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Dr MK Rajakumar, Another Unsung Hero Of The Nation Has Passed On

I shall always regret having cancelled my intended visit to KL for the first week of November. It was my second cancellation in four months owing to unexpected exigencies of work and family. I had heard that Dr MK Rajakumar had gone back into hospital, but was so sure that he would pull through again, as he had so many times before in the recent past, not unlike the proverbial cat with nine lives.

After all, it seemed that we were finally going to make progress on his long delayed memoirs and biography. Despite his own physical frailty, he had insisted I stay with him during my next visit, perhaps to advance work on the project.

He was looking forward to collaborating with Dr Poh Soo Kai, his old comrade from KE (King Edward VII), the medical college of the University of Malaya in Singapore. And he was inching towards working with Tan Pek Leng, an independent historian of my generation, after several false starts with a number of others who seemed to lack the requisite historical and political sensibilities necessary for any viable collaboration.

Sadly, neither collaboration materialised in time, and we will never see what they could have produced. Dr Rajakumar wrote and published extensively and brilliantly on medical and other subjects, but his deep insights into the political struggles for this nation and the island republic south of the Causeway were inadequately reflected in these many publications.

His many nicknames--including Raj, Raja, Rajan, Doc and familial terms of endearment among others--partly reflected his many different relations with others, often changing over time. Any full sense of the man will need to put together this composite picture, not unlike the proverbial Indian elephant and the blind men. But almost as intriguingly, these different facets changed in important, if often subtle ways, with the passage of time.

I came to know him from the late 1970s after joining UKM, then in KL. Socially, I met him at various events hosted by our late poet laureate Usman Awang, Professor Syed Husin Ali, after he was released from ISA detention in 1980, Tan Kai Hee and Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon, his old Labour Party of Malaya comrades, and his old journalist friends, Tan Sri Samad Ismail and Said Zahari.

Even with the anecdotes I have heard, it is difficult for me to assess what political baggage this precocious young Malayalee lad from Melaka brought with him to KE, but it did not take him long to become heavily, if discreetly involved in the second generation of anti-colonial university student politics after the likes of James Puthucheary, Wang Gungwu and Abdullah Majid.

At KE, he knew Tun Dr Mahathir and the late Dr Tan Chee Khoon, but his closest collaborators seemed to have been Dr Poh--a grandson of the legendary rubber tycoons Tan Kah Kee, and probably most like Rajakumar in aptitude and style--and Dr Lim Hock Siew, himself from a family of like-minded anti-colonial activists.

In 1954, the university's Socialist Club Fajar (Dawn) publication editorial team was prosecuted by the British colonial government in Singapore for sedition for criticising SEATO--the US-sponsored South East Asia Treaty Organization regional military alliance--and welcoming the defeat of French colonialism by the schoolteacher General Giap's troops at Dien Bien Phu.

The Fajar defence team was led by the legendary radical British lawyer DN Pritt, to whom Harry Lee Kuan Yew played second fiddle, bolstering his own anti-colonial credentials in the process before going on to set up the PAP together with his own group of British trained professionals, the precociously influential anti-British Utusan Melayu editor, Samad Ismail, labour leaders and others from the anti-colonial struggle in Singapore then.

Rajakumar and his doctor friends continued to be witness to--if not discreetly involved in--subsequent anti-colonial mobilizations involving the PAP, university student activists, the radical anti-colonial labour movement and the struggle over ideas. However, he was spared the protracted incarcerations of his medical colleagues Dr Poh and Dr Lim from February 1963 until the early 1980s by his decision to return to join the government medical service north of the Causeway in the early 1960s.

Back in Malaya

Back in "the Federation" of Malaya, he played an important role in supporting the Utusan workers' historic strike for over a hundred days in 1961 to preserve the paper's political independence (from an UMNO takeover) after its illustrious role in the 1940s and 1950s in support of radical Malay nationalism and Malayan independence. He was later to collaborate with Utusan journalist and striker Usman Awang to publish selected poems by then Utusan editor and strike leader Said Zahari; Said was incarcerated from 1963 to 1979 in Singapore soon after becoming president of the Parti Rakyat Singapura following a Tunku Abdul Rahman government imposed ban on re-entering the Federation during the strike.

Closely associated with the Labour Party (LP) and the Socialist Front (SF) at the height of its influence in the early 1960s, he spent several years in the mid-1960s under ISA detention together with other opposition leaders including radical Malay nationalist leaders such as former UMNO agriculture and then health minister and Parti Perhimpunan Kebangsaan (National Convention Party) president Aziz Ishak, Labour Party chairman and "man of letters" Ishak Haji Muhammad (Pak Sako) and Partai Rakyat Malaya (PRM) founder-leader Ahmad Boestamam--all Socialist Front component party leaders--and PAS president Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy.

Thousands of other party (mainly from the LP and PRM), labour and other activists, including Tan Kai Hee, were incarcerated with them from the mid-1960s, destroying the growing trust among the multi-ethnic SF leaders and its potential to challenge the ethnic elite-led ruling Alliance as the ruling coalition lost public support before the May 1969 third general elections. Dr Rajakumar became interim chair of the rump LP after his release from ISA detention, but the SF moment had passed, and he did not disagree when some of his LP colleagues, such as Dr Tan Chee Khoon, chose to leave the party to form the then social-democratic and multi-ethnic Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia.

Dr Rajakumar's subsequent political influence has been more discreet. While continuing to be consulted as an oracle by his erstwhile comrades from two decades of political leadership, his counsel was also sought by many others, not least by old friends associated with the administration of the late Tun Razak, distinguished as much for change as for continuity with the preceding Tunku regime.

After "Politics"

However, the focus of his public life changed radically from the 1970s. Following the landmark WHO Alma Ata declaration on primary health care in 1974, he plunged into reforming primary health care, nationally and internationally, setting up the Malaysian Academy of Primary Health Care Physicians, becoming president of WONCA, the World Organization for National Colleges and Academies, and advising the government of the People's Republic of China on health care in the early years of reform after the 1970s.

In October 2008, in recognition of his inspirational leadership, particularly in rural healthcare, WONCA established the "Rajakumar Movement" to foster mentoring relationships between current and future leaders.

Dr Rajakumar also became president of the Malaysian Medical Association and led the MMA Commission to prepare its historic report on Malaysian health care reform before the official infatuation with privatization from the mid-1980s. He also sought to enhance the Malaysian scientific community itself as well as scientific endeavour in the country, becoming president of the Malaysian Science Association and the crucial first Vice-President of the Malaysian Academy of Sciences.

Despite his active civic life, a full time medical practice and numerous well prepared public lectures, he nevertheless found time for thoughtful reflective essays on the human condition, both globally as well as nationally. Internationally, he remained wary of global hegemonic projects, imperialist as well as post-colonial, but never rejected the modernist project, not unlike his KE mate, Tun Dr Mahathir, whom he always retained much respect for.

Always ahead of his time in recognizing the complex sensitivities of culture, ethnicity and religion, he warned that responsible national leadership was urgently needed to ensure that communal relations did not deteriorate past an unknowable "point of no return" when the ‘national project' could no longer be saved. In this connection, he appreciated Anwar Ibrahim's evolution as a national leader from the time they first met in the late 1960s when he was an elected member of the University of Malaya Council, representing the alumni together with Dr Tan Chee Khoon.

Arguably the most profound Malaysian public intellectual of the second half of the 20th century, he was always devoted to family and friends. His influence extended well beyond his own generation as the children of his contemporaries, not just relatives, sought his wise counsel on a variety of matters. I was always impressed by his patience and understanding for people so unlike himself, and his ability to connect with them so effectively. As his health deteriorated and against counsel from many, he tried to maintain his medical practice at the Jalan Loke Yew low-cost flats, I suspect in his desire to "serve the people" to the end. (By Jomo Kwame Sundaram/MySinchew)

Jomo Kwame Sundaram was a friend and admirer of the late Dr MK Rajakumar for three decades. This article was specially prepared for the public memorial meeting scheduled for 2pm on Sunday, 4 January 2009 at Dewan Tunku Canselor, Universiti Malaya.

MySinchew 2009.01.03



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