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Tribute to Saudara Rajakumar

I first met Saudara Dr MK Rajakumar in 1979 as a member of a group of medical students who met up with him for a discussion. He was then the president of the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA).

What struck me then was his energy and enthusiasm. He challenged us to visit rural areas to understand the problems faced by the ordinary people living in the kampung. “How can you be good doctors if you do not understand the background and the problems of the rural people?” he asked us. “A good doctor must be an advocate for the poor!”

At that time, I did not know of his previous history of struggle and sacrifice — given the almost complete blackout of the struggle of the radical nationalists and socialists in our local media and history books. It was only much later that I learnt he had been the editor of Fajar, a radical student newsletter produced by the Socialist Club of University Malaya (based in Singapore then).

Fajar argued strongly for the eviction of the British colonialist and full independence for Malaya and Singapore. That was in 1953.

Rajakumar and his group were arrested by the colonial government and put on trial. Although they won that particular case (the case that launched Lee Kuan Yew’s political career), many from the Fajar team, including Rajakumar, were subsequently arrested by the British under the Emergency Ordinance (forerunner of the Internal Security Act) and was detained in one of the islands off Singapore.

When Rajakumar returned to Malaya as a doctor, he became involved in the Socialist Front [a coalition of Parti Rakyat Malaya (PRM) and Parti Buruh (Labour Party)]. The Socialist Front was then a potent force in Malayan politics, with Saudara Ahmad Boestaman as the Opposition Leader in Parliament, and good representation in local councils (at that time elected) in many towns and new villages in the west coast of Malaya.

Rajakumar joined the Labour Party and in the mid-sixties was its de facto leader as the assistant secretary-general, because the rest of the leadership had been detained under the ISA. It was a very difficult period. “We stopped nominating chairpersons for our branches in KL because the Special Branch (SB) would pick them up within a week,” he once remarked to me. It wasn’t long before Rajakumar was himself picked up by the SB and detained under the ISA from 1966 to 1969.

When he emerged from ISA detention, the political situation had changed drastically. Massive, sustained and often brutal repression which saw several thousand leaders and supporters of the Socialist Front detained under the ISA in the 1960s had led to disillusionment with the electoral process. Some comrades took the decision to join the underground, others opted to lie low. Parti Buruh disintegrated and disappeared from the political arena. PRM soldiered on, only to see large numbers of its activists and leaders detained under the ISA following the Baling Demonstrations in 1974.

In this very difficult period for the Malaysian Left, Rajakumar immersed himself in MMA activities. He spearheaded the MMA review of the Malaysian healthcare system that was carried out in the late 1970s. This comprehensive report emphasises the concepts of social solidarity and health for all, irrespective of social class and geographical location. This approach has remained the formal position of the MMA up till today.

He set up the Malaysian chapter of Physicians Against Nuclear War, as a section within the MMA. The section was set up together with Dr Ronnie McCoy, a close associate, who later became the president of the international federation or parent body.

Rajakumar also worked to improve the standard of general practice in Malaysia and was instrumental in the setting up of the Academy of General Practitioners, which now runs courses for GPs all over the country.

I last met Saudara Rajakumar three months ago. After several false starts, we finally met for lunch. Though he was then still recuperating from a bad bout of pneumonia, he was enthusiastic as ever.

“After 40 years we finally have a voice in Parliament. You have an important role in showing that our ideas are still relevant.

“Do not neglect grassroots work. You must keep meeting the ordinary people so that you can speak for them.

“Build the party. A good cadre is worth his weight in gold.”

I told him of my intention to publish a book comprising papers and essays that I had written for various seminars and Parti Sosialis Malaysia congresses over the past six years, and asked him if he could write the forward. He said he would be happy to do so, and I later sent a copy of the intended book to him. I do not think he had the time to pen that forward.

The task of ending colonialism and reconstructing countries on the basis of justice, democracy and solidarity has yet to be completed. We have achieved formal political independence but remain economically subservient to the imperial centre, slavishly dependent on foreign direct investment, to the extent that we are prepared to impoverish our own workers!

We have grown our economy but the divide between the very rich and the bottom 60% of the population is getting wider. This is manifesting itself in a rash of social ills from “mat rempit-ism” to child abuse. Despite 51 years of independence, we have made very little progress towards building inter-racial understanding and solidarity.

As we embark on the complex tasks that lie ahead, we can take heart and derive inspiration from the example and sacrifices of Saudara Rajakumar and the thousands of other Malaysians who remained true to their principles in very trying times. They believed that a society based on justice and solidarity is possible, and did not ever “bend their knee before the insolence of power and wealth”!   

Farewell, Saudara Rajakumar. We will continue with the work of fleshing out the vision of a better society that we share.

Dr MK Rajakumar passed away on 22 Nov 2008 after having heart and lung complications following a bout of pneumonia. He was 76. This article was first published on 25 Nov by Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM).

Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj is a physician by training and a founding member of PSM. He is currently Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput.

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