Dr Syed Husin – Justice For All
Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Published: Fri, 02 Nov 2012
Don’t address him YB. If there is one who deserves to be honoured by us the rakyat, it’s him. But Dr Syed Husin Ali prefers not to be called Yang Berhormat, especially outside of the parliamentary chambers where he is Senator. You will not find a whiff of false modesty in his words.
His life of genuine service of people, development of the nation, and concern for the poor and forgotten deserves to be told. He’s done us a favour by penning it down.
Memoirs of a Political Struggle tells Syed Husin’s story straight from his mind (it was all recollected from memory), channelled from his witness of history, distilled from the ideals pursued, beliefs upheld, and hopes sustained.
This is a memoir personal and political. It rolls out in a conversational voice, as though sitting at a coffee shop talking about the old times or chatting over today’s politics.
We read his earliest memories, of childhood and adolescence in Batu Pahat, including a fascinating account of how Datuk Onn Jaafar defused a racial stand-off that could have spiralled into a blood bath. While he doesn’t quite string together this and other striking vignettes, one gets the sense of their formative role in his worldview and subsequent path.
The path of life of a left activist-intellectual in the sixties and seventies was rocky, exhilarating, and sometimes land-mined. Syed Husin made his presence felt in society from his youth days, as a leading member of student organisations and friend of dynamic journalists and writers, and began an academic career by studying rural society. He played an active role in national development, notably in the establishment of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
He championed causes especially pressing for Malays, out of deep awareness of the problems of socioeconomic disadvantage and poverty, as well as desire for the preservation and celebration of their rich history, culture and language. But never in a racially exclusive, divisive manner. Indeed, Syed Husin recounts the ways the Left vibrantly connected persons and fostered solidarity across race, nationality and creed, and was personally guided by the principle of “justice for all”.
Confronting race politics and defending the downtrodden, though, makes one a target of despotic rulers.
The axe fell first on Syed Husin’s friends in Singapore – journalists, students and trade unionists – who were detained under the ISA in the mid-sixties by Lee Kuan Yew. Syed Husin would later gain the attention of Barisan Nasional oppressors, and was locked up between 1974 and 1980. This memoir skims over those six years, which recounted in his book, Two Faces: Detention without Trial, and are short when set against his lifespan so far, but the passage of patriots like him through such dark valleys, and the struggles of comrades preceding him, are part of an illustrious and venerable “alternative history” to which this book aspires to contribute.
As professor at Universiti Malaya, Syed Husin maintained engagement in Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM), which had become his political life blood. The book provides insightful accounts of PRM’s history, drawing on his intimate knowledge of the party.
His chapter entitled “Academic and Extra-Academic Activities” is matter-of-factly under-stated, yet pointedly projects the choice that would confront him. When he became PRM president in 1990, he crossed the line of what the university could tolerate, and he was made to choose: professor or politician? He elected the latter.
His full-time participation in politics journeyed from a decade plus at the helm of PRM to its merger with Keadilan and the formation of Parti Keadilan Rakyat. Syed Husin opens a wide window into the events, conflicts and turning points that have animated the party’s young existence. He sheds some light on colourful and troublesome party persons who came and went.
The book explains his calls as Senator for reform to make the Dewan Negara more representative and democratic instead of a mere rubber stamper of the Dewan Rakyat’s proceedings. Unfortunately, the proposals went unheeded by the majority, many of whom would probably be deeply miffed if you don’t address them as YB.
As laid out in Memoirs of a Political Struggle, Syed Husin has experienced much more than most of us, endured adversity and engaged in Malaysia’s development from outside officialdom, and held his ground against the shifting sands of time.
We are better off with just Syed Husin Ali, and you will be better off reading his book.