“That's the amazing thing about being young. You're not aware of the risks you're taking” – Dr M. K. Rajakumar
Nearly half a decade ago, Malaysia and Singapore were one entity known as Malaya. Political pluralism was at its peak and ideological battles were fought; between British colonial, left-wing intellectuals and other parties from both sides of the causeway.
Today, Malaya has separated, political elites from both sides bicker to no end and Singapore has departed from its plural days to a stable, clinical and successful economic entity. History books dictate just that - younger Singaporeans grow up being educated on the virtues of modern Singapore, versus the chaotic past. Yet is this necessarily a linear upward progression? What have we sacrificed to get to where we are today?
Today’s memorial session held in honour of the late Dr M. K. Rajakumar provided a glimpse into a seemingly distant history. Dr Rajakumar was a founding member of the University Socialist Club (USC) in 1953, in what was then known as the University of Malaya. They then began publishing a monthly paper named Fajar, in the rising tide of anti-colonial struggle for Malayan independence.
In 1954, the 8-man editorial team of Fajar was charged for sedition by the colonial authorities, following the May issue titled ‘Aggression in Asia’. Lee Kuan Yew, acting as junior counsel for the trial, was then reportedly extremely keen on defending the socialist club leaders, having already prepared extensive notes. However the case was thrown out in August that year when the judge found no case for sedition. Following that, the leaders of the USC began working closely with Lee, eventually leading to their support of the People’s Action Party (PAP) founded later.
Ironically, Fajar would be banned in 1963 during Operation Coldstore and Dr. Rajakumar himself detained for 2 years by the Internal Security Act in 1965. At this point, Lee’s role remains unclear though one may speculate that even if he was sympathetic to the dissidents, he was vastly outnumbered by the staunchly anti-communist British colonial authorities as well as then Prime Minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman.
In spite of being persecuted, Dr Rajakumar remained faithfully idealistic, standing up for his values of social justice and independence. Eschewing fame, he preferred keeping a low profile, declining high office in the party though he was widely respected by the Left and the masses. Most significantly, he never sought crass fortune though medicine was a lucrative trade. Throughout his life, he maintained a small clinic to serve the poor, even giving treatment for free when the patient could not afford the fees.
‘Health care is universally considered a right of citizens, placed beyond the need for economic justification.’ – Dr. M.K. Rajakumar, 1980.
His passing on 22 November 2008 was indeed a loss not only for Malaysia, but also for the flame of idealism that seems to burn less brightly today.
Looking at the Fajar version of history, as compared to the glossy post-independence version as taught by schools in Singapore, one must wonder, what price have we paid for today’s success?
Critics of Singapore frequently point out that history books clearly shape PAP opponents into failures, or disruptive elements that only hampered the progress of this country. True Singapore history in that sense, only begins in the 1970s when the economy was taking off. Now, it seems that the essence of Singapore is only as the economy is – a pure capitalist state. This is not necessarily a good thing – when the economy is booming, the essence of Singapore is mass consumerism; when the economy falls, we are lost. After all, when the citizen-state contract is based on contributing to economic growth, and being able to consume in return, where do the unemployed or destitute fit in?
With nearly everything pegged to a numerical value, we seem to have lost the burning passion. In its place is cold rational greed. Enticing ministers with a salary pegged to opportunity cost in the private sector may attract those with market value – the smart ones. Yet can idealism or charity be equally judged with market value? Likewise, has being repressive driven away the liberal-minded, passionate individuals who would have been the Dr. Rajakumars of Singapore?
History needs to be revisited time and again, simply because Singapore and idealistic Singaporeans existed even before the start of controlled history. Singapore was part of Malaya and so was Malaysia, even constant political bickering by the elites will not diminish this fact. Similarly, even if Singapore’s founding fathers did achieve miraculous feats, bringing a mere island to first world status, there were other equally great individuals also striving for a better future for the country. To formulate an identity sans economy, one needs to revisit the paths not taken in the course of history.
Post-colonial Malaya was the birthplace of young, rash idealism. Yet is this idealism dying out today? More than merely being repressed, youth face a tremendous inertia in starting anything of significance. There’s simply too much at stake. Or is there? Perhaps when the spark of passion hits again, one need only to remember Dr. Rajakumar and his forgotten compatriots – fame, fortune or mass consumption cannot hold a candle to ideals when judging the value of a person. Even if you’re detained by the ISD, jobless or a mere blimp in the eyes of the majority, one’s essence will be the only thing worth living for.
The memorial was held in the NUS Bukit Timah Campus on 14th February. The seminar room was provided free of charge by Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.