Endangered Species

Group photo on the left. Choo Foo Yoong, Hishamuddin Rais and Tan Wah Piow

by Tan Wah Piow

I am not sure whether it is a sign of aging, or our reluctance to accept the changing times when we start lamenting that the young are no longer like us.

Hishamuddin Rais, the most famous rebel of his generation in Malaysia complains that the young no longer socialise inter-racially as his generation did.

That was in the 1970s when he joined the Socialist Club at the University of Malaya thinking it was just a great social club where he could mingle with the female species of all races. He got more than he expected, and there is no turning back.

”And now, there is no multi-racial mixing among them, like bringing a Chinese to our homes; or for a Malay visiting a Chinese home. Damned it, we are the last, ” He throws up his hands in exasperation.

This rebel, who had his fair share of prison life, and exile, is now enjoying access to the corridors of power like no other rebel, or even some ministers.

Yet unlike those who turn access to cash and power, Hisham is still the vintage rebel who is uninterested in the trappings of office or wealth. As a cultural Muslim, he keeps a dog for company, and not comfortable with using a smartphone. For dinner, he would buy a takeaway fish curry with extra sauce and throw in a fresh mackerel for extra protein. Taking his health seriously, he shuns rice and eats oats.

For someone who takes his good health seriously, he appears to some of his previous supporters as rather reckless with his comments on the prime minister in waiting.

His very public and controversial intervention in the past 12 months in the inevitable post-Mahathir transition process puts him at risk of denting his legacy as an intellectual rebel. At worst, some of his previous loyal admirers are making disparaging remarking about him, some even calling him a lackey of Dr M. Hisham is no fool. Whatsoever are the impending manoeuvres in the transition, he is clear that he would oppose any unholy alliance based on the toxic chemistry of race and religion.

As a rebel, he has not lost his ability to think outside the box. Politics aside, he is currently engaged in preparing an art exhibition in a graveyard. Watch that space.

If Hisham had ’wasted two years of his life’ as he harshly reflected over his recent past, it may be time for him to write his long-awaited memoir.

Another good friend of the same endangered species is Choo Foo Yoong, architect-cum-historian. Unlike Hisham, he is a quiet rebel, with a passion for historical research.

He plunged into leftwing politics not as a disgruntled middle class, but as someone who experienced poverty in an Ipoh’s new village. He had to work to help support his family even during his schooling years. Although a promising undergraduate at the University of Singapore School of architecture with a bright future ahead, he chose to fight for the rights of the workers in Singapore. For that, he was expelled. He was allowed to return to Singapore under police escort as one of the defence witnesses at my trial in Singapore in 1974. He spent some time working as a construction worker in Kuala Lumpur out of economic necessity before going to the UK to complete his architecture study.

Upon his retirement in architecture,  Choo led a group of like-minded compatriots to examine the history of Malaysia since the second world war.

He spends a fortune acquiring books and research papers in aid of his research. Once the work is completed, it will greatly contribute to Malaysians’ understanding of the present through its history. The book will be the sequel to Where Monsoons Meet, a cartoon history of Malaya, now in its fifth edition, and translated into Malay and Chinese.

Choo could have earned more than one PhD for depth his research, said Dr Wong Chin Huat.

Why are the young no longer like us? But this may be a wrong question.

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February 2020
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