M KWANG YANG: A RARE PRINCIPLED MALAYSIAN POLITICIAN

(Foreword to ‘Sim Kwang Yang, An Examined Life: Politics & Principles’ by Kua Kia Soong, Adviser of SUARAM and former MP for Petaling Jaya, 27 November 2020)

My first contact with Sim Kwang Yang (SKY) was when he wrote to me while I was detained under Operation Lalang at Kamunting detention camp in 1988. From his letter, I could sense his warmth and sincerity as a fighter for freedom and justice and a genuine human rights activist. Later, when we became comrades in the DAP, I felt an instant affinity with SKY through his strong adherence to principles and deep commitment to intellectual integrity, a rare quality among Malaysian politicians indeed.

Kwang Yang was certainly different from the other Malaysian politicians, often rising above parochial and partisan concerns to take a bird’s eye view of most issues. He would not take any bull from anyone, not even the leaders of his party and it was always a breath of fresh air to hear him speak. We shared a further affinity in being Teochews and enjoyed our banter in Teochew whenever we met.

SKY left us much too soon, although during the last few months of his life, when we occasionally met for lunch, his philosophical focus on exploring the meaning of life had given me an inkling of his impending departure. You see, there is a touch of irony that this good son of Sarawak should spend the last years of his life in the Taman behind our house in Cheras.

This book is most welcome, and I must say ‘Bravo’ to Xavier, the editor, for accomplishing the important task of preserving Sim Kwang Yang’s works for the benefit of Malaysians young and old as well as for Kwang Yang, the hornbill who has taken to the sky. He had often divulged to me of his wish for a compilation of his English-language writings. Reading his pieces in this compilation, I can still hear his raucous voice, as resonant as the hornbill’s call …

Many Malaysians think that hornbills are only found in Sarawak. In fact, I first sighted a hornbill one morning when I was a kid during the fifties on our mangosteen tree in Batu Pahat, Johor. I have always been a birder and it was an unforgettable sighting. I still experience the same thrill every time I sight a hornbill in the wild with its majestic beak, spectacular colours and distinctive calls…

Sim Kwang Yang certainly embodied the wild majesty of the hornbill. He represented Bandar Kuching for three terms as an MP in the Federal Parliament, speaking up not only for his peoples and forests in Sarawak but also against injustice and oppression everywhere in the world. He founded the blog ‘Hornbill Unleashed’ to highlight the socio-economic and political issues in his beloved homeland, Sarawak – the land of the hornbills.

From his writings, one can see that SKY was an extra-ordinary politician. He certainly did not fit into the mould of the standard Malaysian politician – he was a humanist who was deeply connected to his native peoples; he spoke their Iban language and lived among them. When he hosted us in a long house during the early nineties, I could see that he was completely at home with his people in that rustic environment.

For certain, as the MP for Bandar Kuching, Sim Kwang Yang repeatedly brought the plight of the Sarawak indigenous peoples and the extinction of their Sarawak forest habitat to the attention of the nation. He never failed to point to the root cause of this tragedy, namely, the corruption and monopoly of political power by the ruling elite of Sarawak and their close links with the ruling elite in the peninsula.

He fired the imagination of many young Malaysians through his lucid enquiring mind, his romantic ideals, his delightful language, his political activism and his passionate pursuit of the truth, freedom, and democracy.

Kwang Yang’s first love was philosophy – he majored in philosophy at university in Canada. Any conversation with SKY would invariably be peppered with philosophical references, both Western and Eastern sources.   He was as fluid at talking about Socrates, Hegel, and Foucault as he was about Zen philosophy. There was never a dull moment, as SKY was skilled in bringing these ruminations down to earth to reflect current affairs and to colour his examples with his irreverent language.

When I was the principal of New Era College, the community’s tertiary institution at Kajang, we started an elective in Philosophy (perhaps the only college in Malaysia to do so at the time), and I invited him to be its resident lecturer. He also initiated a programme of philosophy as a community further education course, which attracted quite a luminous following and generated keen debate amongst his students in a world dominated by pragmatic thinking and business outcomes. His philosophical bent added a reflective ingredient to his thinking which made a difference to the ritualistic knee-jerk responses too common among Malaysian politicians. He was one of the few Malaysian politicians who truly transcended race to speak out for indigenous peoples and oppressed minorities everywhere.

Kwang Yang was an inveterate writer, and his love of literary flourish is evident throughout this compilation. I love his transliteration of Chinese metaphors, such as:

“Nevertheless, I am convinced that just wars are as rare as just men, and you need to look for them with a lantern in broad daylight…”

It is amusing to watch him mix up his metaphors absent-mindedly, for example when he translates the Chinese saying about the boat in somebody’s stomach – at one point it is the prime minister’s, at another, the boat is in somebody else’s stomach!

An admirer of the legendary public intellectual Edward Said, Kwang Yang stood strongly for the principle that any intellectual worth their salt, must uphold his/her autonomy:

“In the political arena as we know it, in the world of realpolitik, nothing can distort public discourse more than personal vested interests. This distortion is what destroys the fabric of trust which makes a political community possible. The independence of an intellectual makes him disinterested, and free from considerations of personal interest. It is therefore his minimum, and only, strength in the critical examination of political life in his community. He or she speaks to, as well as for, a public and is properly on the side of the dispossessed, the unrepresented and the forgotten.”

As a politician, he stood for ethics in politics:

“Once values are reduced to a matter of prices, as is the case with treating a general election like a business transaction, political corruption creeps in to destroy the social and economic fabric of our national life…To leave the dirty business of politics entirely in the hands of careerist politicians, we usually end up choosing the government we deserve, namely, an authoritarian, corrupt government.”

From his writings, we can see that this Malaysian Chinese does not fit the standard mould of the typical DAP politician:

“If my reading of Chinese history is correct, does it mean therefore, that their self-perception of ethnic superiority has always coloured their collective memory? If so, how should the history of China be re-read and re-interpreted by present day Chinese all over the world, in order that ethnic pride may not turn into racial bigotry, if that is at all possible?

“The nation is also awaiting the emergence of a new generation of Chinese leaders, who can

liberate themselves from the emotional and intellectual yoke of their predecessors, and

redefine, not merely what the Chinese want, but what the Chinese ought to want in their full

capacity as citizens of this country.”

Alas, Malaysia has lost a unique advocate and writer much too soon. Some of us have been fortunate to have known him. With this book, others will now have the benefit of his irrepressible spirit in his examination of his own life. His column tag line in Malaysiakini was of course taken from Socrates’ famous quote that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Sim Kwang Yang’s reminder invites us to make a habit of reflecting upon our life at every moment, without which we may face a bleak future existence and regret for the past. May his writings inspire our young Malaysians to examine their lives, the life of the nation and life on planet earth. 

Farewell Kwang Yang, it has been wonderful to know you and your restless spirit. Thank you for unleashing the hornbill and rest in peace in that place in the SKY.

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