(Corrected at 1:20pm, 7 June 2011)
THE vocal and articulate Lim Kit Siang many of us know in Parliament, through his blog and from news reports, is reticent when it comes to talking about himself. The veteran politician is slow to reveal what makes him tick or where he draws his ideals and inspirations from. Yet, Lim himself has been called an inspiration by many and is cited as the reason they joined the DAP.
What comes through however, even during a brief interview, is Lim’s unwavering devotion to change things for the better. This was Lim’s passion even as a teenager, when he published a school magazine with his friends where they would often write articles questioning the status quo.
Freedom of expression is one human right Lim has never wasted. Exercising it got him detained without trial twice under the Internal Security Act (ISA); in 1969 for 18 months and in 1987 for 17 months. He was also charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act for exposing corruption in a government arms deal.
After a short stint as a journalist, Lim stood for election in the Kota Melaka parliamentary seat in the third general election in 1969, and won. Since then, Lim has stood in every general election in different constituencies, winning every time, except for 1999. He has also been a state assemblyperson concurrently during some of these parliamentary terms. He has been with DAP since it was registered in 1966, and was its secretary-general from 1969 until 1999. He was then elected national chairperson and served until 2004, when he refused re-appointment and was succeeded by Karpal Singh.
In an interview at his office at DAP’s national headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on 23 May 2011, Lim tells The Nut Graph about being Malaysian first.
TNG: When and where were you born?
I was born in Batu Pahat, on 20 February 1941.
What are some memories you have of your childhood in the place where you grew up?
(Long pause) Batu Pahat was a quiet town. With [some Form Two] classmates, we did what we thought worthwhile doing. [We started a class magazine to exercise self-expression]. Inevitably, we faced obstructions and obstacles along the way. [Editor’s note: In The Right to Differ: A biographical sketch of Lim Kit Siang, Lim said the magazine initially started as an annual publication, then was produced bi-monthly by the time he and his friends were in Form Four. Their enthusiasm in producing the publication led to clashes with the school principal.]
Then, there were the usual picnics and school excursions.
In my family, I was the youngest child. I had two older brothers and an older sister, who was about 15 years older than me. I’m not sure but there might have been one other child who was given away. As a family we did not go out much or do many activities together.
What did your parents do?
I have [always] had difficulty describing my father’s occupation. I would say that he was an “agriculture technician”. That is, he castrated pigs and poultry so that they could grow faster for consumption. There were no steroids in those days, so castration was the natural thing to do.
My mother was a housewife.
I’ve heard a story about how your mother taught herself to read. Do you remember how she did it?
She taught herself how to read Mandarin, but I don’t know the details.
Do you have any memories of living through World War II as a child?
I do remember the planes. A most memorable scene was one of soldiers marching down the main street in Batu Pahat town. I just remember the many planes flying above and the marching soldiers associated [with that]. I was only about four at the time.
Can you trace your ancestry? What generation-Malaysian are you?
I’m first-generation. I was born here. [My ancestors] came from a place [in China called] Dongshan [in Fujian province], which I visited about two or three years ago. It was a very poor, backward place. [Editor’s note: Lim and his son Guan Eng visited their ancestral home in Fujian in Nov 2008, and this was reported in the Malaysian Chinese-language press.]
Was this on your father’s side? What about your mother?
I think they might have been from the same area.
Did they tell you why and how they made the journey to Malaya?
No, they never told us why they came here.
What stories by your parents, grandparents or older relatives do you still remember and hold to?
Growing up, how and when did you first become conscious of race?
In school, the concept of race was not of much salience. There was no race consciousness. It didn’t really impinge on our consciousness. But over a period of time, following political developments, there was a sense that the politics of race was becoming more and more significant, and you became more conscious of it. But as a youth in school, it had no salience.
So you lived through 13 May 1969, and that was the same year you won the Kota Melaka parliamentary seat in the general elections. What are some significant memories of that time?
The election was on 10 May, a Saturday. The 13th was a Tuesday. I was not in Kuala Lumpur (KL), I was in (corrected) Sabah. So I was not fully attuned to what was happening in KL because it was not the hub of my political activities, although I did come up to campaign.
The riots of 13 May came as a total shock and surprise. The first time I heard of it was at a rally in Kota Kinabalu. Somebody whispered to me that trouble had broken out in KL and that there was a curfew but we didn’t have the details. I had flown to Kota Kinabalu on the morning of the 13th to help other candidates there, because elections in (corrected) Sabah and Sarawak were to be held two weeks after 10 May. The elections in Sabah and Sarawak were suspended and postponed because of the riots in KL.
[Editor’s note: Lim was detained under the ISA in 1969 upon arriving at the then Subang airport after flying back from Kota Kinabalu via Singapore a few days after the riots. He had been warned not to return to Peninsular Malaysia as he had been marked for arrest.]
The sense of shock you and others had — wasn’t there already economic disparity and racial alienation in the run-up to 13 May?
The riots and killings were completely unimaginable. Yes, there was already a sense of economic disparity and alienation, but still, that was no reason for racial riots to happen. Something like that should not have happened. Up till now nobody knows the actual causes of 13 May, although I have been accused of being one of the ring leaders, as if I was there, which is completely untrue. As you know, I was in Malacca, where I ran for a parliamentary seat.
Until now, we have not learnt the lessons of 13 May. There is a need to find out how and why it happened. Not because we want another 13 May, because nobody will gain anything out of it.
How has Malaysia changed since 1969?
There are pluses and minuses, and in some aspects, there is progress, while in other aspects, we’ve moved backwards. We may be economically more developed now, in terms of Gross Domestic Product per capita and by other material indicators. Yet, we have allowed other countries to overtake us. [We have not] fully exploited our national resources and potential. The subject of the day is the brain drain. It is not just a question of talent or Malay [Malaysians] leaving the country but of losing Malaysians who could have helped develop this country. Why is this happening? It is hampering our growth.
The question of national unity — there is a big question mark. Are we more united or divided? In the days before Merdeka, the saliency of race was not felt. Now [race] is [part of] every [aspect of our] consciousness. I think it was from the 1970s onwards, that the sense of whether one is a Malay [Malaysian] or not, a bumiputera or not, began to hit home because of issues such as [the awarding of government] scholarships, education opportunities and employment.
What will it take for Malaysians to move beyond race?
We need to respect and recognise each other and to accept each other as fellow human beings and fellow citizens. There must be political will to do so, only then will the right structures fall into place. Otherwise, the structures will continue to crumble. Our key institutions are coming apart. There must be political will to save Malaysia from going down the slippery slope.
What does your Malaysian identity mean to you?
I’m a Malaysian, first and last. I’m proud to be a Chinese, and as I’ve said in Parliament, I’m proud to be a Chinese, but a Malaysian, first of all.
Nobody is suggesting that anyone should give up their ethnic identities, but we should have this common bond where we agree that we are first of all, Malaysians. I will accept the definition of 1Malaysia as being Malaysian first, then race, religion, or geographical origin second. My quarrel with 1Malaysia is not that it is wrong but that it is empty sloganeering.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with as a Malaysian, if any?
None. I don’t think any Malaysian should have to struggle with aspects of their composite identities. There is nothing that should bar you from being Malaysian first.
What are your hopes for Malaysia?
I still hope it’s not too late to save Malaysia because Malaysia is a country of great promise and potential. Malaysians of all races and religions should come together to build a progressive nation which can then make its contribution to international society.
The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is available at all good bookstores for RM45.