By Kee Thuan Chye
30 Oct 2015
‘Defying the Odds’ is an odd book. It can’t seem to decide whether to be a biography of Opposition powerhouse Lim Kit Siang, a showcase for his key speeches and letters or a view of Malaysian politics through Kit Siang’s lenses and from two vantage points, i.e. May 13, 1969, and March 8, 2008, two of the watershed moments of the country’s political history.
In the middle of it is an interview with Kit Siang done by the book’s author, Ooi Kee Beng, but it’s not one that is done specially for this book, which makes its appearance all the more odd. It has been culled from another, an earlier book titled ‘The Right to Differ: A Biographical Sketch of Lim Kit Siang’ (published in 2011), which is a lengthy interview Ooi did with Kit Siang, interspersed with the Kit Siang’s letters, statements and speeches and the same photos as those of the current book.
In the original context, the interview explored and revealed a bit of Kit Siang’s life and much of his political struggle, which would have been apt there, but in ‘Defying the Odds’, it merely repeats many of the facts and issues already presented in this book’s earlier chapters. It makes ‘Defying the Odds’ appear chheong hei (Cantonese, meaning long-winded) saying again what has been said a few times before.
On the whole, the book might have worked better if presented throughout in the narrative mode, which is what Ooi (photo) employs nicely in the first chapter, ‘Heading for Jail’.
It begins: “The year is 1969. The plane drones over southern Johor, monotone propellers lulling its few passengers to sleep … Violent rioting had broken out in Kuala Lumpur on the same evening that Kit, as he is affectionately known, had left for the Sabahan city of Kota Kinabalu.” It gives the promise of an interesting story about to be told.
Right till the end of that first chapter, the promise is well-sustained. But when the next two chapters come on, the narrative gives way to the polemics of Lim Kit Siang the politician. They are filled with little more than the letters he wrote and the speeches he gave during the tumultuous aftermath of the May 13 racial riots, including his lengthy address in Parliament in February 1971.
Variations on the same themes
Reproducing large parts of these documents adds tedium, especially because each of them espouses views that are somewhat similar, give or take a few minor points. They appear like variations on the same themes.
The themes are noble, no doubt about that. In fact, the most edifying things one could draw from the book are the foresight Kit Siang had about Malaysia as early as five decades ago, how prophetic his prognosis of a Malaysia torn by racialism has turned out to be, and – this is what makes the difference between a politician and a statesman – how passionate and consistent he has been regarding his beliefs.
Kit Siang has been a champion of multiracialism and multiculturalism from the time he was at school. Today, he is still an ardent advocate of those. The other strong beliefs he has been speaking up for since he was voted a member of parliament in 1969 are freedom of speech, justice, affirmative action based on needs rather than race, good governance and the importance of democracy for Malaysia.
But if these themes could have emanated from a narrative showing Kit Siang the politician in action and how he came to be what he is, instead of from reproduced chunks of polemic written or spoken by him that merely serve to tell us his ideas, then ‘Defying the Odds’ would have been an eminently readable book.
We don’t get a comprehensive portrait
As it is, we get sketches that give us only a sense of what Lim Kit Siang is about. We don’t get a comprehensive portrait, a deep insight into the man, what he went through, the sacrifices he made. We don’t feel his pain, his joy.
Ooi did a sterling job when he wrote ‘The Reluctant Politician’, the bestselling biography of the late former deputy prime minister Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman. He did extensive research for it, which included interviewing Ismail’s close friends and relatives to obtain a more rounded picture of his biographical subject. He could have done the same for ‘Defying the Odds’.
After all, Kit Siang’s contribution to Malaysian politics is massive. He is arguably the man who has practically defined the DAP with the ideas he espouses, not only for the party but also for the country. He has also been constantly dynamic in taking up challenges that have not only set inspiring examples for his party colleagues but also blazed a powerful trail for the party.
This he has done most prominently by standing for election in difficult constituencies, defying the odds against him in some of them, like the most recent foray into Gelang Patah at the last general election in 2013 (GE13). By doing so, Kit Siang discouraged, by his own example, complacency within the party.
In a few contests, he suffered defeat. His defeat in the 1999 general election, which deprived him of a seat in Parliament for the first time in three decades, must have been particularly painful. He might have won if he had stayed on in his safer seat of Tanjong, but he decided to take the risk of standing in Bukit Bendera in order to spearhead the Opposition’s campaign to break the ruling coalition’s political hegemony. Kit Siang lost to Gerakan’s Chia Kwang Chye by a margin of only 104 votes.
He also stood for the state seat of Kebun Bunga at the same time, but was trounced by Teng Hock Nan.
Many of Kit Siang’s hopes have not been realised
To be sure, Kit Siang’s political life has been one characterised more by defeat or failure than success. Despite his personal electoral victories and the heights to which the DAP has currently climbed after winning a record 38 parliamentary seats at GE13, he has failed in many instances.
Many of the hopes he has expressed in the interest of free speech, justice, good governance and racial unity have not been realised. He has been detained under the Internal Security Act twice – in 1969 and 1987. He was convicted of five charges under the Official Secrets Act in 1979.
In October 2015, Kit Siang was suspended from Parliament for six months for allegedly making disparaging remarks against the Speaker and refusing to accede to the latter’s demand for an apology.
A few months earlier, he was assaulted by a group of people while taking part in a forum in a coffeeshop in Johor. They threw cups, plastic bowls and a broom at him and yelled, “Go home, Kit Siang!”, “Communist chauvinist!” and “Go die!” The forum was abruptly aborted.
After all his decades in politics, this must have been extremely demoralising. So what keeps him going? Despite his failure in bringing about the realisation of his dream of a Malaysia for all Malaysians, why does he persevere?
We have to take our hats off to him for trying for so long. Never giving up his struggle – and clearly not for personal gain – is Kit Siang’s claim to greatness.
He deserves a book that lives up to his stature.
* ‘Defying The Odds’ is a 248-page book by Ooi Kee Beng that was recently pulished by Marshall Cavendish.
* KEE THUAN CHYE is the author of the new books ‘Unbelievably Stupid!’ and ‘Unbelievably Stupid Too!’