Fan Yew Teng was not from my generation. When I knew him, I knew him as a founder of Suaram. He was one of the original twelve directors of Suaram. I did not know much of his past history which I got to know a short time after that.
For the record, politically Fan was a giant of a politician. He was an unionist, he was an MP, he had been arrested and sacked and did all sorts of things. Perhaps the only badge he did not
receive was being detained under the ISA.
As we all know today, Fan started in DAP and ended his political career in DAP. In between, he was linked and involved with a number of other parties like the SDP. He tried to form a political coalition and if I am not mistaken, he also did join PRM for a brief period until he went back to DAP. The last election he stood in was in 1999 under DAP. He lost.
Of course, Fan is always the reference point when one talks about the Sedition Act, as he was among the great people who have been arrested for sedition. He stood in a line with the likes of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to name a few. Malaysia has used the Sedition Act much more frequently compared to other countries and each time a case comes up, Fan’s case will be cited as the authority.
In Suaram, we used to call him Uncle Fan. He was indeed fun, and very witty as well. He will come carrying a slingbag made of cloth, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, normally sweating because he might have walked a distance or had just been speaking non-stop on an issue.
It is always fun and exciting to hear his speeches during talks and press conferences. He will normally carry a book with him and refer to famous sayings from Malcolm X , King and Gandhi. He was always loud and spoke strongly on the subject. Being an ex-teacher, he has a tendency to slowly explain things or phrases from a book. His words were strong and his voice loud.
He was also good at finding analogies or finding short forms or abbreviations. For example, when the human rights commission Suhakam was formed, he called it Sham – for Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Malaysia.
I also remember during the tribunal against the police tribunal episode in 1996, when the then-inspector general of police Abdul Rahim Nor called the organisers of the police tribunal communist and Marxists and threatened to arrest the organizers under the ISA, if they carried on.
A number of groups backed out, including the Bar Council and the Centre for Peace Initiative (Cenpeace), who denied that they were part of the coalition. At this point, Fan Yew Teng stepped in and became the de facto spokesperson of the coalition and even resigned from Cenpeace.
Fan became a peace advocate when he raised many international issues. He raised the issues of Burma. Sri Lanka, East Timor. Punjab and Aceh and many more. He broke down race barriers.
I remember during issues concerning Muslims, there would often be just one sole Chinese male at the events. That man was Fan. During the issues relating to Sri Lanka, you again would often see Fan as the sole Chinese man in the events during that time. So Fan was there irrespective of race or religion. For him, human rights and the dignity of humanity cut across race and religion.
Another interesting thing is we use to joke about was Fan and his typewriting. When everyone was using computers, Fan still used the typewriter. He claimed that it was faster, more efficient and made fewer errors. One wonders how?
But because he produced at least one article every few days, it seemed hard to argue with him on this. So at times, we had to retype his work on computers so that we could send it out.
Fan was principled till the end. I remember he joined Amnesty International, but I did not know where Fan went after that. I heard he was writing a book. It is not clear if he has finished writing it.
It is sad that he succumbed to cancer. I did not know his whereabouts in the last few years. Fan is like that. At times , he just disappears and then he will reappear – and each time he reappears, we would say, “Fan has not changed”. Same principles, same strong convictions and same spirit.
Fan will not reappear any more in person. But we will always remember Fan – whom we knew as Uncle Fan.
The above piece was read out at the Suaram Annual Human Rights Award on Dec 9, 2010 and was followed by one minute's silence as a mark of respect to the late Comrade Fan Yew Teng. The writer is current secretary-general of PSM, and was formerly with Suaram.