50 years of a party and politician

The Malaysian Insider
6 March 2016

DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang looks back on 50 years of the political party he helms, in tandem with his five decades as a politician, the many ups and downs and ins (Lim was a guest of the authorities for three stretches), the time political opponents were after his blood, doing a bit of crystal-ball gazing at what’s looming, and his thoughts about finding common ground with a former nemesis, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

TMI: No better place to start than at the start. When did you become “politicised”, where was the beginning rooted?

Lim: Since my school days.

TMI: Your school days?

Lim: In the sense we were very interested in events – the school days of the 1950s lah, I was in secondary school 1955-59. Those were the times when, nationally and internationally, there were a lot of exciting developments… 1955 was the Bandung Conference, 1956 was the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the Hungarian revolution, 1957 was our Merdeka, and in my class, there was a group who was tuned in to all these events.

I remember my last year in school, 1959, waiting for our Form Five results to come out, those days we had no IT to distract us, our only distraction was to cycle around town, to roam around.

We’d go to the deserted school at night, sit beside the longkang and yarn, and someone will say, “let’s go out into the world and form a political party”.

TMI: So, while I, further down the road, was dreaming of being the next Robin Hood or Hercules, you were dreaming of being a politician?

Lim: (Laughs.) No, not like that, not being a politician. More like being interested in what’s happening in the country. The Bandung Conference, I would say that’s the first political event that caught my attention.

(The Bandung Conference was a meeting of 29 Asian and African nations which took place on April 18-24, 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia. The conference’s aims were to promote economic and cultural links and to oppose neo-colonialism. This conference was a milestone in the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement.)

TMI: Coming to the formation of the party (DAP was registered on March 18, 1966), were you a PAP member, like many of the other founder members, possibly from the time when you did a stint as a journalist in Singapore?

Lim: No, I was not involved in any political activities in Singapore. Though I was involved in the trade union, the NUJ, and, of course, that time the union was very politicised.

(There is also a snooty elitist whiff about it. Lim tells Thor they called themselves The Chapel. He wondered if the tradition persists. I wouldn’t advise it, what with the Catholic Church wearing a hair-shirt, genuflecting and saying multiple mea culpas for having rams amid their flock.

(Lim reminisces about his first “political campaign”, becoming secretary of the union, against “the great” (Lim’s words) incumbent A. Mahadeva. Lim felt his predecessor was preoccupied with international issues, “the higher matters of state”, and ignoring basic issues affecting people, such as rice, considering them mundane when the geopolitical landscape was undergoing major upheaval.)

Lim: I remember he was sitting not far from me. I wrote him a letter, enumerating several issues. He read it and tore it up and that started my campaign against him. (Huge laugh.)

TMI: So, one can say that was your first successful political campaign.

Lim: (Laughs.) It wasn’t politics. I just felt he wasn’t addressing issues. I wasn’t involved in politics in Singapore. I was following what was happening in Malaysia. I never felt like I was a Singaporean. I felt like a fish out of water.

I came back to cover parliament in August 1965, but with the separation, I had nothing to cover, so I went back.

(Lim goes on to talk about Devan Nair, a founding member of DAP, later president of Singapore, who enlisted him into DAP.)

Lim: I knew Devan as a trade unionist, covering him in my work. We would have drinks and arguments.

I think he considered me a rather unorthodox character… He called me and asked me to be his secretary. I was that time already in RTM, having finished with The Straits Times in Singapore, so I said okay. That’s how I started in politics.

TMI: Let’s go now to your first electoral victory, MP for Kota Melaka, in a general election that also marked a bloody episode in the country’s history – May 13, 1969. Do you think that victory parade through KL was the trigger?

Lim: (Interrupting, defensively.) Actually I knew nothing about it. I was not involved. Although I have been accused of leading the procession, making anti-Malay insults, but I was not in KL.

Anyway, even if there were such sentiments, people shouted “balik kampung”, that’s no reason to start a riot.

TMI: I read reports which said the victories of the opposition heralded the downfall of Umno. Was that the sentiment in DAP? If so, wasn’t that a bit overenthusiastic with 11.9% of the vote?

Lim: Downfall of Umno? I don’t think that was the sentiment, although there was euphoria at unexpected victories as we had not expected to do well, as well as the stalemate in Selangor.

I do not think there was a celebratory mood because the results heralded the “downfall of Umno”. That would be unrealistic

TMI: You were in Malacca at that time?

Lim: I was in Malacca for polling day, May 10. Those days not like now, separate counting centres. Those days all the boxes from everywhere were collected and brought to one place, opened up. There’s a mountain of votes. It’s very time-consuming to go through them. Your result will come out 3, 4, 5am.

So after the result, we had a celebratory breakfast and I came back to my house in PJ, tired out. On the 12th, I went back to Malacca for a thanksgiving procession, and that night I had a “thank you” rally.

Morning of the 13th, I flew to Kota Kinabalu, because the elections of the East Malaysian states were one or two weeks later, and some independent candidates had asked me to go and help them.

There was a big rally in KK. At that time, we had to deal with Tun Mustapha (Harun) who was a terror, as good as a demi-god. We don’t care-lah, the way we operate, we just go there and whack-lah. During the rally, I got word there was trouble in KL.

Morning of the 14th, Tun Mustapha sent an immigration officer to tell me to get out. At that time there was only one daily flight out, KK-Singapore, about three in the afternoon. (Laughs.) Being a rebel, a trouble-maker, I decided to miss the flight by going round KK meeting people.

And it was fortunate I missed the flight. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. When I went to the airport the Special Branch told me the Bajau horsemen had come to the airport to finish me off because I had insulted their demi-god.

On the 15th, the police took me into custody to make sure I didn’t miss the flight. I was in Singapore for three days. My family had told me not to come back because I was on the blacklist, sure kena-lah. But I told myself, just got elected, how can don’t come back?

So I came back, landed in Subang, KL still under curfew. We lined up on the tarmac to go through immigration. I asked them if they were waiting for me. That’s when they took me away.

In the car, two chaps at the back squeezing me, two chaps in front. On the way back, I could see burnt cars, and I was wondering, they could take me somewhere, finish me off, and nobody will know. They took me to Jalan Bandar and, after processing, they took me to Kuala Selangor for custodial detention.

TMI: That stretch was 18 months?

Lim: Seventeen.

TMI: What was the most tedious aspect of that experience? Was it boredom? The food? Contact with the outside world?

Lim: In the first few weeks of the 60 days, they do not allow any family visit. Then it was supposed to be once a week.

They didn’t want my family to know I was being held in Kuala Selangor, so I met them in the PJ police station. After 60 days they decided to keep me, so I was taken to Muar.

TMI: Was there anything to occupy your days in Muar?

Lim: That was when I decided to get some books and take up law.

TMI: After being called to the Bar, have you ever practised mundane cari makan lawyering like conveyancing, or have you been too busy being sued or suing?

Lim: A few months. Opened an office in Malacca, but never really got going.

TMI: After that, what one could call the wilderness years of the party, the 1970s stretching into the 1990s, scratching out victories here and there, did you ever feel you were banging your head against a wall that will never crack?

Lim: Ya… but at that time you never thought you wanted to be an MP. Forming a government was never in our minds. It was something worthwhile to do.

TMI: What was the main thing holding you all back then? A lack of finance?

Lim: We didn’t operate the way they did. They spent RM100,000, we spent RM1,000 or RM10,000. A different scale. We got things free, or somebody is a volunteer.

The 1969 elections, Chian Heng Kai, my secretary, later detained for four years, nine months under the ISA (Internal Security Act) and elected an MP in Perak while in detention, he spent less than RM500 standing for the Bandar Penggaram (Batu Pahat) state assembly seat.

We never have enough money, but money has never been a problem. This was our modus operandi for a long time – to collect small donations from supporters. Businessmen in the early decades, easily four decades, wouldn’t touch us.

DAP has always operated on a shoe-string. We do not finance our candidates for deposits and election expenses. The candidates have to pay for their election material and deposits.

Money politics is a curse. That’s why (Datuk Seri) Najib’s (Razak) RM2.6 billion (or is it RM4.2 billion?) donation scandal, which is probably part of the RM55 billion 1MDB scandal, is so corrupting. Malaysia needs effective laws to ensure transparent and accountable political contributions.

TMI: So what was holding the party back then? The perception that it was a Chinese party?

Lim: We never saw ourselves as a Chinese party. In the first few elections, we contested in Umno strongholds. The first by-election of DAP was in Kampung Baru against Razali (Tan Sri Ahmad Razali Mohamed Ali), Mahathir’s brother-in-law.

We were a party for all Malaysians. We had to go in and try. That’s where I made my first political speech. (Laughs.) I must have been terrible. The second time was in Tampoi, Johor.

The third time against (Tun) Musa Hitam. The first elections, we put up Malay candidates and got two assemblymen, one in Perak, one in Negri. Of course, we still have limitations reaching out to the Malays, but we never thought of not representing them.

TMI: Was 1999 the darkest moment in your political career? Your only loss. Not only you. Karpal, the Tiger of Jelutong, also got defanged. The party…

Lim: (Laughs.) It was dark, certainly a dark period, but whether it was the darkest, I don’t know.

TMI: That was the party’s first attempt at a marriage with PAS.

Lim: We couldn’t reach out… MCA, Gerakan were saying a vote for DAP was a vote for PAS, an Islamic state, no Chinese school, no temples, no pork. It takes time to get the people to understand it’s not so. Of course, the final thing is whether you can win people over eventually and we have.

TMI: No regrets over the failed marriage?

Lim: No regrets over the attempt. Just regret that it failed. Finally, you have to stand by your principles. Otherwise you have to answer to the people. If it’s unavoidable.

TMI: Which did you think was going to be your toughest contest, going into it, where you thought the chances may be iffy? Was it the last one in Johor again the MB? An early one? The 1986 move to Penang?

Lim: Gelang Patah was one. No surety of winning. Big risk.

Another was in 1986 when I moved from Malacca to contest Tanjong – against strong incumbent (Tan Sri) Koh Tsu Koon. Also no surety of victory. Major risk.

Another would be the 1990 Padang Kota state assembly (Penang) contest against (Tun Lim) Chong Eu. No indication of what could be the outcome until the votes were counted.

Even the 1999 general election, when I moved from Tanjong to contest in Bukit Bendera, was a risky contest as I tried to salvage a DAP seat which had become difficult. In the event, I lost.

The same thing with the Bandar Hilir state assembly seat in Malacca in 1982, which had become a risky seat because of complaints against the DAP incumbent. I switched from Kubu to Bandar Hilir to save it, but I failed.

TMI: I must ask you this cliched question, Reporter 101: regrets not having more time for the family, particularly the kids while they were growing up?

Lim: (Laughs.) Even now, there are regrets. My house is like a hotel. Check in, check out. What more those early days. But I made it a point to call up every day to check that everything was alright.

TMI: Are you wired in all day, keeping in touch with what’s happening? Time off for gardening, jogging, television?

Lim: (Laughs.) Nope.

TMI: Do you still read books?

Lim: Hardly.

TMI: So you are a cyber-junkie mainlining on politics all day. How long more before you go cold turkey on politics?

Lim: How long more? I don’t know.

TMI: Some crystal-ball gazing. Sarawak. Can DAP move beyond its urban strongholds and establish footprints into the interior? Are reach, finance, and tribal obeisance to the patronage of the “white-haired” chieftain still insurmountable problems?

Lim: Can we reach out to interior? We are trying very hard with Impian Sarawak, etc, but it is going to be a tough election, as (Tan Sri) Adenan (Satem) is a popular CM. Finance and barely accessible distance pose great problems.

TMI: First time around with PAS, the sceptics were proven right, the marriage didn’t work. Didn’t work a second time. Throw into the mix the current spat in Penang between DAP and PKR, and who knows what other differences of opinion in future, and the sceptics are out again, nah, book seats in the divorce court. At the least, it would be a good bet there will be face-offs between DAP and PAS in the next GE. Your response?

Lim: Coalition politics, especially for the opposition, is not easy, but the political reality in Malaysia is that it’s unavoidable. But it must be based on common policies. Otherwise, it would be merely opportunistic.

TMI: Where do you see the party heading?

Lim: DAP must move on, from a party of choice for urbanites, to reach out to rural areas, to be accepted by all.

TMI: Considering the current location of the DAP headquarters (it’s right next to a flyover, crawling with traffic all day, with a gory past under a previous name and guise), do you think, in your lifetime, you’ll ever wander the marbled corridors of Putrajaya wondering what you are going to do with all that opulent space?

Lim: The opposition in Putrajaya? Ten years ago, unthinkable, an impossible dream. Now, it is not whether, but when. Hope it is during my lifetime. Hope by GE14.

TMI: Back to today. Shakespeare said misery makes for strange bedfellows. So does politics. You and Dr Mahathir – having a chat and a cuppa?

Lim: I should leave a fuller answer for the future. Except to say that in politics, we should try not to be personal, whatever our differences. It will not be easy as he not only detained me, but also Guan Eng (Kit Siang’s son, now chief minister of Penang). – March 6, 2016.

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