Saturday, December 7, 2013

Portrait of a Malaysian Hero: Fan Yew Teng (1942-2010)

Fan Yew Teng in Cambridge, U.K., after a marathon land and sea journey through
India, Afghanistan, Iran and Yugoslavia to join his wife Noeleen (1975)

Three years ago today I was jolted by the news that Fan Yew Teng had succumbed to cancer in a Bangkok hospital. I hadn’t been in touch with the man since the mid-1980s, though I recall bumping into him a couple of times, either in theatre foyers or at public forums, but the last real conversation I had with Fan was perhaps when he commissioned me to do a campaign poster in 1984 for his Social Democratic Party which never saw the light of day, apparently because he couldn’t find a printer willing to do the job.


In retrospect the cartoons I did for the poster weren’t all that hot, but it was my first attempt at political cartooning and laid the groundwork for the drawings I did four years later for ADOI!

Fan Yew Teng, the public
intellectual, in 1980
Malaysians were terrified of Mahathir’s secret police – and for good reason. A certain amount of dissent was tolerated but whenever it cut too close to the bone or threatened to make an impact in the public psyche, the full force of the regime’s monolithic power would come into play, making life utterly miserable for anyone who dared speak truth to power openly.

Fan Yew Teng and Mahathir Mohamad are what you might call diametric opposites – not unlike Arthur Koestler’s Yogi and Commissar archetypes, the ultraviolet and infrared ends of the psycho-emotional spectrum. The Yogi, representing inner evolution, envisions a world where every single soul is enlightened, liberated and in a natural state of bliss; while the Commissar, representing external revolution, has wet dreams about lording it over a perfect mechanical anthill colony where every atom knows its proper place and nothing irregular goes unpunished.

The Yogi and Commissar polarity is more or less the same as the Christ-Caesar dichotomy. Is it possible for these polar opposites to align and merge? I would say it’s not only possible but absolute necessary if we are to survive as a tool-using species – however, the only way such a magical fusion can arise from the general confusion is if the Yogi or The Christ is accorded supreme and ultimate power, to be equitably shared with all strata of life and consciousness. What characterizes a true Yogi or Christ is the conscious renunciation of wielding power over others - and loving compassion for each and every expression of life, even apparent enemies.

The Commissar or Caesar types are what we might call younger souls - brash, ego-driven and reckless, but charged with a pragmatic dynamism that can and must be harnessed to loftier goals than crass power-over-others world domination. In the Pentagonian Hawk or Umno Warlord we see a classic example of Little Boys with Dangerous Toys whose playground brawls will inevitably bring about massive carnage and ruin.

Fan at a socialist convention in Paris, 1976
The Commissar or Caesar personality is a jealous, vengeful, spiteful, insecure and malicious Old Testament god who becomes utterly anal and aggressive when confronted with the prospect of having to share power. You can observe this behavior pattern among the Greek gods who were known to devour their own children rather than accept the possibility that one day their offspring will grow strong and take over.

Indeed, you don’t have to go so far back in time – only 14 years ago, Mahathir Mohamad did exactly that to his hand-picked successor Anwar Ibrahim. As usually happens when demented old gods devour their own progeny, the outcome is a gigantic bellyache, followed by violent convulsions, a great deal of vomiting and angry rivers of diarrhea destroying all that we deem decent and honorable.

Well, as one who embodied everything we deem “decent and honorable,” Fan quickly became marked as an “enemy of the state” – and the state took pains to crush Fan’s political aspirations and thwart his dream of an enlightened and liberated Malaysia.

Fan & Noeleen in Salzburg, Austria, 1976
Fan experienced this faceless form of bureaucratic intimidation repeatedly but remained defiant and undaunted. In the 1960s he became active in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and took over editorship of The Educator, the union’s bulletin. He was among the organizers of the 1967 nation-wide teachers’ strike demanding fairer wages and benefits for this very important profession. The Ministry of Education tried to break his spirit and browbeat him into silence by transferring him to increasingly remote towns and villages. This only served to nudge Fan into full-time politics.

He joined the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in 1968 and was soon appointed Acting Secretary-General and editor of the party organ, The Rocket. In 1969, Fan was elected MP for Kampar and in 1974, for Menglembu. The home ministry used the archaic Sedition Act against Fan for publishing a speech by the Penang DAP Chairman. Although he was never formally disqualified as a Member of Parliament, Fan was deprived of his MP’s allowance, salary and even his pension.

Dynamic young editor of The Educator, bulletin of the National Union of Teachers, in the mid-1960s

Finding himself out of work with time on his hands in 1975, Fan withdrew his meager savings and embarked on an epic land and sea journey from Port Klang to join his wife Noeleen Heyzer in Cambridge via India, Afghanistan, Iran and Yugoslavia. Three years later Fan and Noeleen’s beautiful twin daughters, Lilianne and Pauline, were born.

In Cameron Highlands with twin girls Lilianne & Pauline, 1985
I remember Fan Yew Teng as an affable, contemplative, pipe-smoking man forced into politics by his own passion for noble ideals, social justice and democratic principles; but more so by his extraordinary compassion for all living things.

Fan, Noeleen & their girls in Bangkok

With Pauline in early 2010
Every time Fan came to visit he would invariably have a recently published book in hand as an offering. In the mid-1980s I wasn’t really attuned to local politics and found his books and socialist ideology a mite strident in style – but what he wrote about were certainly cogent issues and he was indeed prolific, churning out four books between 1988 and 1990: If We Love This Country, Oppressors and Apologists, The UMNO Drama: Power Struggles in Malaysia, and The Rape of Law. I believe his last book was published in 1999 – Anwar Saga: Malaysia on Trial. I would really love to get hold of these books, especially the last two titles, and I’m sure they are well worth re-issuing.

Anil Netto wrote a simple but profoundly moving introduction to the December 2010 issue of Aliran, which featured Fan Yew Teng on its cover:

With Lilianne, early 2010
Alas, how often do we only recognize true greatness in people after they are gone forever. Maybe we are destined to do this over and over again because it is only in the vacuum of loss that we can step back and grasp the full impact of a life lived to the full. How true – and even more so – that is in the case of the late Fan Yew Teng. During his memorial in Brickfields on 5 January, speaker after speaker peeled away so many layers of Fan’s multi-faceted personality. Politicians tried to straitjacket him but Fan refused to conform and crossed many real and artificial boundaries. He didn’t need the usual trappings of wealth and status to become a towering Malaysian. Unionist, political activist, dissident writer with his trusty typewriter, global citizen – Fan was well ahead of his time. Long before the Internet shrunk the world into a global village, he was already a global citizen campaigning against war and oppression around the world. Long before our era of climate change, Fan had embraced simplicity so that his carbon footprint was probably minimal. In fact, the environmental component of Fan’s Social Democratic Party manifesto in the 1980s was much more substantive than those of other contemporary parties.

Dr Kua Kia Soong
In a way, Fan has much in common with another cherished friend, Kua Kia Soong. Both perfectly fit the role of clear-minded, articulate public intellectuals lured into politics because they believed real change was possible, but only through dedicated involvement in the public arena.

Fan and Kua both found themselves joining the DAP – and both had personal issues with the party leadership, perhaps because they were first and foremost scholars and humanists, rather than streetfighters and demagogues - and both can be described as fiercely independent-minded individuals who can only toe any party line so far and no further.

Well, Fan Yew Teng has left us to take his place in the pantheon of cult heroes where he can hobnob with the likes of Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Bob Marley, Rabindranath Tagore, Kahlil Gibran, Bertrand Russell, Frantz Fanon, Leo Tolstoy, and Teilhard de Chardin.

However, former ISA detainee Kua Kia Soong is alive and well and still actively involved in public affairs through the human rights NGO, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) and through his books - May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969, Questioning Arms Spending in Malaysia: From Altantuya to Zikorsky, Patriots and Pretenders - to name but a few recent ones.
In years to come Malaysians will gain some appreciation of what Fan Yew Teng contributed
to a higher quality of political consciousness

Fan’s widow, Noeleen Heyzer, continues to work through the UN empowering women around the region, while their gorgeous daughters Lilianne and Pauline – now grown into full-fledged incarnations of noble intellect, compassion, ethics and aesthetics – are poised to influence and shape the new world of freedom and joy that’s being born even as the ugly and abusive old world order crumbles.

Lilianne & Pauline: Fan Yew Teng and Noeleen's brilliant and beautiful genetic legacy

[First posted 7 December 2011. Fan Yew Teng family photos courtesy of Lilianne & Pauline]

5 comments:

airpanas said...

All you need is a few good men and FYT is certainly one of the good ones.

dukuhead said...

His name sounds vaguely familiar to me. Good write-up on his life, the photos were great

masterwordsmith said...

My dear Antares

Thank you so much for such a passionately written tribute to a man whose legacy certainly needs more recognition that others may emulate his values, commitment, dedication and ethos.

That you have spent so much time researching the post is testimony of the weight of what you wrote here:

Well, Fan Yew Teng has left us to take his place in the pantheon of cult heroes where he can hobnob with the likes of Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Bob Marley, Rabindranath Tagore, Kahlil Gibran, Bertrand Russell, Frantz Fanon, Leo Tolstoy, and Teilhard de Chardin.

Once again, thanks!

Azazel said...

Thanks for the post, Antares. Great photos, its good to see Lilianne and Pauline again. I briefly interacted with Mr. Fan many many years ago in my teens through the phone when i called his house to speak to Pauline....LOL!! Im serious, he would always yell at me or any guy who calls his daughters but i know he is very protective of his them. I even went to their house for their 16th birthday party. Ahhh memories, glad to see they are doing well.

I knew back then that he was a writer and an ex-politician but only got to know in details recently what he did many many years ago. A person who fights for justice will always have my respect.

R.I.P. Mr. Fan.

mf said...

The Salzburg is gorgeous, both of look fabulous. It is a bygone era of photography that captured a the spirit of the era, a kind of innocence, a can do spirit, even though there were all kinds of challenges confronting humanity as a whole as well as within specific community and locality.

I do miss those years as there were my childhood year. Nowadays, even though there are all kind of modern convenience, such as advance medical science, the internet, and so on, the human spirit is in a kind of "slavery", I guess very much material slavery.

A lot of the people of those era are now at their twilight and more moving on from this age.

Anyway, r.i.p. to FYT.

Thanks for posting.