By Yap Jia Hee & Radzi Razak | 9:38AM Jul 3, 2015
The sight of A Samad Said – a slight figure with snow white long hair and beard, clad in his signature white – addressing thousands of protesters at rallies is nothing short of inspiring,
It would not be an exaggeration to say that many – especially young people from all ethnic backgrounds – think of him as a living legend. He also has another nickname – Gandalf – a nod to the wise wizard in white from author JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece Lord of the Rings.
At 80, Pak Samad, as he is affectionately known, has achieved much accolade and recognition not just in Malaysia but also in the region. He is a writer, poet, novelist, journalist, playwright, and painter. He is among five regional writers to win the prestigious SEA Write Award in its inaugural year in 1979.
His books are on the literature syllabus reading list. He is arguably the only person with a datukship who can be seen riding the LRT or bus on a regular basis. In 1985, in appreciation of his contribution to the nation’s literary heritage, he was awarded the title ‘sasterawan negara’ (national laureate).
Of late, the national laureate is remembered also as an advocate for Malaysia’s progressive future, a diminutive figure thrown into the forefront of seemingly insurmountable struggles, much like his namesake from Middle Earth.
In 2009, he braved the Federal Reserve Unit’s water cannons for causes he believed in – the anti-PPSMI movement to oppose the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English, and the electoral reform movement Bersih, which he co-chaired with senior lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan.
Bolt from the blue
Three weeks ago, on June 11, Samad delivered a jolt to the nation’s psyche when he became the newest member of DAP. Not PKR, or the old PAS, or new PasMa, but DAP, a party trying hard to shake off the ‘Chinese chauvinist’ label given to it by the BN-controlled mainstream media and right-wing politicians, presumably for its lack of support and popularity among the country’s sizeable Malay population.
Samad’s breaking news however was not entirely shocking, given his movement in opposition circles. Samad even argued it’s a logical leap.
He told Malaysiakini that his friendship with DAP and party supremo Lim Kit Siang has convinced him to do it, two years after co-chairing the Bersih 2 coalition.
He joins a number of other Malays young enough to be his grandchildren – activists Young Syefura Othman, Jamila Rahim (also known as Melati Rahim), and Syeikh Omar Ali, to name a few – who have entered DAP in the past six months.
Admitting that the problem with DAP-haters is because of the chauvinist label, Samad said it has become his duty to demolish the stigma.
“I think the chauvinist label is being touted by the Malay media. I don’t know about the Chinese media, but the (English) media played it off and on too,” he said during the interview last week.
“I have known Lim Kit Siang and (former Selangor state assemblyperson) Ronny Liew for a while; all of them, I know as individuals.
“From these people, I saw that this is a suitable party for me. I wanted to contribute to a party that is being called chauvinist, but its spirit says otherwise,” he said.
He said Malays and bumiputera, especially in the rural or semi-rural areas which form the backbone of Umno-BN support in the country, should by now realise the broken promises spat out to them and how ineffective the government handling of bumiputera issues is.
Samad has already succeeded in making a growing number of non-Malay speakers pick up Malay poetry; his work at least. But the ease with which he tears down racial barriers on the pages of literature and on the streets of Kuala Lumpur during rallies, is not so easily translated to political life.
His entry into DAP, for example, spliced right in the middle of a controversy on June 15 when Anthony Loke, the party’s national organising secretary, was criticised for the party’s plan to help locals in Gua Musang build a mosque.
A former journalist with Utusan Melayu and Berita Harian, Samad painted a different picture from what had been reported about the ‘cool’ reception meted out to the party by the rural Malay heartland.
“I was surprised Lim Kit Siang was accepted well (by the locals). DAP friends did not feel they came as Chinese but as Malaysians. The villagers themselves asked whether DAP could help build a mosque.
“Usually, if non-Muslim money is used (to build a mosque), it is considered haram but this (money) comes from the heart. So it is not haram, but harum (fragrant),” he said with his soft voice and ever-present smile.
Still political newbie
DAP is currently bussing Samad around the peninsular to attend functions in Kelantan, Perak, and Selangor.
“Frankly, I became the PRO (public relations officer) to build a bridge between DAP and the Malays. If they (the Malays) don’t understand, they would see me and I would elaborate to them effectively (about DAP),” he explained.
Samad takes his new membership in a political party seriously, refusing to comment on the big political questions plaguing the scene.
One query he channelled to those with more experience is the current crisis in the opposition coalition formerly known as Pakatan Rakyat.
Samad in response said DAP’s top leadership would be better suited to answer the party policy on such issues, and not a newbie such as him.
“I am still new in politics. I returned (the question about Pakatan) to Lim Kit Siang. He knows better. As I said, I am still a student. Now I am starting to read politics. Before this, I only read literature,” he said.
Samad nonetheless remained optimistic commenting that PAS or any opposition Islamic party needs the non-Muslims’ support to win elections.
“I don’t know the impact (of DAP’s severed ties with PAS). PAS must have their own reason and motive, while DAP too wants to preserve its stand.
“I don’t see a very clear picture now. So maybe it will become clearer when the election is closer and you can see, because PAS, I think, cannot survive on its own, and they have to combine and look for partners, especially from the non-Malay communities,” he said.
Tomorrow: A call to activist friends to join DAP