennedy’s successful 1946 campaign for Congress. But when Hamilton began work on the next volumes, he said he came under a sustained barrage by Kennedy loyalists. “The family leaned upon well-known historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Doris Goodwin to write protest letters to the press,” Hamilton wrote in 2011 in The Huffington Post. “I was warned that no Kennedy-era official or friend would be ‘allowed’ to speak to me for my proposed sequel.”

Kennedy may have enjoyed the company of writers, but the long history of secrecy and mythmaking has surely contributed to the paucity of good books. The Kennedys — especially Jackie and Bobby — were notoriously hard on authors whose books they didn’t like. And they enlisted Schlesinger, Theodore Sorensen and other intimates to act as a kind of history police, not only withholding primary materials but also bullying writers.

A prominent historian recently told me he was once warned by Schlesinger, with whom he had been friendly, that because he had invited Hamilton to a meeting of the American Historical Association he might himself be banished from the organization. In recent years, the protective seal seems to have loosened. The Kennedy family, including Edward Kennedy and his sister Jean Kennedy Smith, gave unfettered access to their father’s papers to David Nasaw, the author of “The Patriarch,” a well-received biography of Joseph P. Kennedy that appeared last year.

Caroline Kennedy has been even more open to the claims of history. She herself was involved in the publication of two books and the release of accompanying tapes. One of them, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy,” contains the transcripts of the first lady’s interviews about her husband with Schlesinger, conducted in 1964 but kept secret until 2011. They are revealing and mesmerizing. The other, “Listening In,” offers White House conversations captured in a secretly installed taping system in the Oval Office.

Since Kennedy controlled the device, these conversations are more guarded, but the book includes at least one memorable moment, when the president hilariously loses his temper over unflattering press about the $5,000 cost of Mrs. Kennedy’s hospital maternity suite — “Are they crazy up there? Now you know what that’s gonna do? Any congressman is going to get up and say, ‘Christ, if they can throw $5,000 away on this, let’s cut ’em another billion dollars.’ You just sank the Air Force budget!”

Jack and JackieThe most disturbing case of the family’s attempts to control history came early on, and it involved William Manchester, the historian chosen by the Kennedys a few weeks after the assassination to write the authorized account, “The Death of a President.” Manchester was selected because of a previous, and fawning, book he had written about Kennedy, “Portrait of a President.” (In a bizarre twist, this was one of the books Lee Harvey Oswald checked out of a New Orleans public library just months before the assassination.)

Manchester was given sole access to almost all the president’s men as well as to his widow and virtually every principal figure. (Lyndon Johnson submitted answers in writing through his staff.) It seemed the ideal arrangement — until Manchester presented a manuscript to the Kennedys.

In a gripping piece from his 1976 collection of essays, “Controversy,” Manchester described what happened next. First there were the many insertions and deletions made by various Kennedy minions, who applied so much pressure that Manchester became a nervous wreck. An especially low point came when Robert Kennedy hunted Manchester down in a New York hotel room and banged on the door, demanding to be let in to argue for still more changes.

Next, Jackie Kennedy, who had not bothered to read the manuscript, accepted the view of her factotums that many of its details, like the fact that she carried cigarettes in her purse, were too personal. Further angered by the $665,000 Manchester had received from Look magazine for serial rights, Mrs. Kennedy went to court to enjoin the author from publishing the book. Eventually, she settled out of court and finally read “The Death of a President” when it was published in 1967. She deemed it “fascinating.”

Nevertheless, the Kennedy family, which controlled publication rights to “The Death of a President,” allowed it to go out of print, and for a number of years copies could be found only online or at rummage sales. The good news, maybe the best, of the 50th anniversary is that Little, Brown has now reissued paperback and e-book editions.

It’s good news because, remarkably, and against all odds, Manchester (who died in 2004) wrote an extraordinary book. There are obvious defects. Predictably, he blares the trumpets of Camelot, and he has a weakness for melodrama. It’s hard to believe, even at the time of Kennedy’s murder, that to the world it was “as though the Axis powers had surrendered and Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt had died in the hours between noon and midafternoon in Washington of a single day in 1945.” But these excesses don’t really matter, thanks to Manchester’s vivid reporting, masterly narrative and authentically poetic touches.

It is in small, quiet scenes that Manchester’s chronicle accumulates its greatest force. When it is time for Dave Powers, the slain president’s aide and sidekick, to pick out the clothes Kennedy will wear to his grave, he selects from eight suits and four pairs of shoes brought out by Kennedy’s valet, George Thomas. Powers settles on a blue-gray suit, black shoes and “a blue tie with a slight pattern of light dots.”

An embroidered “JFK” on the white silk shirt is hidden from view. The valet remembered that Kennedy’s “dislike of flamboyant monograms had extended to handkerchiefs,” Manchester writes. The president “had carefully folded them so that the initials would not show, and Thomas did it for him now, slipping the handkerchief into his coat pocket.”

Of all that has been written and that will be read on this 50th anniversary, it is the last paragraphs of “The Death of a President” that deserve to stand out from everything else. Manchester describes viewing the bloodstained pink suit Jackie Kennedy wore on November. 22, 1963, which had since been stowed in a Georgetown attic:

Unknown to her, the clothes Mrs. Kennedy wore into the bright midday glare of Dallas lie in an attic not far from 3017 N Street. In Bethesda that night those closest to her had vowed that from the moment she shed them she should never see them again. She hasn’t. Yet they are still there, in one of two long brown paper cartons thrust between roof rafters. The first is marked “September 12, 1953,” the date of her marriage; it contains her wedding gown. The block-printed label on the other is “Worn by Jackie, November 22, 1963.”

Inside, neatly arranged, are the pink wool suit, the black shift, the low-heeled shoes and, wrapped in a white towel, the stockings. Were the box to be opened by an intruder from some land so remote that the name, the date and photographs of the ensemble had not been published and republished until they had been graven upon his memory, he might conclude that these were merely stylish garments which had passed out of fashion and which, because they were associated with some pleasant occasion, had not been discarded.

If the trespasser looked closer, however, he would be momentarily baffled. The memento of a happy time would be cleaned before storing. Obviously this costume has not been. There are ugly splotches along the front and hem of the skirt. The handbag’s leather and the inside of each shoe are caked dark red. And the stockings are quite odd.

Once the same substance streaked them in mad scribbly patterns, but time and the sheerness of the fabric have altered it. The rusty clots have flaked off; they lie in tiny brittle grains on the nap of the towel. Examining them closely, the intruder would see his error. This clothing, he would perceive, had not been kept out of sentiment. He would realize that it had been worn by a slender young woman who had met with some dreadful accident. He might ponder whether she had survived. He might even wonder who had been to blame.

Unfortunately, the tapes of Manchester’s two five-hour interviews with Jackie Kennedy, who seems to have regretted her frankness, remain under seal at the Kennedy Library until 2067. This is a final sadness for a reader sifting through these many books. Taken together, they tell us all too little about this president, now gone 50 years, who remains as elusive in death as he was in life.

Related:

A version of this article appears in print on October 27, 2013, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Elusive President.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/books/review/the-elusive-president.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&