23 September, 2013

Dear Chin Peng

Today is Malaysia Day, the 50th year of our Federation’s existence as a nation. On this day, which was passing by quietly, we received news of your passing in Bangkok at 6.20 am. We could have wished that your last hopes of being able to return to the homeland which you were born and defended with your youth, would actually come to pass. Sadly, that was not to be and death in exile was to be your lot in life, at 90 years of age.

Your death on this day raises many questions about the meaning and direction for Malaysia, at this crucial juncture in her history. We were an exploited colonial outpost of the great British Empire, perhaps not as rich and prized as colonial India, but still remarkable in generating the wealth needed to put Britain back on her feet after the catastrophic consequences of World War II, with huge amounts of debt hanging over her head.

“Malaya, your rubber and tin, your timber and trade.” For their extraction, Britain can count on poor coolies from China, and indentured labour from India, not to mention the Malay peasantry to supply the food for the working masses, whilst the rulers and the elite receive ‘protection’ under the treaties.

Though I may never fully understand your motivations, why you gave your life to the struggle against the British, surely the horrid and terrible conditions of labour and peasantry under the colonialism of that time gives us some important clues as to why you acted as you did.

Today I will stop my ears from listening to official statements, public condemnations by the powers that be. There is no end to the controversies as to the truth of which historical version is more compelling. For once, since I happened to be in Ipoh, I decided to take a walk around the city, looking for places where you used to hang out in the heady 40s.

We all know you were a Malayan born in Sitiawan, and you gave the years of your youth to the resistance effort against the Japanese. I wanted to feel and move in the spaces where you may have occupied, however briefly those years were, compared with the long years of struggle in the jungles and later exile in south Thailand.

I decided to find the famous clinic belonging to Sybil Kathigasu and her husband at 141, Brewster Road (today, Jalan Sultan Idris Shah). I remember reading an account of your experience seeking treatment there, in one of your memoirs, in a blog (http://malayanwars.blogspot.com/2012/08/sybil-few-notes.html).

I will let those notes speak for themselves, with some minor modifications for the present letter:

“At the end of 1941, you (Chin Peng) were hiding out in an attap hut outside Lahat, a few miles from Ipoh where the underground communist newspaper ‘Humanity News’ was printed. A few weeks before the Japanese landed in Thailand and northern Malaya, you suffered a nasty bout of malaria. A comrade insisted that you go to a doctor. You said that the best, who dealt with all his patients with equal care, whatever their race or status, was Dr Kathigasu. He was already well known and admired by local communists because the Brewster Street surgery was close to a Chinese-owned foundry and Dr. Kathigasu had frequently treated sick or injured workers. He did not charge extortionate fees. The doctor had, you noted, pictures of the Indian nationalists Gandhi and Nehru pinned on his surgery wall. While you were waiting, you had a brief glimpse of the famous ‘Mrs K’ (Sybil). When a dose of liquid quinine failed to reduce your fever, Dr. Kathigasu insisted that you go to hospital – and it was from a hospital bed that you heard that Japanese troops had landed at Kota Bahru. A few days later Ipoh was bombed and the Kathigasus fled to Papan, a one street tin mining town on the edge of the jungle, where they set up at 74 Main Road.”

We all knew the huge price that Sybil Kathigasu paid for her act of resistance against the Japanese, and you did too, in your own way with the MPAJA. I found the address on Brewster Road, and in a strange, melancholic way, as I was pacing around the street in that old part of Ipoh, the image of you meeting the Kathigasus in the closed space of the clinic, summed up well the meaning of living our lives fully present to the historical challenges of one’s own time and place.

Perhaps this is what the philosopher Walter Benjamin meant when he wrote in his brilliant ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again… For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”

So in a strange and ironic way, your death today confronts Malaysia and all her citizens (including the ruling classes) with an existential crisis. It is a crisis of identity, for that which shapes who we are is inextricably tied to what we choose to remember or choose to forget, as a people. It has to do with the terrible experiences of trauma in our shared historical past and collective psyche.

How we choose to deal with the truth will determine our destiny in the coming days ahead. The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced her famous ‘five stages of grief’ when a human being faces up with the reality of one’s impending death. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance.

Today you faced up to your death in exile, perhaps something which you have already accepted for some time, as you lived out your remaining years in Thailand, peacefully. The challenge is now for Malaysians to do the same.

Will our leaders continue their childish and impudent ways of denying the necessary opacity of historical truth, or they may continue to lash out with senseless anger at any group or personality that they imagine could threaten their hold on political power, or try to wheel and deal their way out of the disconcerting developments within Malaysian society.

Perhaps at 50, Malaysia requires a bout of depression to lead us out of our false attachments and self-aggrandisement as a nation, before finally accepting the real truth of what we really are as a people, where the welfare of the weakest among us reveals the most about what is truly great about being Malaysian.

Thank you, Saudara Chin Peng, for the life you lived, the struggles you waged for Malayan liberation. May your death finally bring peace to a nation still troubled and uneasy with our historical past.

In solidarity with you and your family. – September 16, 2013.

* Boon Kia Meng
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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